Having spent a lot of hours walking the streets of old Bay View -- that is, the tightly-packed byways that once huddled in the shadow of the old steel rolling mill near Russell and Superior -- I've often heard tell of a network of tunnels, false walls and secret doors in subterranean Bay View.
While I've seen at least one basement door that opens into a space beneath the sidewalk on Russell, it didn't tell me much. It did, however, feed my imagination. Sadly, one person I had hoped would give me some insight a few years ago passed away before I got the chance to ask.
This being bar month at OnMilwaukee.com, I got to thinking about it all again: the rum runners, the bath tub wine, the local grocers trafficking truckloads sugar up from Chicago on the sly to feed the hungry stills steaming away in Milwaukee basements. So, I asked Milwaukee's history -- and Bay View -- go-to guy.
"The only Prohibition-era tunnel I've heard about supposedly ran from the old Bennett farmhouse, which still looms over the 3200 block of Kinnickinnic Avenue, to a secret opening on the west side of the hill," John Gurda told me in an e-mail. "The story has never been confirmed, to my knowledge."
That's a bit outside the area I expected, but Gurda hinted that I might have been sniffing around the right parts of the neighborhood.
"My surmise is that you'd find the greatest concentration of bootleg-era 'improvements' in the area around Groppi's (Russell and Wentworth) and Three Brothers (St. Clair and Conway)."
As in any city, Milwaukee also built atop nature and what it couldn't erase, it controlled. In Bay View, such work resulted in another subterranean feature, Gurda noted.
"The most historic underground passage is probably the tunnel that carries Deer Creek the length of Delaware Avenue to Lake Michigan, exiting at the foot of Russell Avenue."
That exit point can be seen, just south of the Coast Guard station.
If you live in Bay View and have a Prohibition basement story or photos. Bring 'em on.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.