Old Settlers Club 1916

Early Milwaukee
Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County
Published by the Club

By James Seville.

Source: Early Milwaukee, Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County, Published by the Club, 1916.

In the month of August 1846, the Steamer Niagara landed in Milwaukee at Higby's Pier with its load of passengers, immigrants and merchandise, etc., and on board of it I came to look over the great northwestern country and to join in with the multitudes that were seeking new homes on the famous soil and in the climate of Wisconsin. Fifty years ago the routes from the east and south were by the lakes and, of course, the moving tides which were setting in knew of no other avenues only by the lakes.

At this time the Michigan Central railway from Detroit was in operation as far as Niles in the state of Michigan, and the idea of reaching the head of Lake Michigan by stage line was not to be attempted. This will account for the rapid settlement for the state of Wisconsin, as Milwaukee and the country around it had gained a reputation for its fertility and climate equal to any state in the union, at any time in the history of the country at large, either before or since. Its magnificent forests, prairies and streams of pure water, its soil producing forty bushels of wheat to the acre, and the splendid opportunities for the establishment of new homes, and business enterprises, made Wisconsin the very Garden of Eden to many, as was evident by the rapid settlement of the state, brought about by an enterprising and thrifty population.

Milwaukee, unfortunately, at an early day, became factious in itself. The east and west sides of the River became, in time, divided into parties which brought about the "Bridge War," and in this the "South Side," or what was known as Walker's Point, held the balance of power, and through their good offices, the strife gradually subsided; but as late as 1846 some of the surrounding ruins of the old war remained which in time, died out.

After a short residence in the city, the writer found there were three distinct personages within its bounds who held a commanding influence in the advancement of the general interests and ad-vantages of Milwaukee, and these three individuals were, first Byron Kilbourn, second, Solomon Juneau, and thirdly, Bishop Henni of the Catholic Church. To Byron Kilbourn the City is indebted for its water-power and the attempted construction of the Rock River canal, which latter was abandoned. He also planned its railroads and was the originator of the first railway of this city going west. Mr. Juneau, you all know his history, but in regard to Bishop Henni, I presume it will be a matter of interest to nearly all of you, if not to all, that he was the only Catholic German bishop in the United States at that time. And that gives you the key to the fact that the population in your city and north of you is so largely German. The German, before leaving his native land, if a Catholic, would feel more at ease and more comfortable in the new country, if he could be near his bishop speaking his own language, and this would naturally bring others of their friends who might be non-Catholics to this locality. Whether it was an act of providence in placing this bishop in your midst, I do not know, but a more sincere, gentlemanly and pleasant and good Christian I never had the pleasure of knowing. And I think you will agree with me that Milwaukee has, within its limits, as well as the country north of you, as good a representative lot of German citizens as can be found in any part of the United States, and who have been about as successful in business and who have a disposition to build up and sustain the City in all its interests as any of its citizens. So much then, for the good future Milwaukee has realized from the location of good Bishop Henni in your midst.

Now, then, gentlemen, if you will walk with me to a house on the corner of Fourth and Spring Streets, (this latter name for old associations), I will show you where Milwaukee's benefactor lived, viz., the Hon. Byron Kilbourn. In his day, he was one of the worst abused men you had within your limits and the real cause for it all was that he was the leader of the Rock River Canal Company, and was determined that the property on the west side of the river should be occupied and improved and that business should grow and flourish on the west as well as on the east side of the river. The residents and business men on the east side were not on the best of terms with the west side owing more to the fact that the east side settler was of Puritanical stock, the west side was largely from Ohio, and the south side was more of a mixture, or a "don't care" kind of an individual and the German element, but self-interest came in to the rescue and caused the troubled waters eventually to calm down, and these differences gradually subsided, and Mr. Kilbourn became not so much of a target. It is said that "a prophet is not without honor save in his own country," and so it proved to be, for from the time of his coming to the state, no one became so well known and few there were whose opinions had more influence in the state at large, than Mr. Kilbourn. He could do more with the legislature, governor, etc., than any other man and that too without any seeming effort on his part. He was a man of large build, a large head and brain, a skillful engineer and just such a man as is required to manage large enterprises; sociable, communicative, benevolent and always ready to engage in anything to help his adopted city.

If you will look with me into his office, which was a part of his home, I will show you a large map, covering one side of the wall. First a line for a railroad from Milwaukee to Dubuque, via Waukesha, Whitewater, Monroe and Galena. Another from Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien, another from Milwaukee to La Crosse, another from Milwaukee to St. Paul, and these roads all aiming towards the Mississippi river. Others reaching into different parts of the northern parts of the state. This map was made in the year of 1847-8. Look again and you will see that all these roads have been built, except the first one, and that one has not been built to this day, and nearly all the others do not have their starting point in Milwaukee as originally intended.

