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Discover Historic Waterways

September 10, 2019

Before Wisconsin became a state in 1848, it was territory mapped by federal land surveyors preparing for public land sales. Surveying the land into a grid of square townships and subdivided plots encouraged speculation, settlement, and development following widespread displacement of Native Americans. The Milwaukee area was initially surveyed in 1835, with more work in 1836 and 1837. (Ever notice how there are major arterial streets roughly every mile apart? This is a legacy of the surveyors’ gridlines.)

The maps and field notes from these surveys provide invaluable historical context about Milwaukee’s geography, hydrology, and ecology prior to urban development. Thanks to the mapping team at MMSD, who adapted a digital layer from the maps held by the Wisconsin Commissioner of Public Lands, you can now explore where surveyors noted historic waterways in our area. You’ll notice many more tributaries into the three major rivers, as well as areas denoted as wetlands, marsh, or swamp. Over time many of these areas were filled with land and many of the river channels straightened.

Access the Milwaukee Community Map in Google Earth Pro on Desktop, then toggle on the Basemaps section and fill in the circle by “Historic Water Maps.” There are two layers. The first is from the 1830s federal land surveys described above. The second is from roughly 60 years later based on USGS surveys. Can you find where waterways used to be near your home or neighborhood?

Michael Timm
Michael Timm is a writer, editor, and game designer who worked seven years as a hyperlocal journalist and holds a master’s degree from the UW-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences. Passionate about connecting and engaging general audiences with stories hidden in plain sight, he manages Reflo’s Milwaukee Water Stories program where he piloted a place-based app, co-created a digital role-playing game inspired by Milwaukee’s water history, and curates the Milwaukee Community Map.
Reflo – Sustainable Water Solutions
As a Milwaukee nonprofit organization, Reflo’s mission is to become a leader in sustainable water use, green infrastructure, and water management in urban environments.
Milwaukee Community Map
The Milwaukee Community Map is a free and amazing tool that uses the power of Google Earth to visualize stories never before experienced in one place. The data informing these stories is shared by community, public, and private entities and curated around the theme of “Water & Community.” The nonprofit Reflo – Sustainable Water Solutions curates the map. Funding was provided by Brico Fund and in part by Wisconsin Department of Administration, Wisconsin Coastal Management Program, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office for Coastal Management under the Coastal Zone Management Act, Grant #NA18NOS4190091.
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