Cannons Across The River

In the frontier days, before the American Civil War engulfed the entire nation and after the Revolutionary War turned Tories against Patriots, a smaller conflict erupted into violence between settlements in southeastern Wisconsin. Riots burned bridges that connected Kilborntown and Juneautown, two rivals on separated from one another by a single river. Tensions rose over the course of several years, culminating in the mustering of a cannon prepared to fire upon the enemy. Only a cool speaker with convincing eloquence prevented the neighbors from firing artillery upon fellow Americans.

The land at the meeting place of the three rivers had been visited by the white man for centuries, but by the early 1830s, the remaining Native American tribes had signed treaties to cede the lands. In 1835, these lands sold at an auction in Green Bay to land speculators. Two of the men, Byron Kilbourn and Solomon Juneau, created settlements on opposite banks of the river.

From the start, the two men and their towns were at odds as each tried to promote his settlement and land holdings at the expense of the other. No bridges connected the two towns, and Byron Kilbourn owned a number of vessels that brought trade and settlers to his side of the river—but nothing to Juneautown. The residents east of the river rankled as they were isolated. The founders of the towns even laid their settlements out such that the streets didn’t align to make bridge building easy.

In 1840, the territorial legislature decreed that the ferry system wasn’t adequate, and that bridges should be constructed to join the settlements. The settlements, though, didn’t want to join nor to spend their own money to make travel and trade easier for the enemy. Tensions rose even as the frameworks for the bridges did. By 1845, the simmering rose to a boil called the Great Bridge War.

In early May, a vessel on the river destroyed the Spring Street Bridge. In retaliation, residents of Kilbourntown destroyed the west end of the Chestnut Street bridge. An angry mob in Juneautown brought out the cannon, loaded it, and aimed it for Byron Kilbourn’s house on the other side of the river. As the ruffians were to light the fuse, a level-headed orator amongst them prevented them from striking the tinder, as Kilbourn’s recently-dead daughter lie in state in the home at the time. He prevented the firing, but not further violence. Other riots ensued, and the cannon made another appearance on May 28, 1845, as the Juneautown irregulars destroyed a bridge over the Menomonee River. Again, the east siders didn’t fire, but their efforts continued to impede the bridge builders.

For much of 1845, the two settlements and their ruffians used riots and skirmishes to make points. One crossing the river in either direction needed to be wary and often carry a white flag to pass safely. But the currents of progress carried the settlements downstream, to eventual agreement. In 1846, a greater city charter was ratified. The city of Milwaukee arose from the two warring settlements that had come but one impassioned plea from firing artillery at each other.

The effects of this dispute remain visible today. Bridges and drawbridges cross the Milwaukee River at odd angles to link streets built by two warring settlements in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the people from the West Side think the people from the East Side are crazy (and vice versa).

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