Economic Rise and Technology

of Early Milwaukee

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Doors Open Milwaukee

On Saturday, September 17 I went to Milwaukee for their annual Doors Open event where historical places and businesses in the community open their doors for tours and exploration. With a focus on technology in the United States, I visited three places: the WE Energies Public Service Building, Wells St. Vertical Lift Bridge, and the MSOE Grohmann Museum. The experience itself was very interesting. I only learned a little bit of information while I was there, but what it really did was give me a good starting place to dive deeper into research.

Lead Mining and the Agriculture Industry (1800-1865)

Before trains and before the city was industrialized, Milwaukee relied on different industries to sustain there economy. From 1800-1840 lead mining was a primary business throughout all of Wisconsin due to the quick incomes it provided. Eventually easily obtained ores became unavailable and miners had move on to something besides lead. Thankfully, by this point the agriculture industry had begun to grow. By 1860 Milwaukee was one of the leading traders of grain. Because of this increase in shipping, additional smaller industries began to rise such as flour milling, meat packing, leather tanning, and brewing.


Trains (1836-1905 and on)

As the nation began to grow, transportation became more and more important. In the beginning there were waterways, which were used for long distance travel, trading, and etc. That is the whole reason for Milwaukee's location, since it is right on lake Michigan. The next big mode of transportation was trains. Trains were invented in 1804, but the first train line in Wisconsin didn't come until 1836. It was a route for the lead mining. By this point Wisconsin's population wasn't too big, so this line was a good start. As the agriculture and trading industries began to grow, so did our need for transporting these large amounts of goods. Because of this, in 1847 the first train line from Milwaukee to Waukesha was authorized. As a result of this, train lines continued to be built connected Milwaukee to other places in Wisconsin and beyond. The next big landmark after this was the interurban lines built in 1890 throughout Milwaukee. Interurban railways were a type of electric railway that run within and between cities. Connected to this interurban railway system is the Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company. I visited what used to be the headquarters when I went to Doors Open. It now belong to We Energies. Back in the day, this company ending up buying out a lot of other railroads around 1896. in 1905 the public service building actually became a train station itself, which you can see from the green doors in the pictures above. Eventually trains became less of a need as other methods of transportation became easily available.
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You can see from this picture above, the affect industrialization had on Milwaukee's population. The need for workers in factories provided many jobs, encourage immigrants to move this way. The main industrialization started around 1865, after the civil war, and it just skyrocketed from there

Steel Industry and the Milwaukee Iron Company (1870s)

During the time of industrialization, the wheat industry began to decline, and the steel industry began to advance. Because of this, the Milwaukee Iron Company opened in 1870. They produced railroads, machinery, and other products that used iron. As they got farther into the 1870s, the Milwaukee Iron company was producing and re-rolling 30,000 tons of rail per year. This required a lot of manual labor, so this need for jobs really helped the economy. In addition to producing rails, the company also began producing steel. Steel allowed buildings to be stronger and cheaper to build. They also started using it for railroads because it took longer to wear out. While this industry greatly impacted the economy, eventually the steel empires grew in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Chicago, leaving Milwaukee in the dust.

Alexander Mitchell

During Doors Open, I sadly did not visit any of the buildings built by Alexander Mitchell, but after talking about him in class, I recognized his name as it kept showing up in my research. I decided to take a look at how he had his hand in a lot of Milwaukee's industrialization and budding economy. His career first started when he began to work for the Wisconsin Marine and Fire Insurance Co. This company eventually became a bank in 1853, and in 1858 Alexander became the first president of the Wisconsin Banking Association. These early successes gave him the money he needed to invested in trains in around 1865. He was actually enlisted to help Ward, the owner of the Milwaukee Iron Company. By the time of his death, Mitchell had 5,000 miles of track throughout multiple states in the Midwest. He controlled the banking and insurance industry, as well as owned the Milwaukee Railroad by 1876, at the age of 59.


Doors Open was an educational, yet enjoyable experience. I got to not only learn about Milwaukee's history, but also appreciate beautiful art and architecture. It sparked a great research project in which I got to piece together a time line of Milwaukee's industrialization that was actually really interesting. It was a gradual climb, but eventually Milwaukee became the city it is today.