A pause for river traffic at the Wisconsin Avenue drawbridge

One of the joys of living in a city with a navigable river is encountering its drawbridges.  Around noon yesterday I happened to be two cars back when the Wisconsin Avenue bridge was raised to accommodate one of the larger tour boats.

Wisconsin Avenue bridge

The white, pillared building across the river is the old Gimbels Department Store, where in April of 1945 a duck named “Gertie” laid her eggs and raised her brood atop some of the pilings down along the river.  This was big news at the time, a welcome diversion from the numbing horror of World War II.  The local paper carried daily updates on the unfolding duckling saga for over five weeks.  People lined the bridge along Wisconsin Avenue to catch a glimpse.

Following flooding and fire, Gertie and her ducklings were rescued and placed in one of Gimbels’ large streetside display windows.  According to Wikipedia, over 2 million people paused outside that store window to monitor their progress.  (Milwaukeeans really love their animals.  When I first moved to town, the top newspaper headline for days was about the death of Samson, a much-beloved zoo gorilla.  His taxidermied body resides at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and a bronze-sculpted bust of  his likeness graces the ape house at the Milwaukee County Zoo.)

Eventually the story of Gertie and her brood was immortalized in print, published first by the Milwaukee Journal and later by Rinehart in New York.

About fifty years later, a statue followed.

Gertie the Duck by sculpter Gendolyn Gillen (via Wikipedia)

The Milwaukee River runs south through the heart of Milwaukee’s downtown.  It flows into the inner harbor just below the Third Ward, an old warehouse district now reborn as a hipster center of New Urbanism.  From there boats can either move all the way out to Lake Michigan or stay inside the breakwaters of the outer harbor.  (Milwaukee grew up around the natural inner harbor formed by the confluence of three rivers: the Milwaukee River, the Menomonee River, and the Kinnickinnic River.  The artificial outer harbor was built in the early twentieth century with additional channel dredging and a series of breakwaters.)

I’ve had to pause for drawbridge openings on downtown streets pretty often during the thirty-odd years I’ve lived in Milwaukee.  For several years now the city has been replacing the old bridges that split in the center with newer vertical-lift bridges that rise straight up in one piece, like the one shown in the photo above on Wisconsin Avenue.

Too bad, in a way.  I thought the old bascule bridges were picturesque.  And, really, what is a drawbridge if it doesn’t swing open that way.  The Blues Brothers made the East 95th Street Bridge in Chicago famous when they did an Evel Knievel-style jump from one ramp of that drawbridge to the other across the open gap.  Roger Moore’s final James Bond movie, A View to a Kill, used a similar stunt in a chase scene.  All the romance is gone now.

Milwaukee’s bridge houses, at least, are still around.  Every drawbridge once needed an operator, and every operator needed a place to work from.  Are operators still required every time a bridge opens?  I don’t know, but I’ve never personally seen anyone inside them.  Although some (if not all) of the bridge houses have been “updated” or replaced for the modern era, every drawbridge does still need a bridge house to hold the “works.”  And the Milwaukee River has some very cool, unique-looking bridge houses downtown.

Wisconsin Avenue bridge house, looking north (via Wikipedia)

Pleasant Street bridge house, before bridge reconstruction (via City of Milwaukee)

Huh.  I’ve been trying to find online images of Milwaukee River bridge houses I could share, but there really aren’t any.  So that can be a project for me this summer, to photograph some of my favorite bridge houses and post again later.  (UPDATE: I did do this in a post about two weeks later.  Here is the link to “A walking tour of the Milwaukee River’s bridge houses.”)

Meanwhile, here is the second photo I took from my car yesterday.  It may be hard for you to make it out amid all the other busy details (railings, buildings), but you can see the boat (it’s pretty long, as well as tall) heading south on the river.

Tour boat heading toward Lake Michigan

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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1 Response to A pause for river traffic at the Wisconsin Avenue drawbridge

  1. Pingback: A walking tour of the Milwaukee River’s bridge houses | Katherine Wikoff

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