In the year 1846 Chicago and Milwaukee were considered equal in population of ten thousand inhabitants and Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin in the lead, for the reason, as I have stated before, that the means of travel was only by the lakes, and Wisconsin having such excellent reports abroad, she gained in numbers rapidly. In the meantime, however, the Michigan Central railroad was pushing its line west with Chicago as its objective point, and in 1848 reached New Buffalo on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, a point directly opposite Chicago. As soon as this was done, E. B. Ward of De-troit, put on two steamers to ply on the lake from Milwaukee to New Buffalo via Chicago. This formed a daily line, but it was soon seen that the travel around the lakes began to slacken and Milwaukee began to drop off in its newcomers. Still, its commerce did not decay nor its immigration, until later on.

Permit me, at this juncture, to deviate from the main object in view and give somewhat in detail, one of the interests of Milwaukee which bid fair, at one time, to make the City one of great importance in the manufacture of iron goods in its various phases. On my arrival in the city I found A. J. Langworthy representing the Wisconsin Iron works on the waterpower, Turton & Sercomb located on West Water near the junction near Third Street, and Mr. McCracken on West Water and Wells Streets. These establishments were all supplying the various mills being built in the state with machinery for grinding wheat and sawing lumber, and for all other enterprises requiring machinery. And the firm of Ludington & Co. were agents for the mill furnishing establishment of J. T. Noye of Buffalo, New York. All these concerns, which were of Milwaukee origin, have passed out of existence as also the proprietors, except in the case of A. J. Langworthy, whom I believe, is still with you.

In looking the situation over, and visiting Chicago and making a trip from there to Galena and from there back to Milwaukee, by stage, on the old Frink & Walker Line of stage coaches, gave me some idea of the extent of country tributary to Milwaukee.

Entering into the employ of Turton & Sercomb, opportunities were further given me to look into and study Milwaukee and its surroundings as a place of investment, not only for the present, but for the future.

In the early part of 1847 I got together a few tamarack poles from a swamp in the second ward and some boards from Mabbett & Breed's lumber yard and proceeded at once, to commence the erection of a shop for the manufacture of French burr mill stones and to handle all kinds of grist and saw mill supplies. This was all done, building completed and a supply of materials obtained from New York and actually landed on the ground before anyone in the city knew of the event. Inquiries failed to reveal the object of put-ting up the building and the reason for this was simply that in those days it would not have been a prudent act to have revealed the object in view as the whole community was alive and on the alert for any opportunity for making money and those in business were in constant dread of any competition. This condition can be accounted for in the fact that all new enterprises were supposed to have their own capital, for, if they had not, the chances were small for accommodations at the banks; because all the capital they had was consumed by those handling the products of the country at large. The commercial interests were the paramount objects in view by the banks then in existence and anyone having sufficient nerve to go into manufacturing must do it on his own resources or "bust." Immediately after mill stones were being made, preparations were made for the erection of buildings for the manufacture of machinery for all classes of industry which might be in need of such. In due course of time suitable facilities were accomplished and the Reliance Works of Decker & Seville unfurled their banner to the breeze and became one of Milwaukee's institutions. One event occurring in connection with this concern is worthy of note, and that is in the construction of the machinery for the very first successful steam grist mill built in the state of Wisconsin, which mill was located at Berlin on Fox river, north of your city. And I may say, in this connection, that the successful problem of making flour by steam had not been solved in any part of the United States. But after this, and the exhibition of the Corliss engine at the Philadelphia exposition and the adoption of one of its principal points, the same as promulgated by the Reliance works, the manufacture of flour by steam has become a grand success.

