Oldest Business Street – February 16, 1896

Oldest Business Street

East Water Street the Birthplace of Milwaukee’s Commerce

Maintains Its Business Prestige For Over Half A Century

The Historic Street Holds All Its Business Advantages

February 16, 1896 – Milwaukee Sentinel

Ever since Milwaukee was established as a mere trading post, during its village days, down to and including the present time, East Water street, the first of the great thoroughfares to be laid out, has held a commanding influence on the trade and commerce of this great city. This is due to the fact that of all the streets it is by nature and location the best adapted for business purposes.

Solomon Juneau and Jaques Vieau when they established the first trading post along the Indian trail which ran parallel to the river, never dreamed that they were laying the nucleus for one of the greatest wholesale and retail thoroughfares in the western country. Yet they came here to do business in their small way and in selecting the place instinct or good judgement guided them to locate on the natural line of travel. For centuries previous to the coming of the white man, the Indian had a trail along the route now traversed by East Water street which led to the peace grounds, near the mouth of the river, which has played such an important part in the development of the commercial greatness of Milwaukee. It was in 1818 that the the first trading post was established here, and when the white settlers, following in the footsteps of the founders, began to come in the early thirties those who located on the east side of the river endorsed the good judgement of the first traders in locating along the river by building their homes and their small places of business along that same old Indian trail.

When the character of the buildings and the great volume of business which is transacted on the East Water street of to-day is considered, it is hard to believe that less than half a century ago this great emporium of trade was little more than a wagon road with a few houses, widely separated, constructed of poor material and scattered from Walker’s Point bridge to Racine street. It was in 1818 or 1819 that the first building, a rudely constructed log hut covered with cedar bark, was built for the accomodation of traders during the winter months. In the summer the men of those days had the blue sky for a shelter. From that time until 1832 there were a few cabins erected for the acommodation of the traders. It is in 1832 or about that time that the real business history of the street begins.

The First Frame Building

The first frame house built in Milwaukee was a 12 by 6 box erected by Solomon Juneau on the present site of the Pabst office building, in 1824, and was used as a school, a justice shop, the recorder’s office and a barber shop. The building had a historic interest aside from its origin in that Scott and Bennett, two men accused of an Indian murder, and the first to be charged with such a crime in this community, were incarcerated here for a short time, and this was the only punishment which was ever meted out to them.

Between that time and 1835 there were a few similar buildings erected. In the latter year there was a change; emigration began, settlers poured in freely and the village of Milwaukee began to assume proportions beyond that of a mere trading post. Commerce commenced to grow and it was no longer confined to the mere bartering of trinkets for the furs of Indians. Warehouses and general stores were established and the supplying of the demands of the white settlers became a more important branch of business than the Indian trade. This was made possible by the development of the agricultural interests of the immediate surrounding country. The extent of East Water street as a business thoroughfare in that year may be gleaned from the fact that the total population of the settlement was about 3,000 and that on the street which is so crowded to-day there were only a few houses and stores. But even then it had a greater proportion than other sections. On the east side of the street beginning at Buffalo street there were the houses of George Bowman, the cottage inn, Col. Morton’s, Juneau’s, Jonah Brown’s restaurant, George Peter’s saloon, U. B. Smith’s, Benton & Parmlee’s shoe shop, J. Rowell’s, Hayden’s grocery and Levi Blossom’s auction shop. North of Wisconsin street were the stores of C. C. Dewey, Harrison Reed, Lee & Thurston, J. L. Smith and Jas. Murray. On the west side of the street were the Dousman warehouse, wagon shop of Hiram Smith and the stores of Finch & Winslow, Higbee, William Payne, George Bowman, William Brown, J. Stoddard, J. C. Shermerhorn, Richard Hadley, John Gale, Weber & Starke, C. Shepard, G. Cady, A. O. T. Breed, Samuel Brown, D. S. Hollister, Luddington & Burchard, D. L. Week, J. W. Pixley, M. W. Cawker, D. W. Patterson, and Prentiss & Bird. These incuded general stores, shops, saloons, hotels or, as they were called at that time, taverns, and every description of business necessary to supply the wants of a growing frontier settlement.

Pioneer in Brick Construction

In 1840 the settlers were surprised at the energy and faith of C. C. Dewey, who erected the first brick building in Milwaukee on East Water street. Mr. Dewey’s block, which years afterwards became the Heide block, was a three-story structure which occupied the place on which is now located the Hansen Empire fur factory. It was divided into three stores and William Sivyer, Milwaukee’s first master mason, was the contractor. Mr. John E. Hansen who is among the public-spirited business men of to-day, is the possessor of a photograph of this building from which the cut accompanying this article is made.

From that time until the period of depression during the administration of Buchanan in the latter part of the fifty’s, East Water street grew rapidly. The frame buildings were, according as they had outlived their usefulness, replaced by brick buildings, the marsh on the west side and south end of the street was filled in, and every foot of the property was brought into use for business purposes. It is remarkable to note that in the directory of 1847 attention is called to the blocks and buildings of the city and among those were the following located on East Water street: Chapin’s Cheapside, Heide’s and Johnson’s. The street even then gave promise of its future commercial greatness and it was well built up, nearly all of the leading business houses of the city were located on it. Many of the firms which are there are a credit to the city to-day had made their beginnings at that time.

Lively From The First

Perhaps the most noted example of this class is that of Chauncey Simonds, who located on East Water street in 1845 and has continued ever since in the same neighborhood, developing his business with the growth of the city. In some respects the East Water street of the early days was a much livelier thoroughfare than it is to-day, although more people pass through this street in a single day now, and any one of a half dozen of the leading firms do more business in a day at the present time than was done then in a month. This lively appearance was owing to the crude and undeveloped means of transportation and the methods of doing business. Myriads of farmer’s wagons, of one horse drays teetering up and down and making an incessant din which was increased by the bobtail carts at all times thronged the street and made it at the time the most lively and enterprising business street in the western country. The buildings for the most part were frame and during the early years of development many of them were wiped out by fire. The most disastrous of the early fires was the conflagration of 1857, which destroyed a half a block south of Wisconsin street on the east side of the street. But through the fires were in a measure disastrous, in the end they proved to be a blessing for all of the burned structures were replaced at that time by more modern brick buildings, more roomy and better adapted to the necessities of the growing trade.