A brief history of Spring Street, Grand Avenue, Wisconsin Avenue

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011

Bridges crossing the Milwaukee River in Downtown Milwaukee

The Pfister Hotel is located on Wisconsin Avenue and sandwiched between Jefferson, Milwaukee, and Mason Streets. 424 East Wisconsin Avenue to be exact. That may seem like a simple enough fact; Wisconsin Avenue is a main street through the heart of downtown Milwaukee, a city not coincidentally located in the state of Wisconsin. However the history of Wisconsin Avenue is not as simple as one might guess. It’s actually a tale of Spring Street and Grand Avenue. To understand the story we actually have to delve into a tale of two cities. (Technically three considering George Walker and Walker’s Point, but for our immediate purposes only two are necessary to reference.)

Solomon Juneau relaxing for the camera.

Byron Kilbourn sported quite the beard.

Solomon Juneau was born in Quebec, Canada and arrived in Milwaukee in 1818. Juneau made his fortune as an employee of the American Fur Company. The American Fur Company was named by another man also imprinted in Milwaukee, John Jacob Astor. Upon moving to what we now call Milwaukee Mr. Juneau learned to speak fluent Menominee and Potawatomi before learning English. In the 1830’s the fur business was starting to appear less fruitful compared with real estate and Solomon had a ground floor opportunity to begin developing. The place where three rivers converge upon an enormous lake is not bad positioning for the start of a city. His portion of land was between the Milwaukee River and Lake Michigan and he opened an outpost store. Shortly after Juneau became the city’s first postmaster. He went on to be Milwaukee’s first elected mayor.

Byron Kilbourn arrived later than Solomon Juneau. He didn’t show up on our shores until the 1830’s. Kilbourn had already been involved with real estate in Sheboygan and Manitowoc and from the start seemed to have a much wider scope than Solomon Juneau. By comparison Kilbourn had more of a “fat cat” scope for his Milwaukee plans. Even though Chicago holds the title of the Windy City, Byron Kilbourn’s town was pretty liberal with bribes and corruption. Eventually Kilbourn’s railroad company was exposed for bribery relating to railroad land acquisition.

Looking west on Wisconsin Avenue. Notice the angle of the bridge across the Milwaukee River; crooked to accommodate for the angle of the two streets. This was taken during a 1919 parade.

In 1837 both men officially dug in their heels and named their plots, predictably, Juneautown and Kilbourntown (come on guys, a little creativity?). Competition between the two cities eventually came to a head during the Bridge Wars of 1845. Milwaukee’s east side is effectively an island between Lake Michigan and the Milwaukee River. Bridges are a necessity to get to the larger mainland. Byron Kilbourn and the residents of Kilbourntown hoped to freeze Juneautown out of access to the mainland. A resolution was reached to build a new bridge as the current network of bridges was deemed inadequate. But Kilbourntown refused to share in payment for the bridge’s construction. Residents of each side spent weeks voicing their opinions. Eventually violence erupted and in protest residents smashed and burned two of the existing bridges. Eventually each side concluded they needed one another and merged to become the City of Milwaukee in 1846.

What does this have to do with street names? While each side of town operated independently they developed their own road system. They even laid their roads at different angles so their streets wouldn’t easily meet with one another.

Painting "Bridge War" by Clarence Monegar.

Spring Street was called such due to the luck of a spring that existed on the street prior to indoor plumbing. The street also came to be called Grand Avenue. The Grand had, and still does possess many theatres, department stores, and other entertainment. It’s likely the name was also a result of the grand mansions built farther West on the street (such as the Pabst Mansion). Eventually everyone agreed on Wisconsin Avenue and the Pfister has it’s current home at 424. Voila!

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