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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide

Go to the site of the Washington Park Zoo now and this is what you'll see.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Milwaukee's first Monkey Island was opened at the Washington Park Zoo in 1925.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

The big cats at the Washington Park Zoo.

In Travel & Visitors Guide

This map shows the grounds, located in the southwest corner of the park. (Photo: Historic Milwaukee, Inc.)

In Travel & Visitors Guide

Here's a map of the same corner of the park today. (Photo: Milwaukee County Parks)

Washington Park Zoo has left nary a trace


Go there now and you'll barely see a trace of it remaining.

Maybe a sweep of terrain, certainly a few footpaths that appear to follow the same route as they did a half century ago.

No, there is almost no hint that the Washington Park Zoo ever even existed on the southwest corner of the park along Vliet Street.

In fact, thanks to the construction of the stadium freeway, part of the park that once was home to the zoo indeed doesn't exist any longer. It is now under the road.

West Park Zoo – so named because it was located in what was originally called West Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted – began in 1892 with a small bird and mammal exhibit housed in a barn.

The first animals were a deer herd, an eagle and several bears donated by Gustav Pabst and Louis Auer.

The zoo expanded to include a bear den the following year and in 1899 the first permanent structure – the Herbivorous Building – was erected. A year later, the park and zoo were renamed Washington Park.

In the first two decades, the zoo – which had grown to 23 acres in 1902 and was the sixth largest zoo in the nation by 1907 – added a monkey cage, a sealion enclosure, a buffalo pen, an eagle aviary, a small mammal house and in 1910 a zoological society was created in 1910 to help support the growing zoo.

In 1919, Zero arrived to become the first polar bear born in captivity in North America.

Current zoo fans may be interested to know the first monkey island was added to the zoo in 1925.

A sheep mountain, home to Bighorn Rocky Mountain Sheep gifted by the Canadian government, was built out of 5,000 tons of Lannon stone.

But by the twilight of the 1930s, the Washington Park Zoological Gardens was beginning to show serious signs of wear and was also hemmed in, with no room to grow. By 1947, the search for a new home had begun.

Fourteen years later, a new, 184-acre, $12.6 million zoo was opened in the Milwaukee County Zoo's current location.

But many Milwaukeeans had already gotten to know the new park as visitors were encouraged to come during its construction and as early as 1958 they could ride on the zoo train, which was completed that year.

Among the inhabitants making the move was the immortal gorilla, Samson, who had come to the zoo with Sambo in 1950 and remains a part of the zoo's mystique even today (despite the fact that his taxidermied remains are on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum Downtown).

After the animals were moved, over time, to the new facility, the Washington Park Zoo fell silent in 1963.


Talkbacks

zuman2000 | May 29, 2011 at 8:58 a.m. (report)

The stone wall and railing south of the current senior center parking lot is part of the old bison exhibit at the Washington Park Zoo.

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bat_matt | May 29, 2011 at 7:20 a.m. (report)

This is a nice little note about Milwaukee history that I didn't know, but I give thanks that Milwaukee County Zoo is such a great modern facility. The photo of the big cat cages at Washington Park Zoo is a reminder that zoos used to be a lot less awesome than they are now. Thanks for the info, Bobby.

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