Explore the History of Milwaukee's Public Parks
Public parks have been shaping the identity of Milwaukee County for over 130 years. Explore our timeline below.
Visit our Google Arts & Culture page to explore stories and photos from our archives.
Indigenous people lived on the land now known as Milwaukee County for more than 13,000 years before the first Europeans arrived. The first recorded inhabitants of the Milwaukee area are the Menominee, Fox, Mascouten, Sauk, Potawatomi, Ojibwe (all Algic/Algonquian peoples) and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) (a Siouan people) Native American tribes. Lake Park remains the only site in the County with an intact Native American burial mound. In the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, the Potawatomi ceded their land to U.S. government, which enabled white settlers to purchase land in the area. The first European settlers were Juneau, Kilbourn and Walker.
1830s & '40s - The First Public Spaces Emerge
In 1835 Milwaukee's European settlers, including Solomon Juneau, began designating land for what would become the city of Milwaukee. This included the first public spaces. Sites included Fourth Ward Square (shown above, now Ziedler Union Square) in 1835; Courthouse Square (now Cathedral Square Park), and Walker Square in 1836 and Clarke's Addition (now Clarke Square Park) in 1837.
Another important historical event took place in 1842, when abolitionist Deacon Samuel Brown aided Caroline Quarrls escape from slavery. His homestead, now Johnsons Park, became an important stop on the Underground Railroad.
1850s - Immigrants Shape the City
German immigrants to Milwaukee bring their traditions of brewing and beer gardens to the city. By 1856 more than two dozen breweries are in operation including the Pabst, Miller, Schlitz and Blatz breweries. Along with the breweries, private beer gardens begin to open. Sites include Quentin's Park, which later became Schlitz Park (now Carver Park); Blatz Park (now Pleasant Valley Park, and Pabst Park (shown above, now Rose Park).
1870s - Public Works Parks Develop
The city’s new Public Works Board began creating Milwaukee’s water infrastructure, including a reservoir and a pumping station. The land around these facilities became public parks: Kilbourn Reservoir Park (1872), Water Works Park (1873, shown above - now Northpoint water tower and pumping station) and Flushing Tunnel Park (1888, now McKinley Park).
In 1870 the residents of the affluent 7th ward vote to raise taxes and pay for park development of the 7th ward park, by hiring landscape architect Horace Cleveland. The park is renamed Juneau Park.
1890s - The First Public Park Commission
By the 1880s Milwaukee had earned a reputation for rowdy and raucous behavior. As a Response to the private beer gardens and entertainment venues, the city forms the Milwaukee Parks Commission in 1889 to purchase and develop land for public parks. The first purchases in 1890 are Lake Park (shown above), River Park (now Riverside Park), South Park (now Humboldt Park), Mitchell Park and Coleman Park (now Kosciuzsko Park). In 1891 they add West Park (now Washington Park) and North Park (now Sherman Park).
The comission hires the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted to develop Lake, River and West parks. Development of Mitchell Park includes construction of the first horticultural conservatory in 1898.
1900s - The County Park Commission
In 1907 Milwaukee's ruling Socialist Party formed the Milwaukee County Parks Commission. The commission is led by Charles Whitnall. The first land purchases include County Park (now Grant Park) and Scholes Park (now Jacobus Park).
Development continues in the city parks too, as the Washington Park Zoo begins to grow. The first playgrounds are added in 1905 and a 9-hole golf course is added to Lake Park in 1903. The commission also continues development of scenic boulevards to connect the parks.
1910s - The First Airport
Land owned by the Milwaukee Public Works Board, including Juneau Park and McKinley Park, are absorbed into the Milwaukee Parks Commission. Work begins on development of the lake shore. A 9-hole golf course opens at Evergreen Park (now Lincoln Park).
The Milwaukee County Parks Commission creates the region's first airport (now Currie Park) in 1919.
1920s - The Golf Era Emerges
In 1920, a 9-hole golf course opens at Grant Park. It’s shorty transformed into an 18-hole golf course and its success promopts the development of Greenfield Golf Course (1923), Brown Deer Golf Course (1929) and Whitnall Golf Course (1932).
The airport (Currie Park) is converted into a golf course after the airport moves to Mitchell Field. Charles Whitnall develops the parkway plan known as the ‘Emerald Necklace.’ Prohibition forces the closure of the remaining beer gardens.
1930s - The New Deal & Park Commissions Merge
After the Great Depression, the New Deal provides funding and workers to put Whitnall's Emerald Necklace parkway plan into action. From 1933-1937 the Civilian Conservation Corps construct miles of parkways as well as pavilions, shelters, bridge, bathhouses and swimming pools.
In 1936 the city Park Commission is merged into the Milwaukee County Parks Commission to save funds.
In 1938 Harold 'Zip' Morgan and a group of cyclists plot out a touring route for cyclists using the new parkway system. The original route forms the basis for what is now the Oak Leaf Trail.
1940s & '50s - Stadium, Gardens & Marina
After World War II, parks are used to house returning veterans in trailer homes. In the 1950s Milwaukee's Socialist government creates plans for the Milwaukee County Stadium (shown above). When it opens in 1953 it becomes the first ballpark in the United States financed with public funds. The stadium hosted the All-Star game in 1955, and in 1957 the Milwaukee Braves won the World Series.
In the 1950s Boerner Botanical Gardens and McKinley Marina are constructed. The Milwaukee Parks Commission introduces the Oak Leaf logo as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations.
1960s & '70s
A construction boom results in new venues including the Mitchell Park Domes, (shown above) Wilson Recreation Center, senior centers, dozens of park pavilions, King and Kosciusko Community Centers, a new site for the Milwaukee Zoo and the first bike trails. Land reclamation begins at the lakefront on what will become Veterans Park.
In the late 1960s the first paved bike trails were created with federal grants. In 1976 the trail was named the 76 Trail to celebrate the Bicenntenial.
1980s & '90s
The park system grew to 15,000 acres by 1980, but a growing budget crisis resulted in the abolishment of the County Park Commission. A new Department of Parks, Recreation & Culture was created within the county government structure. Funding cuts led to an immediate reduction in workforce and maintenance, including closures of sites such as the Sunken Gardens at Mitchell Park.
In the 1990's the 76 bike trail system continued to grow and is renamed the Oak Leaf Trail in 1996. A major overhaul of Brown Deer Golf Course took place to prepare it to host the Greater Milwaukee Open. In 1996 Tiger Woods makes his professional debut at the GMO at Brown Deer Park.
2000s & '10s
Declines in funding continue in the early 2000s, resulting in the loss of hundreds of full-time positions and closures of facilities including swimming pools. Despite the reduction in resources, the park system won a National Gold Medal for Excellence in the Park and Recreation Management Program in 2009.
In 2014 the opening of Estabrook Beer Garden triggers a beer garden revival in Wisconsin. New amenities in the system include Cool Waters and Schulz Aquatic Parks and several dog parks.
2020 & Beyond
The COVID-19 pandemic hits Milwaukee County. In response, park venues are closed and events are canceled, which has a dramatic impact on the park system budget.