Hundreds of years ago fur traders and French explorers navigated the Milwaukee River to trade with the Native American tribes who lived along its banks. Those early settlements have long since been replaced by a modern and cosmopolitan cityscape. What hasn't changed is the important role the river plays in Milwaukee's enviable and casual waterfront lifestyle.
The river has become a popular urban waterway for outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy kayaking, canoeing, stand-up paddling, and pleasure boating — right in the heart of the city. Warmer months mean a steady stream of tour boats offering everything from history and architecture tours to a pub crawl by boat.
The early settlers of each community had strong partisan feelings and engaged in fierce competition to keep their settlements separate.
Milwaukee's location at the confluence of three rivers – the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic – provided natural boundaries for the original three founders. Shrewd businessman Byron Kilbourn established Kilbourntown on the west side of the Milwaukee River; former fur trader Solomon Juneau established Juneautown east of the Milwaukee River; and George Walker established a trading post south of the Milwaukee River in what later became known as Walker's Point.
The early settlers of each community engaged in fierce competition to keep their settlements separate. Juneau and Kilbourn even built street grids that intentionally did not line up. (To this day some of Milwaukee's downtown bridges are on a diagonal, often posing visibility issues for boaters.)
On May 8, 1845, angry West Siders destroyed the west side of the Juneau Avenue Bridge and damaged the west side of the Wells Street Bridge, touching off what is known as the "Bridge Wars." East Siders retaliated with the destruction of the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge and threats to destroy the dam across the Milwaukee River. Armed brawls broke out between the inhabitants of the two towns, resulting in several serious injuries.
The Bridge War ended in a truce, but tensions remained until January 31, 1846, when the legislature passed a charter establishing a unified City of Milwaukee.
Today's Milwaukee River winds through a vibrant ribbon of development filled by sidewalk cafes, shops, public art, green spaces, and special events. It's a transformation that began in the early 1990s when the Milwaukee RiverWalk District formed in partnership with the City of Milwaukee.