Center St. Actually Named After a Person
It was never the center of anything, but named after man who devised the “straight cut.”
Center Street was not named because it is the center of the county, or the center of the city, or even the center of the North Side. It was not named because it is the center of anything. It was named for a hero to Milwaukeeans of the 1840s and 1850s, a man who had two streets named for him; Alexander Center, a lieutenant in the United States Army and a civil engineer.
Alexander Jenkins Center was born in Hudson, New York in 1808 and graduated from West Point Military Academy at the age of nineteen. During his first four years of service he was stationed at Fort Mackinaw (Mackinac Island) and then Fort Howard (Green Bay). His next five years were served at the remote Fort Winnebago at present day Portage, Wisconsin. During the Black Hawk War of 1832, which was fought in the southern part of the state, Lieutenant Center was occupied surveying the state’s first road, a military road, which would run between Fort Howard and Prairie du Chien’s Fort Crawford, the site of Black Hawk’s surrender.
He found that the harbor was well-protected by the bay and the Milwaukee River near the city center was navigable. The problem was connecting the lake to the downtown area. The river outlet to Lake Michigan was farther south than it is now, near Bay View. It was crooked and shallow and navigation through it varied from difficult to impossible. Consequently, quarter-mile long piers were built into the lake to offload passengers and freight from ships too big to conquer the river. Transport from the end of the piers to the city was by foot or by carriages and carts.
Center’s recommendation would eliminate the need for the piers and the travel from them. He proposed that a channel, which became known as the “Straight Cut,” be dug from the river to the lake farther north, near what is now the Marcus Amphitheater. Ships would then be able to sail from the lake directly to downtown. This major project was well beyond the means and authority of the small municipality and would have to be carried out by the federal government. The city named the site of the future channel Center Street, although the so-called ‘street’ never amounted to anything more than lines on a map.
Local officials and other influential citizens were persistent in lobbying Congress and the project was approved and subsequently completed in 1857. The Straight Cut eliminated Center Street from the map, a small price to pay for the vast improvement in bringing people and freight straight to the downtown area. But Alexander Center was not forgotten; the newest and northernmost street in town at the time was named for him and gave us our present day Center Street.
Center continued his career as a civil engineer, working for several railroads including one in Central America. He also served as superintendent of the “Overland Route,” which carried mail from Missouri to California during the Civil War before there was a transcontinental railroad. Center died in his native state of New York in 1879.
There have been three proposals to change the name of Center Street since then. The first was to name it for Martin Luther King shortly after his assassination in April 1968. That effort failed but was revived in 1983. That attempt was also unsuccessful although the next year parts of N. Third Street and N. Green Bay Avenue took on the King name.
In 1990 there was a push to rename Center Street for Nelson Mandela, shortly after his release from nearly 30 years of political imprisonment in South Africa, but nothing came of that proposal. Four years later Mandela was elected president of his nation.
Center Street runs from N. Humboldt Avenue on the east to N. 99th Street on the west. The more than 100-block long arterial is mostly a mix of residential and commercial buildings.
Carl Baehr, a Milwaukee native, is the author of Milwaukee Streets: The Stories Behind their Names, and articles on local history topics. He has done extensive historic research for his upcoming book, Dreams and Disasters: A History of the Irish in Milwaukee. Baehr, a professional genealogist and historical researcher, gives talks on these subjects and on researching Catholic sacramental records.