Before its ultra-industrial present, Jones Island was a vibrant community of seafaring squatters from the shores of the Baltic.
Water is vital to all life, but it has played an incalculable role in the life of Milwaukee – the fluid medium in which the city evolved from the embryonic settlement of the 1830s to the metropolis of the 21st century.
It provided the community with its reason for being, first of all, as a great port on a Great Lake, but Milwaukee’s liquid assets don’t end there. Over the course of nearly two centuries, water has been a source of power, a medium of transportation, an occasion for recreation, an ingredient for industry, an outlet for waste, and indisputably a maker of place. If Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are capitals of the Sun Belt, Milwaukee is a mainstay of the Water Belt, a coastal town every bit as wet as Boston or Baltimore.
This is the central story of Milwaukee: A City Built on Water. My new book, a chapter of which is excerpted below, began as a bare-bones lecture for a local river group in 2007 and evolved into a one-hour documentary that premiered on Milwaukee Public Television in 2015. Not long after the television program aired, the Wisconsin Historical Society Press approached me with a simple question: Could it be a book, too? There was a great deal more to cover on the water front, so the story began to move from screen to print instead of the more customary opposite route.
The format may be different, but the goal is the same. Telling Milwaukee’s water story can reinforce the platform of understanding on which all stewardship efforts must rest in the challenging years ahead. And, not least of all, I hope that Built on Water proves my contention that history is anything but dry.
PEOPLE OF THE PORT: THE KASZUBS OF JONES ISLAND
At the midpoint of Milwaukee Bay, equidistant from the green splendor of Lincoln Memorial Drive and the necklace of quieter parks adorning the South Shore, lies an anomalous piece of real estate. There is nothing remotely park-like about Jones Island.
It is the home of the region’s largest sewage treatment plant, the city’s port facilities and dozens of petroleum storage tanks – all neatly arrayed beneath the concrete arch of the Daniel Hoan expressway bridge. No one lives there. Despite its place at the center of town, visitors are few, and there wouldn’t be much to see if they did take the time: no architectural treasures, no breathtaking views, few public amenities of any kind.
Jones Island has been a peninsula, not an island, for most of its recorded history, and that history is rich. The earliest record of Milwaukee is a report of a Fox and Mascouten village at the river mouth. After the Native Americans’ forced removal from the area in 1838, shipbuilding took hold. The most prominent such enterprise was that of James Monroe Jones, but it was weakened by financial panic in 1857 and a devastating storm a year later, and abandoned by 1861.
But in the decades before Jones Island became the urban wilderness we know today, it was the home of a vibrant human community. From the 1870s through the 1920s, it housed hundreds of newcomers from the Kaszuby region in what is now north-central Poland. Most Polish immigrants were farmers who worked in factories once they’d crossed to the New World, but the Kaszubs (kah-SHOOBs) were uniquely able to continue their ancestral way of life: fishing.
From a handful of dwellings on the windswept peninsula in 1870, the number grew to 12 in 1875, 20 in 1880, and more than 300 in the 1890s. Kaszubs owned most of them, but the islanders also included a handful of Scandinavian and Irish families and a sizable number of Pomeranians. Together they swelled the settlement’s population to a peak of roughly 1,600 at the turn of the 20th century.
Lake Michigan was not the Baltic Sea, of course, but the immigrants’ skills and equipment translated easily from salt water to fresh. At first the Kaszubs used small sailing craft or rowboats and set their nets close to shore. After 1900, with more experience and more ample bank accounts, many graduated to motorized fishing boats that took them miles out onto the open lake. The catch varied by the season and even by the day, but it included trout, whitefish, perch, cisco and sturgeon – in total, nearly 2 million pounds in a typical year. Most of it was sold through wholesalers, but a sizable crew of islanders peddled fish – fresh, smoked or salted – from door to door on the mainland.
All those fish supported a village that was, in a word, improvised. Jones Island had nothing resembling a formal grid system; the streets, some of them little more than ruts in the sand, wandered wherever local residents had a need to go. There was one main road, called Grand Avenue in ironic tribute to Milwaukee’s major thoroughfare, but the others were so random that even frequent visitors got disoriented on occasion.