Milwaukee ought to have credit for the accomplishment of that principle in the system of mechanics which the Corliss engine has made unanimous. The Reliance works was located on West Water Street at its junction with Second Street or opposite the Old Fountain house, and through the revulsion of the panic of 1857 and the breaking out of the rebellion, the establishment passed into the hands of E. P. Allis & Co. which is now located as you know in the 5th and 12th Wards and is enjoying a world-wide reputation, and of the old owners and their misfortune in losing their hold upon it I may have something to say in the future. Almost simultaneously with the starting of the Reliance works came into existence the Menomonee Locomotive Manufacturing company, succeeding W. B. Walton; the establishment of Menzel & Stone and that of William Goodnow, all of them first class foundry and machine shops. But of these three concerns only one remains, and that one, I think is known as the Filer & Stowell Manufacturing company. Mr. Goodnow left the city and I cannot now say where he is. The Menomonee Locomotive Manufacturing company was located in the swamp about two blocks south of the Menomonee bridge, about opposite the large brick building put up by the Burnham Bros, for John Xazro as a hardware store and which caused his downfall and to his being succeeded by John Pritzlaff. L. L. Lee was the far-seeing, active and energetic manager of the Menomonee Locomotive works, for no sooner had the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad company got under way than he also got ready to supply the company with the locomotives it might need. A more industrious, self-confident and active man the city never had and no one worked harder to build up the city than he. He succeeded in get-ting out one or more locomotives and other supplies for the road which were all acceptable, but Mr. Lee found that the railroad com-pany had no money and that the banks had none for manufacturers and the Menomonee Locomotive Manufacturing company had none, so Mr. Lee had to suspend, all the possessions of the company vanished, and soon after this Mr. Lee died and the company became a thing of the past, and by many, entirely forgotten. Menzel & Stone also closed up their business, both parties leaving the city. I do not know what became of the latter, but Mr. Menzel removed to Minneapolis and engaged in the same business, made himself wealthy and is now a retired manufacturer.

Other manufactories have sprung up in your midst since then, but these you have with you and do not need any notice from me.

One more topic of interest and I must then divert to the main subject in view. The reason for this is that you may see more plainly why the Milwaukee railroad system and other interests were not a success in the start, and why Milwaukee was crippled in her energies at the commencement of her struggle for an equal share, at least, for the wealth of the great northwest. Her Banking system consisted then of the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance company, which was then a branch only of a Chicago house, the State Bank of Wisconsin of which the Cramers were the principals, and the Farmers' and Millers' Bank, E. D. Holton, Brodhead and others. At this time the commercial interests of Milwaukee were growing rapidly and the banks, with their limited means, could not look after the wheat, build railroads and help its manufacturers, so such interests had to suffer which were most dangerous to its capital. A loan on wheat would be paid as collateral would follow the loan. With the railroad there would be no telling whether the thirty or sixty days' earnings would show any balance in favor of the road, and with the manufacturers, it might be a renewal of a year or more of notes. The banks were not loaded down with eastern correspondence, consequently had limited means, and if any ruffle on the wave of prosperity came along, why, the first ones to suffer were the manufacturers. And as for the railroad interests, they were not in the race. While this was all going on, of which I have briefly spoken, there was one man in the city, who was busy with his prolific brain, and that man was Byron Kilbourn.

Among the Solons of Milwaukee at those times of which we are now writing, the question was often discussed as to the geographical situation of Chicago with that of Milwaukee and which of the two would, in the future, control the resources of the great west. And in the eastern states the question was also discussed whether the railroad interests would not eventually drive the vessel interests off the great lakes. Unfortunately for Milwaukee and its interests, its inhabitants were mostly from the east and from beyond the great ocean, and knew but little of the country lying south, southeast and southwest of Chicago, and as a matter of course, the decisions were mostly in favor of Milwaukee. This decision was seemingly supported by the facts that Mr. Ward made Milwaukee one end, or starting point, for his line of boats and Chicago a way station, Detroit and Milwaukee line, that the Goodrich Steamboat line was an established institution plying between Milwaukee and Grand Haven, and also the further fact, that Chicago was not at the head of Lake Michigan, but fifty miles from it. If there was ever a city to be built up which should supersede Milwaukee it must be one which would spring up at the immediate head of the lake. Now with this condition of things, it is no wonder that Milwaukee was ready for anything which should be for its interests. And the plans to advance these interests as shadowed forth by what Mr. Kilbourn had matured in his mind and was ready to place before the public, met with unbounded approval in all things, except in their open purses. But nothing daunted, he said that Milwaukee must have a railroad through to Dubuque at once connecting Milwaukee with the Mississippi river, before Chicago got one to the same river. He said, "look at my map of railroads I have laid out for Milwaukee and, if we build the first one, and get to the river first, Chicago will not dare to approach our territory. And if we build this first road to Dubuque, I will guarantee building up our Milwaukee system and then we can defy the world to come between ua and this great northwest."

