Watching the River Flow
A walk along the river in Estabrook Park is pretty, along with remnants of a long gone Milwaukee industry.
Distance: Two miles
Start: At the Beer Garden, 4600 Estabrook Pkwy.
From the mid-1800s until Prohibition in the 1920s, summer beer gardens flourished in Milwaukee. Estabrook Beer Garden wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t established until 2012, making it the first local beer garden since Prohibition. It’s always busy, rain or shine, and the place where this walk starts.
Estabrook Park was originally the site of Milwaukee Cement Company. This business began with the discovery in the 1870s that the Milwaukee River, the western boundary of the park, had a limestone outcropping, an ancient reef of exposed bedrock, that could be used to make an especially durable cement. From 1870-1911, the company dug vertical shafts and horizontal tunnels underneath the park. It also quarried limestone from below the river, which left two man-made lakes, Cement Lake and Blue Hole, tempting to swimmers, but dangerous.
During its years of operation, the Milwaukee Cement Company employed so many workers that it became its own community with its own Post Office. It was known as Cement City.
After competition in the cement industry caused its demise, the Milwaukee Cement Company ceased operating in 1911. The land was put up for sale and in 1916 Milwaukee County purchased it. Not much happened until the county hired the Civilian Conservation Corps, the CCC, to go to work converting those 125 acres into a park. At the river, they established a beach and built a bath house which only lasted 15 years, until the water became too bacteria-laden for safe swimming. The parking lot for the beach is today’s dog exercise area. The CCC also dug the lagoon, set aside land for athletic fields, established picnic areas, and built wooden steps in several places down the bluff to the river.
A footnote to the remains of the horizontal tunnels dug by the cement company might be the sink holes in the park that appeared years later, including a nasty hole close to the south end of Estabrook Pkwy. That hole blew many tires, including one of mine, before it was filled in, hopefully, for the last time.
If the directions for this riverside walk are less than precise, you can thank the multiple steps built by the CCC and many side trails to nowhere, while others dead end at the river. Keep walking south; if you come to an impassable pile of brush, try again; you can’t get lost; there will always be more stairs leading to the top and the bike trail back to start.
From the picnic area, return on the paved bike trail heading north, an easy stroll back to the beer garden. Then, maybe try a beer or two, and something to eat.
On this riverside walk, you’ll see a lot of nature within the city and witness a bit of Milwaukee’s history, out of sight, but not forgotten.
Along the Walk
Cari Taylor-Carlson is the author of Milwaukee Walks: 20 Choice Walks in a Classy City.
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