The houses lining those chaotic streets ranged from substantial Victorian dwellings to shacks tacked together from scrap lumber and driftwood; a few were so small that a visiting reporter compared them to children’s playhouses. Evidence of the islanders’ chief occupation was always close at hand. The shoreline was dotted with weather-beaten fish sheds used to maintain boats, store nets, and clean and sort the catch. Large wooden reels for drying the fleet’s nets were scattered across the island, and smokehouses added their campfire smell to the prevailing atmosphere.
Some Milwaukeeans had stables and later garages in their backyards; the islanders had boats tethered to wooden docks. Trees planted early in the Kaszubs’ tenure eventually lent the village a settled appearance, but the fishing colony never completely shed its rustic, even makeshift quality.
Life on Jones Island was as unique as its landscape. The community’s children, and there were legions of them, used the shoreline as an informal playground, catching crayfish on the river side in summer and skipping across the ice floes in winter. The setting could be hazardous: one family lost three children to drowning in a single year.
For the men of Jones Island, even though they fished from first light to last, social life was as close as the nearest tavern, and that was close indeed. The village supported 11 saloons in its heyday – an impressive ratio for a population of 1,600 – including one called Cannibal’s Rendezvous. In addition to managing their households, the island’s women sold fish, wove and repaired fishing nets, and used their skills to develop a distinctive cottage industry, weaving fly nets for horses and hammocks for humans.
For all age groups, bonfires on the beach, accompanied by group singing and clambakes, were high points of summer on the island. Weddings were even more festive; the traditional Kaszub celebration required three days of dining, dancing and drinking. One standard toast greeted every newlywed: “Many fish to make the purse heavy, and many children to make the purse light.”
“Many fish to make the purse heavy, and many children to make the purse light.”
— Kaszub Wedding Toast
Outsiders returned the visits. Jones Island’s unique setting and abundant nightspots attracted a steady stream of Milwaukeeans looking for something different, and the island’s saloonkeepers worked hard to keep them coming. Several offered fish fries that featured perch, trout and whitefish fresh off the boat. Getting to Jones Island was part of the adventure. Young entrepreneurs charged a nickel each way to row city folk across the river, and in 1903 Charlie Plambeck, known to his neighbors as “Admiral” or “Pa,” began running a gasoline launch between the Wisconsin Avenue bridge and his saloon. Plambeck’s customers included beer barons, politicians and assorted young people who wanted to take a walk on the wild side. Most observed the unwritten code of respect that governs visitors everywhere, but some revelers overindulged on occasion. Anyone who got too boisterous was ferried back across the river and dumped on the nearest landing. Although hometown “tourists” generated welcome revenue, it was clear that many viewed a weekend visit to the island as “slumming.” The place was interesting but not to be taken seriously.
Other Milwaukeeans insisted on taking Jones Island perhaps too seriously. The sheer novelty of a European fishing village transplanted to the shoreline of a major Great Lakes city was irresistible to a certain class of romantics. For artists, in particular, the drying reels, the fish sheds, the rudimentary homes and the village’s spontaneous landscape satisfied an appetite for the picturesque. The Milwaukee Art Institute, whose members included a young Carl Sandburg, organized regular sketching excursions to Jones Island, and poets occasionally wandered the village with pens in hand and heads in the clouds. The Milwaukee Sentinel (Sept. 20, 1903) published a typically breathless report from one of the visiting aesthetes:
Milwaukee’s City Fathers, on the other hand, were not charmed in the least. The islanders occupied their land without benefit of title; they were technically squatters who paid taxes on their personal property but not on their lots. City services were therefore provided sparingly and without much enthusiasm.
Local parents, for instance, were left on their own to seek an education for their children. It was not until 1896, nearly a quarter-century after settlement began, that Milwaukee opened a school on Jones Island, and it was a one-room affair crammed with 131 students under the charge of one teacher, Mary Flanders. She was rowed across from the mainland every day, dodging ice floes during the winter months. The teacher developed a lasting affection for her island charges and felt compelled to defend their parents against press accounts that they were uncultured rubes. “There are big sleeves on Jones Island,” Flanders told the Evening Wisconsin (Jan. 10, 1896), “and even some $50 gowns. … And Jones Island can sing ‘America’ through from the first line to the last.”
