Milwaukee owes its existence to its harbor. European settlers arriving here discovered an excellent natural harbor at the confluence of three rivers. The name Milwaukee was derived from an Ojibwe word that means “gathering of the waters.” That gathering place of water from the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers is now known as the inner harbor. The fertile estuary that had sustained its previous inhabitants was transformed into an economic engine that drove the region’s development as an industrial powerhouse.
Today the picture has changed again. The Port of Milwaukee is still active, shipping mostly bulk commodities such as salt, grain, cement and steel. However, a shifting economy has left vacant and underutilized land around the inner harbor. Plans to revitalize the area, known as the Harbor District, are underway. Public access being limited, the best way to experience the inner harbor is from the water.
Fortunately, you can rent a kayak right on the inner harbor. The Milwaukee Kayak Company is a little hard to find. There is no sign outside the fenced precinct at 318 South Water Street, which Milwaukee Kayak shares with Jerry’s Dock (a marine salvage, diving charter and boat storage facility). But once you’re there you will be well taken care of by the knowledgeable and attentive staff. I joined a tour organized by Milwaukee Riverkeeper and guided by Harbor District, Inc., the non-profit tasked with redevelopment of the district.
Milwaukee Kayak’s dock faces the Third Ward near the mouth of the Milwaukee River. As you shove off you will paddle along a wall of riverfront condominiums that testify to the successful revitalization of the Third Ward as well as the rehabilitation of the river.
You can’t miss the looming railroad bridge at Florida Street, one of two swing bridges in the inner harbor. This one is no longer functional. Although the US Coast Guard has ordered that the bridge be removed, there is some interest in saving it and reinventing it as a public space. Imaginative ideas have been floated for a park with catwalk access, but cost is a significant impediment.
The graceful arc of the Hoan Bridge crowns the mouth of the harbor, dwarfing even the largest cargo vessels on their way to load and unload in the inner harbor. The bridge is named for Daniel Webster Hoan, Mayor of Milwaukee from 1916 until 1940. It connects Milwaukee’s downtown with Bay View, St. Francis, Cudahy and South Milwaukee along the Lake Parkway. To either side of the ship channel lie Jones Island and the Summerfest Grounds.
The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility sits in the shadow of the Hoan Bridge at the mouth of the harbor. Originally built in 1926, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is the oldest activated sludge plant in the United States, with a current capacity of up to 330 million gallons per day. As a byproduct of the treatment process, the plant produces Milorganite, one of the oldest organic fertilizers on the market today.
Hansen Marina and Storage is a family-run business that began in 1891. It is located directly across from the mouth of the harbor, adjacent to the only public boat launch in the nine miles of waterfront within the Harbor District.
Most of the inner harbor is bounded on the east by Jones Island, which is no longer an island. The historic mouth of the three rivers across from present-day Greenfield Avenue was filled in after the more convenient “straight cut” of the current ship channel was dredged in 1857. While still an island, it was home to the Kaszubes, a fishing people who came from the Baltic Sea coast in Poland. They founded a village of around 1,500 residents. Children had to cross the water — or ice — to go to school at St. Stanislaus.
The Kaszubes were displaced by industries around the growing Port of Milwaukee. The last Kaszube was evicted in 1943. Their presence is marked by Kaszube Park, the smallest in Milwaukee County. Today Jones Island is entirely industrialized.
In 2009 UW-Milwaukee established an outpost on the inner harbor for its School of Freshwater Sciences. It was the first graduate school in the nation dedicated to freshwater sciences and only the third such program in the world, making it a significant player in Milwaukee’s bid to be a Water City and freshwater hub on the Great Lakes. The old portion of the building had been owned by Allen-Bradley and operated as a ceramic tile factory from 1966 to 1971. Since the early 1970s it has been home to the UWM Great Lakes Water Institute.
The new building opened in the summer of 2014. In addition to the school it provides office space for a number of other water-related agencies, including the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Harbor District, Inc. Sweetwater Trust, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Sea Grant Program.
When they are not out plying the waters, you can find two research vessels: UWM’s Neeskay and EPA’s Lake Guardian, docked alongside.
The famous Allen Bradley clock tower is visible from almost everywhere in the inner harbor. Completed in 1962, it held the title of largest four-sided clock in the world until 2011 when a larger one was built in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Allen Bradley originated in 1903 as the Compression Rheostat Company, which manufactured factory automation equipment. Rockwell International purchased it in 1985.
Across the slip from the School of Freshwater Sciences is a storage tank facility for hot asphalt. Payne & Dolan, a construction company, imports asphalt via barge and distributes it to construction projects throughout Southeastern Wisconsin on trucks.
The western shore of the inner harbor includes a large swath of vacant land known for its previous tenant, Solvay Coke & Gas. The company produced coke, which is coal that has been heated in a low oxygen environment to remove impurities, similar to the way charcoal is made from wood. Natural gas is produced as a by-product of the process. The operation closed in 1983, leaving a severely contaminated landscape. The 46-acre site with over 2,500 feet of water frontage currently is being cleared and cleaned for future development by its new owner, We Energies. Plans for the site include a 7-acre waterfront park with restored natural habitat as well as active recreation opportunities.
The grain elevators and docks at the south end of Jones Island are managed by Nidera, an agricultural shipping operation recently purchased by a Chinese state grain company. Wisconsin corn and soybeans are exported from here to destinations as varied as Ireland, Turkey and Russia. Barley from Denmark and Sweden is imported for breweries in the upper Midwest.
The second swing bridge is located near the mouth of the Kinnickinnic River. This one still functions two or three times a week, providing a rail connection for businesses operating in the Harbor District.
A short way down the Kinnickinnic River channel you will find Barnacle Bud’s, the “hidden” restaurant that is most easily accessed by boat. Although you can drive to it, too, you will need to know that it’s on the water behind Skipper Bud’s marina and storage. Punctuating the far end of the inner harbor is St. Mary’s Cement Badger Plant and Ship Terminal. St. Mary’s Cement, a Canadian company servicing the Great Lakes region, is owned by Brazilian Votorantim Cimentos, one of the largest cement companies in the world.
A new initiative spearheaded by the Harbor District, Inc. is focusing local, state, and federal government efforts, private sector interests and community enthusiasm toward a goal of world-class revitalization of the inner harbor and the surrounding community. The intention is to reinforce existing businesses and neighborhoods and to establish new standards for a working waterfront that integrates environmental stewardship, economic development, and social responsibility. The next time you take a kayak out into the inner harbor, look for signs of progress.