The Milwaukee River is a big part of our city that often gets little noticed. Those of us that live in the city may drive over the river every day, but usually pay it no mind (unless traffic stops as a bridge over the river raises to accommodate a boat). But really, we should give the Milwaukee River its due respect, because this waterway is one of the main reasons that this city is here.
The Milwaukee River begins in Fond du Lac County, and as it progresses it picks up flowage from three Milwaukee River branches: the west, east and south branches. At approximately 100 miles, the river twists and turns on a wild course, meandering south and east through West Bend, Fredonia and Saukville before it hits a more direct route south through Grafton, Thiensville, and ultimately the lakeshore communities of the City of Milwaukee. It picks up water from many tributaries on the way, and finally merges with the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers at the Port of Milwaukee.
Milwaukee, the city, got its name from the river. What this word means, however, is up for debate. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society's Dictionary of Wisconsin History, Milwaukee was the site of an Indian village and council place, the exact spot of which is believed to have been located in the vicinity of today's Wisconsin Avenue at Fifth Street. Hence the belief that "Milwaukee" may mean "council place," though most authorities consider it to be of Potawatomi origin and to have the meaning "good land." Another common belief is that the word comes from blending two words, "Mellioke," the old name of the river, and "Mahn-a-waukke," the gathering place.
In addition to its name, the City of Milwaukee may have an even bigger debt to pay to the river: that of being the catalyst for the creation of the first settlements here. According to the book "The Making of Milwaukee," by John Gurda, water was key to the formation of the city at its present location, and the network of the Milwaukee, Menominee, Root Rivers and Oak Creek made the area perfect for water travel. Fur traders were attracted because of the area's native population, and also because of the access inland offered by the three rivers that joined near the harbor. Eventually this harbor itself became the draw, having been improved dramatically with a new harbor entrance and a breakwater, as well as dredging and widening of the port rivers.
The Milwaukee River Today
For a while, the health of the Milwaukee River was in serious decline. Pollution, from agricultural, municipal and industrial sources, led to a host of problems exacerbated by a series of dams and other habitat alterations, and the river was in bad shape. But bit by bit, that is changing. Today, interest in the Milwaukee River is enjoying a renaissance of sorts, and various groups have joined forces over the past several decades to clean up this waterway. The results of these efforts are impressive. Just ten years ago, for example, the river often flowed unseen through downtown and its near neighborhoods, as unkempt banks and industrial development blocked much of the view. But with the river clean-up have also come efforts to restore access to the river -- such as the Milwaukee RiverWalk -- and these initiatives have truly helped to beautify what were before blighted areas.