Mr. Kilbourn got the necessary legislation incorporating the Milwaukee & Mississippi Railroad company and brought the road before the people. And what was the result? Why, he simply found, that to succeed, he would have to rely upon the farmers and property owners of his proposed road. You will probably remember the fact, also, that all the distance from Milwaukee to Milton Junction was finally built through the aid of farm mortgages and other help from citizens along its line, and not from that promised help he had a right to expect from the citizens of Milwaukee. Mr. Kilbourn formed his company which in the first place was com-posed largely of citizens of Milwaukee, but afterwards, failing to get the help from Milwaukee he expected, he had to select directors from those living along the line, among whom were Adam F. Ray of Whitewater, Mr. Goodrich of Milton and A. Hyatt Smith of Janesville and also others along the line. The office of the company was located in Birchard's Block, a three story edifice where the present one now is. To say that the meetings of the directors and stockholders were on all occasions, harmonious, would be stretching the truth; as the farmers would sometimes get rather anxious about the mortgages on their farms, and would be eager to know about the earnings of this road, but in this respect, I never knew of any-one losing his farm.

Mr. Kilbourn continually kept before the public the fact, that the Michigan Central railroad was constantly at work on its way west and had got as far as Michigan City and that contracts were let for its completion to Chicago, and that the Illinois Central Railroad was growing very near Chicago up on its way from Cairo at the mouth of the Ohio river. To enumerate all the trials and difficulties experienced by this band of railroad pioneers, would fill a reasonable sized book, and as it is said that "all things have an end" so the exertions of these men with all their efforts had to succumb from fulfilling Mr. Kilbourn's plan of reaching Dubuque.

At this time we had in existence a political organization known as the forty thieves, or, by some, as "Barstow and the balance." Mr. Barstow lived in Waukesha, Wisconsin, but the organization had its headquarters in Madison. And if I am not mistaken, the Tammany Hall of New York City got its education from our famous coterie of political gorillas. After Mr. Kilbourn and his friends had expended all their energies in carrying their road to the objective point and it rested at Milton, the home of Mr. Goodrich, a proposition came like a clap of thunder and fell among the board of directors in shape of an offer from the grand sachem of the "forty thieves" organization to the effect that, if the company would conclude to switch off at Milton and build their line to Prairie du Chien, they, the said honorable body, would help raise the money to complete the same.

A full meeting of the Board of Directors was called and a full representation of Milwaukee's leading and financial men were also present as spectators and when the question of accepting or rejecting the offer came up, a stormy time ensued. A. Hyatt Smith of Janesville and Kilbourn et al opposed. The Directors along the line as far as it was completed did not care as they had got a road anyhow and as Smith and Kilbourn had not secured the means for an extension of the road beyond Milton the result was that the pro-position was accepted and preparation for its extension was made in the near future, proving disastrous. This act sealed the destiny of Milwaukee forever and its consequences have been felt ever since, as a comparison of Milwaukee and Chicago of today shows.

Let us see what followed: Mr. A. Hyatt Smith was a power in the state, politically as well as otherwise, and could command as much influence in the state as any man then living. He owned large interests in the city of Janesville and his cherished object was to get the road to his place, but this new deal, he saw, would cut him off. He was not the man to lie down and cry "quits." Far from it. He did not go into mourning because of the actions of Barstow and the balance, but he went to Chicago and took into his confidence a man who became famous in after years as a rail-road man, in the person of Wm. B. Ogden.

These two men concocted a scheme of building a railroad from Chicago to Green Bay via Janesville and as soon as it was known in Milwaukee a number of Milwaukee's leading and financial men looked up Mr. Alexander Mitchell and asked that sage of Milwaukee's financial four hundred what he thought about it. He simply said, "Gentlemen, it cannot be done. The country has not got the money to spare to put into so large an investment." The four hundred were satisfied with Mr. Mitchell's decision, but Mr. Kilbourn and his friends did not believe it, for they went to work at once and raised the necessary means and built eight miles of road from Milton to Mr. Smith's very door and I do not know but what they would have carried the road into his house and left it there, if they could. All Milwaukee, nearly, turned out to the celebration of the event, and a grand time they had, and supposed they had pleased and gratified Mr. Smith now that he had the road to his town and stopped further opposition. Not so. Messrs. Smith & Odgen went to Washington city and consulted with Mr. Robert J. Walker, U. S. Treasurer, and the result of this interview was the return of Smith and Ogden home, and the next we heard f them was through the legislature of Wisconsin and Illinois with a bill in each house asking for a charter for the Rock River Valley Railroad Company to run from Chicago to Green Bay. They got this bill through both legislatures at one and the same time and then what followed was simply this: That Robert J. Walker went to England and purchased the rails and two locomotives. A part of the rails and a locomotive were landed in due time, one at Chicago and one at Green Bay, and the contract was let for the entire distance to Messrs. Chambers & English of Janesville. This road, I need not tell you, but the fact exists, is no less than the great Chicago & Northwestern System which traverses the State of Wisconsin in all directions and which has compelled the removal of the general offices to Chicago of Milwaukee's favorite and time-honored Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company system.

