Ogden and Lyon Almost Obliterated
Park East Freeway would have run to lakefront, eliminating both streets.
In the mid-1830s many tens of thousands of acres of Wisconsin land were sold to speculators. Some of these buyers were men whose names would appear on Milwaukee street signs. The list includes the city’s founders, Solomon Juneau, Morgan L. Martin, Byron Kilbourn, and George Walker, as well as Daniel Wells, Garrett Vliet, William B. Ogden, and Lucius Lyon, among others.
The biography of Morgan L. Martin, Solomon Juneau’s partner, reports that Ogden and Lyon purchased land near Martin’s Juneautown. The two were among the investors in the New York-Wisconsin Land Company, which speculated in the development of Manitowoc, Kewaunee, and Milwaukee. Ogden and Lyon Streets were platted just north of Juneautown in 1837.
At the time, William Butler Ogden was serving as Chicago’s first mayor. He was born into a real estate family in 1805 in Walton, New York. As a young man, Ogden took over the business after his father’s death and moved to the Windy City. He speculated in land throughout the country but most of his holdings were in Wisconsin. Streets were named for him in Fond du Lac, Milwaukee, Chicago, the Bronx, and Escanaba, Michigan.
Ogden was the first president of the Union Pacific Railroad, which linked with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869 to provide the country with its first transcontinental railroad. The city of Ogden, Utah, near where the link occurred, is also named for him.
The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 wiped out much of Ogden’s wealth. On the same day, the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin destroyed his lumbering operations. After the fires he left Chicago for New York City, where he died six years later.
Lucius Lyon was born in Vermont in 1800 but spent most of his adult life in Michigan. He surveyed throughout Michigan and Wisconsin and he kept his eyes open for desirable land. When Lyon Street was named for him he was serving Michigan as U.S. Senator, and later he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Lyon died in Detroit in 1851.
Despite being only one block apart, the streets developed differently. They both ran east from N. Water Street for a little over half a mile. E. Lyon Street was quiet, narrow, and overwhelmingly residential. E. Ogden Street was wider, busier, and part of a streetcar route from N. Jackson Street east to N. Farwell Avenue. It was lined with grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses as well as apartment buildings. To reflect its importance as a thoroughfare, the Common Council upgraded Ogden Street to Ogden Avenue in 1888.
In the 1960s, despite their differences, the streets shared the same fate. Although it seems very bizarre to us today, there was a plan to build a freeway along the lake bluff. It was to be connected to I-43 via a corridor that, on the east side of the river, was between Ogden and Lyon. Almost all the buildings in the corridor were demolished in preparation. Concerned Milwaukeeans were alarmed that the beautiful asset that is the lakefront would be divided by the freeway, including an interchange at the end of E. Ogden Avenue at the lake bluffs. They fought against the plan.
While that battle raged, the Park Freeway construction continued. Extending eastward from I-43, what became known as the Park East Freeway reached N. Jackson Street in 1971. Fortunately, there it ended. Opponents of the Lake Freeway were successful. The corridor to the east of N. Jackson Street remained a waste land for more than 20 years, except for a community garden on part of it. In the early 1990s, led by developer Barry Mandel, it was redeveloped with apartments and condos.
In the early 2000s, the Park Freeway itself was demolished, freeing up land between N. Water and N. Jackson Streets for development, including Ogden Ave. and Lyon Street. There is still some open land available but no matter how it is used, the result will still be that E. Ogden Avenue and E. Lyon Street will be more alike than they were in the past. Though E. Ogden Avenue will again be on a streetcar route, unlike earlier streetcars that traveled along a business street, the new streetcars will pass down a residential avenue.
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.