Loading Coal, 1885
These appear to be dock workers along the river. Coal was vital to the city's commerce and lifestyle.
When H.H. Bennett explored Milwaukee in the late 1870s and 1880s in search of interesting photographs he would cover a wide range of subjects. One area, though, had a special attraction for him – the Milwaukee riverfront with the abundant boats ranging from tall-masted sailing vessels to steamships. The riverfront was a very busy place back then and perhaps the subject of Bennett’s finest Milwaukee work.
This is a seemingly modest view simply titled “Loading Coal.” The exact location is difficult to pinpoint but the area along the river from State St. north to Juneau would be a good guess as coal yards existed in this area well into the 20th century. As this view was intended for a stereoscope the 3-D effect is quite fine thanks to the maze of planks and the wheelbarrows.
By the 1870s 30 ships a day were arriving at the Port of Milwaukee, many carrying coal, which also arrived by rail. By the mid-1880s, coal accounted for at least 50 percent of all energy use in America, and was not only a vital industrial commodity, but was also critical to daily life, as many homes were lit with coal-gas lamps and heated by a coal-fueled furnace.
This view also provides a glimpse into the earliest years of Milwaukee as these houses of brick and wood all date back to the 1840s and early 1850s. If the presumed location is correct it is possible that these houses are along River St., Milwaukee’s premier ‘red-light’ district. But that is pure speculation.
Jeff Beutner is a collector of photographs, postcards and stereoviews of old Milwaukee. This column features these images, with historical commentary by Beutner.