Official Milwaukee’s attitude toward the fishing colony eventually found concrete expression. In 1902 the city built a garbage “crematory” on the northern tip of the peninsula. As tons of trash went up the chimney in smoke every day, the ashes – and the smell – descended directly on the island. In 1911 a city-appointed commission recommended Jones Island as the ideal location for its contemplated sewage treatment plant. The commissioners turned a remarkably blind eye to the people they planned to displace, explaining that the site was chosen “because of its isolation and especially its remoteness from residential districts.”
As the 20th century progressed, Jones Island’s situation was increasingly precarious. The presence of a rural village near the beating heart of a major city had always seemed unlikely, and it grew even more so after 1900. As the city across the river acquired streetlights, trolleys and telephones, the Kaszubs and their neighbors remained in the dark, without indoor plumbing, electricity or phone service. As the metropolis around them grew in scale and complexity, the islanders were stuck in the 19th century. The community had always been anomalous; now it began to seem anachronistic.
The village’s nearest neighbor was the first to disturb its peace. At the south end of the peninsula, where the Bay View neighborhood began, the Illinois Steel Co. operated a massive iron mill that had been in business since 1868. As the boats bringing ore and coal to the mill increased in size, the Kinnickinnic River basin was no longer large enough to accommodate them. Illinois Steel needed new docking facilities, and the location its leaders chose was the northern end of Jones Island. In 1896, claiming prior title to the land, they sued to evict the fishing families, one by one. The Kaszubs and their neighbors put up stout resistance, holding dances in the island’s saloons to raise a defense fund. With help from Victor Berger, the guiding light of Milwaukee’s Socialist movement, they claimed the privilege of “adverse occupancy,” the legal term for squatter’s rights. Because every case was tried individually, the David-and-Goliath battle dragged on for nearly two decades, and in the end only 10 percent of the islanders lost in court.
The city of Milwaukee, meanwhile, had developed an urgent need for two very different facilities: a sewage treatment plant with sufficient capacity for a community of 375,000 people and an outer harbor large enough to accommodate the 500-footers that were taking over the Great Lakes shipping lanes. Jones Island was the logical and perhaps the only feasible location for both.
In 1914 the city condemned the land, and this time the fisherfolk didn’t fight. Although the Lake Michigan fishery remained productive – the islanders harvested 2.3 million pounds in 1914 – the village itself was clearly past its prime. City officials allowed residents to stay until their land was actually needed, and, even more persuasively, they paid for every property they condemned. From a peak of 300 families in 1914, Jones Island’s population plummeted to 25 families in 1920 and just six in 1922. As islanders moved to the mainland, including a significant number who continued to fish, their houses were cleared, one by one. The largest homes were loaded onto scows and relocated to vacant lots in Bay View or on the South Side; the smaller dwellings were reduced to firewood.
As the exodus neared its end, practically every house, tree and chicken coop on Jones Island was demolished or removed. The city placed a bulkhead 1,000 feet offshore and filled the resulting impoundment with dredge spoil from the Kinnickinnic basin. When the “made land” had settled sufficiently, construction crews descended on the peninsula. The sewage treatment plant was completed in 1925, the first carferry terminal in 1929 and the first municipal dock in the same year. As slips were added, railroad tracks laid and more acres reclaimed, Jones Island was stripped of its venerable human associations to become part of the working machinery of a modern industrial metropolis.
But not entirely, and not quite yet. As work crews transformed the landscape of Jones Island, a handful of holdouts lingered on the western shore, and the city, with no immediate need for the land, left them alone. Their patriarch was Captain Felix Struck, a saloonkeeper and purveyor of smoked fish who proudly claimed that he was the first child born on the island. Struck would also be the last islander to leave. He stood his ground until 1943, when authorities removed the 74-year-old Kaszub for reasons of “port security” during World War II. Struck died within six months, and with his passing came the end of the closest thing Milwaukee, or Wisconsin, has ever had to a genuine urban village.
In 1974 the site of Struck’s old outpost was repurposed as the only truly public space on Jones Island. Kaszube’s Park – at 60 by 100 feet, the smallest in the city – is a grace note in the landscape, a diminutive bit of green whose only distinguishing features are a picnic bench, a few trees and an old anchor. But the park plays an outsized role as a reminder of a vanished world. Generations after the last fishing tug set out from Jones Island, Kaszube’s Park is the final remnant of a living, breathing human community whose way of life was built on water.