This day in Milwaukee County history: On May 8th, 1845 Milwaukeeans wake up to find Chestnut Ave. Bridge (now the Juneau Avenue Bridge) had been destroyed and dropped into the river below. The infamous Milwaukee Bridge War had begun!
It had all started with the very foundation of the City of Milwaukee. As many readers may know, the City grew out of three distinct and separate townships, each with its own founding father. East of the Milwaukee River, Solomon Juneau had established Juneautown, the west side was controlled by Byron Kilbourn and the area south of the Menomonee River belonged to George Walker. Byron Kilbourn, a shrewd businessman and railroad executive, had set up Kilbourntown with the sole intention of diverting goods and business away from his two rival towns, especially the area controlled by Juneau. He wanted no less than to strangle the other settlements in order to make his own the dominant player in the region.
During his first attempt to cut off the eastside , Kilbourn ordered that his town’s street grid could not and would not align with that of Juneautown’s. He also refused to build bridges to the east side of the river. In 1840, however, the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature, finding the ferry system between the towns “inadequate”, ordered the construction of bridges. Kilbourn had little choice but to comply. Because Kilbourntown and Juneautown’s street layout did not align, the bridges were all built at odd angles (and remain so to this day).
There were disagreements over how to most appropriately fund the bridges. In a town meeting on May 7th, 1845, fed up with the entire ordeal, Kilbourn suggested that the Chesnut Avenue bridge be destroyed. And, covertly, in the middle of the night, he and his followers did just that.
So, on the morning of May 8th, 1845, eastsiders woke up to find their routes across the river floating away, downstream. Juneautown residents had had enough. They retaliated by destroying two more bridges. Fisticuffs broke out in the streets of the fledgling city. Several people were seriously injured, but, fortunately, no one died.
It was only then that Byron Kilbourn and Solomon Juneau realized that their rivalry must come to an end. They began working together for the good of the city. On January 31, 1846, all three settlements were united and the City of Milwaukee was born.