The creation and completion of this Rock River Valley railroad cut off completely all the trade of the state from Milwaukee and gave it to Chicago, all the country north and west of the line and for certain distances east of it on account of certain inefficient country roads. The merchants and manufacturers now living will bear me out in this statement, and from this your city did not recover until after the late rebellion and the Chicago fire and by this time you had the greenback and legal tender period to help you.

I wish I could erase from all records the failure of Milwaukee's business and financial men to respond to the efforts of Mr. Kilbourn and his associates to carry out the original plan of going to Dubuque and to have prevented, thereby, the designs of the Madison clique, but it cannot be done and Milwaukee must bear, forever, its lost opportunities. However, as the railroad building in Wisconsin had become urgent, Mr. E. H. Goodrich of your city was the originator of the idea of a road to Horicon, of which he can give you the history. And Judge Rose of Watertown started a line from Brookfield Junction to go through Watertown to the Mississippi river via Baraboo and got his road as far as Watertown when Mr. Alexander Mitchell came forward with a proposition to Judge Rose and his associates to the effect that four of his directors, myself included, should resign and allow himself and Russell Sage and two other New York gentlemen to supply our places, which was agreed to, and from this transaction grew the first consolidation of the Milwaukee roads under the title of the Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad Company, and a distinguishing title it has become in all parts of our country. Its system is known, for short, as the Milwaukee road. What effect in not responding to Mr. Kilbourn's demands at the time Mr. A. Hyatt Smith retired from the board of directors of your first road, owing to switching off at Milton, I leave you to judge. But I certainly think that Milwaukee owes something in memory of the grand efforts of Mr. Kilbourn in working and planning as he did, both with his money, influence and energies to build up a system of railroads which should inure-to the benefit of Milwaukee and to it only.

In reading the memoirs of Mr. Sivyer, Milwaukee's First White Child, many, yes, very many, of the names he enumerates come back to me and carry me back to the days long gone by and bring to my view many events which your association ought to have on record and preserved for future generations. Old land marks, old events, anecdotes of old citizens, some of which have been rich and quaint. To me, Milwaukee is almost sacred and I love it and the few remaining representatives of your association. Like the rise and fall of the Roman empire, I had my rise and fall in your city where I thought to end my days, but the fates have been against it; yet I like to drop in and bring to my mind the early landmarks and note the changes which have come from the hands of man through the influences of time and the energies of Christian civilization. Amongst all the joys and sorrows which have come to me in my Milwaukee surroundings there is nothing that has so im-pressed me and remained a fixture so permanent upon my mind as the lost opportunity Milwaukee has experienced in not supporting and carrying out Mr. Kilbourn's ideas and efforts in his railroad plans. I can only say, I am sorry its effect and influence can never be regained and that Milwaukee has lost the proud eminence that many of its best and oldest citizens had in their fondest hopes anticipated, but now find them all gone.

I once heard an eminent Divine say that "History was but the errors of statesmen," and history proves also that extremes follow one another. And so we find it, because, no sooner had the gloom of disappointment fallen upon Milwaukee, owing to A. Hyatt Smith and his associates, than E. H. Goodrich, Samuel Brown and two other of your citizens organized an expedition of survey for a new railroad, and each subscribed $25.00, and this amount was paid over into the hands of Garrett Vliet to commence the survey of a new road, and when this was expended to make a draft for more and, if not honored, return. He did not return, but the result of this effort has given Milwaukee its La Crosse & Milwaukee rail-road, the history of which, with all its trials and difficulties, you will find in the book I have sent you and the substance of which many of you can probably bring back to your memory.

In justice, however, to Mr. A. Hyatt Smith, I may add that he and Mr. Corwith, a rich banker, of Galena, made the effort to extend your first railroad from Janesville to Galena, but it fell through, probably for the reason that your road, stopping at Janesville, would give Mr. Smith's town full control of the trade of the sur-rounding country better than to have the road extended.

I am in hopes that this feeble effort to bring back to your minds old days and old events may have the effect of recalling others from your organization and glean from them other scraps of early Milwaukee days and thus keep these events from being lost to your posterity. It seems to me that there is much truth in the old saying that "There is a divinity which shapes our ends, rough hew them as we will ;" because, notwithstanding all the efforts that were made in the foregoing as portrayed, it seems as though those efforts were met with obstacles, unforeseen and not to be overcome, and as a verification of this fact we have an example in the circumstance that the man who acted in the capacity of team-ster for Mr. Corwith and his party in looking over the line of your first railroad from Janesville to Galena was no less than our late President U. S. Grant.