The Story of Milwaukee’s Bridge War

Before Milwaukee, there was the Bridge War.


At odds in Milwaukee’s Bridge War were Solomon Juneau, founder of an east-of-the-river settlement, and Byron Kilbourn, who had set up to the west.

Each man saw his as the obvious center of the metropolis-to-be and loathed the idea of cooperation. (Their animus remains visible today in the off-kilter Downtown street grids on the two sides of the river.) Bridges were planned as early as 1835, but it was not until the 1840s that the projects cautiously moved forward. 

When a schooner rammed the bridge at modern-day Wisconsin Avenue in May 1845, the situation boiled over. Kilbourn loyalists suspected that Juneauites had bribed the captain to ruin the crossing and took their revenge by destroying a bridge favored by the easterners. Meanwhile, the westerners set about to repair their favored bridge using pieces from another Juneau-endorsed bridge, which promptly collapsed.

But before they could make their repairs, the easterners trashed the damaged bridge (all while a loaded cannon was aimed at Kilbourn’s home) and then attacked the bridge that linked Kilbourn’s settlement to the southern settlement of George Walker. In less than a month, four of the village’s five bridges were wrecked.

It wouldn’t be until the end of the year that the two sides made peace, paving the way for Milwaukee’s official incorporation as a city on Jan. 31, 1846.

This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s January issue.

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