January 31, 1846 Milwaukee Bridge War

The skirmishes lasted, for weeks. No one was killed during the Milwaukee bridge War of 1845 though combatants on both sides, were injured. In the end even the hotheads had to admit it. The only path forward lay in unification.

Solomon Juneau was a fur trader.  Like the cousin who went before him to found Juneau, Alaska, Solomon left his home in Quebec and wound up in Wisconsin, settling on the east side of the Milwaukee River.  That was 1818.  The east side of the river would come to be known as “Juneau’s side” and later,”Juneautown”.

Byron Kilbourn was born in Connecticut, the son of a Colonel in the War of 1812 and later member of Congress from the state of Ohio.  Kilbourn left the family home in Ohio and traveled to Green Bay where he worked as a government surveyor.

By the 1830’s, Solomon Juneau knew that times were changing. As his fur trade diminished, Juneau turned to real estate. By the time Byron Kilbourn showed up on the other side with his surveying instruments, Juneau’s settlement was a small but thriving town.

Like Juneau, Kilbourne saw the commercial potential of the area.  This spot on the Milwaukee River could be a port city he thought, serving Lake Michigan and beyond, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

The land Kilbourn staked out on the west side belonged at that time, to the Potawatomi.  There followed accusations of sleazy deals and fudged land surveys.  Kilbourn soon emerged from land court with title to the area, around the time that politician and trader George H Walker settled his own parcel to the south at what would be known as, Walker’s Point.

Kilbourn’s side of the river became “Kilbourntown” and grew as quickly as Juneautown on the opposite side. 

Competition developed and deepened between the two sides as Kilbourn and his supporters did everything they could to isolate Juneautown.  You can see the animosity to this day in the way the street grids on opposite sides, fail to meet.

In 1840, the Wisconsin territorial legislature directed that a drawbridge be built across the Milwaukee river. 

That first bridge was built across Chestnut street now Juneau, with Solomon Juneau’s support. Kilbourn and his people built their own bridge, across the Menominee.

By 1845, there were five. That May, a schooner damaged the Spring Street bridge in Kilbourn’s west ward. West warders were furious and blamed Juneau for the damage. Kilbourn supporters retaliated, dropping the west end of the Chestnut Street bridge into the river.  East warders loaded a cannon with clock weights and aimed it at Kilbourn’s home but held off on learning the man had just lost a daughter.

Bridges favored by both sides were destroyed. Those caught on the “wrong” side were chased down and beaten. By June, bridge work was being done under armed guard.

The skirmishes lasted, for weeks. No one was killed during the Milwaukee bridge War of 1845 though combatants on both sides, were injured. In the end even the hotheads had to admit it.  The only path forward lay in unification.   Juneautown and Kilbourntown joined with Walker’s Point to the south, the three towns unifying to form the city of Milwaukee Wisconsin on January 31, 1846.  

Juneau was elected the city’s first mayor.

Solomon Juneau later founded the Milwaukee Sentinel, today the oldest continuously operating business in Wisconsin.  Six Menominee chiefs served as pallbearers at his funeral, in 1855.

Byron Kilbourne went on to found Kilbourn City in 1857, now known, as Wisconsin Dells. Allegations of sleaze seemed to follow him, wherever he went.  Kilbourne went on to serve as president of the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad from 1849-’52 until the railroad’s board of directors fired him for mismanagement and fraud.

The railroad he chartered in 1852 to compete with his former employer was ruined following a scandal alleging the use of railroad bonds to bribe state officials.  He fled to Florida to relieve his “arthritis” and passed away in Jacksonville, in 1870.

For 128 years, Milwaukee historic preservation types labored to reunite the city’s three founders in Wisconsin soil.  Historic Milwaukee, Inc. returned Kilbourne’s remains to Wisconsin in 1998 where he rejoined the city’s co-founders, in the Forest Home Cemetery.

Happy birthday, Milwaukee.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

13 thoughts on “January 31, 1846 Milwaukee Bridge War”

      1. One of these days… bye I love your work. I’m impressed at the degree of realism you’re able to coax out of watercolors. I especially liked that puffin piece you did. You don’t happen to do tropical birds, do you?

        Liked by 2 people

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