The History of Mason Street
Named after a Michigan Territory governor, the street became Milwaukee’s Newspaper Row.
The ten-block long Mason Street, which runs from the War Memorial Center overlooking Lake Michigan to the Mason Street Landing at the Milwaukee River, was named by Solomon Juneau and his business partner Morgan Martin in 1835. They named it after Tom Mason, as Stevens Thomson Mason was familiarly known.
Mason was then just 23 years old and 1835 was a big year for him. In addition to having a street named for him in the fledgling city of Juneautown, Mason laid the foundation for what would become Wisconsin’s state capital, started a war that defined Wisconsin’s northern border, and was elected Michigan’s first governor.
At age 19, Mason has been appointed Secretary of the Michigan Territory, an area that included Wisconsin. As Michigan’s statehood approached, the issue of its border with Ohio heated up. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had set the border between the two states as a line due east from the southern tip of Lake Michigan. Ohio was admitted as a state in 1803 with a border slightly north of where it should have been, creating the Toledo Strip which included the harbor of Toledo.
After being elected governor of the Territory in 1835, Tom Mason decided to take back that which was rightfully Michigan’s, so he sent territorial troops to take control of Toledo, beginning the “Toledo War.” The Ohioans fled as the Michigan troops moved in; the Michiganders won the battle but not the war.
The United States Congress, in a move to settle the dispute, offered Michigan more land in what would become the Upper Peninsula, taking land from the future state of Wisconsin in exchange for the Toledo Strip. Michigan thought it was a poor swap, that the land in the Upper Peninsula was too wild for settlement. But they had to accept it because Congress wouldn’t allow Ohio to lose Toledo.
That same year, Mason and James D. Doty bought land in Wisconsin that would soon become the city of Madison. In Michigan, Mason City and Mason County memorialize Mason’s name, as do street names in other communities throughout the Midwest.
Milwaukee’s Mason Street has its share of local history. Today the historical marker at the northeast corner of E. Mason and N. Van Buren Streets points out that Rufus King‘s home was formerly on that corner. King served as a general during the Civil War and as editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel, which later became part of Mason Street’s “Newspaper Row,” between N. Broadway and N. Water St. The Milwaukee News building, also in that block at 222 E. Mason, was erected in 1879 and according to the marker on the building, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The Milwaukee Journal was founded in the same building in 1882. Newspaper Row, at its height from about 1880 to 1910, was one of the busiest night spots in town as employees reported to English and German papers to work through the night, writing, printing and preparing newspapers for distribution by horse-drawn wagons for their morning customers.
Today, Mason Street is dominated at the east end by the Northwestern Mutual headquarters complex. A longtime institution located further down the street is Karl Ratzsch’s, still serving its signature German meals after many decades. The Landing anchors the foot of Mason Street with its whimsical sculptures and tables for eating food served from nearby food carts and carry-out restaurants, providing a delightful place for both locals and visitors to view the river.
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 research on the sinking of the steamship Lady Elgin, the Newhall House Fire, and the Third Ward Fire 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. He earned an MLIS from the UW-Milwaukee School of Information Studies.