Milwaukee’s Downtown Was Bustling at the Turn of the Century 

The Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue intersection was even busier than it is today back in 1900.

The corner of Water Street and Wisconsin Avenue is one of Downtown Milwaukee’s busiest intersections today, but it was even busier when this photograph was taken in about 1900. Electric streetcars were challenging horse-drawn vehicles for control of the roads, while telegraph, telephone and trolley wires were becoming a hazard for low-flying birds. Facing east toward Lake Michigan, the camera captured sidewalks filled to overflowing on both sides of the avenue, largely with men in high collars and derby hats. 


 

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What were they doing? The first clue is that the building on the far left is the First National Bank, and the crowd is converging on a window marked “Deposits Received Here.” Was it a bank run? Not likely, particularly since there is no record of a run in Milwaukee between the “panics” of 1893 and 1907. The more probable explanation is that it was payday, and scores of workers were queuing up to put their hard-earned money in the bank for safekeeping.

The east side of Downtown was already the city’s primary financial district in 1900, the home of its largest banks, brokerages and insurance companies. That is still the area’s role today, but the scene has changed dramatically. Most of the buildings pictured on the north side of Wisconsin Avenue are long gone, although there are some distinguished survivors farther up the street. There has also been one novel return – with the debut of The Hop in 2018, streetcars are once again running on the streets of Downtown Milwaukee, just as they did a century ago. 


TAKE A CLOSER LOOK:

  • This ornate structure is a police and fire call box, connecting patrolmen to central dispatch by telephone.
  • The First National Bank was one of Milwaukee’s largest in 1900.
  • The Wells Building (left, 1901) and Pfister Hotel (right, 1893) are still Downtown landmarks.
  • This building “in the French style” was Northwestern Mutual’s home office several years earlier, from 1870 to 1886.
  • Traffic lanes? What traffic lanes?

IN COLLABORATION WITH MILWAUKEE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY 


 

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine’s March issue.

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