By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 05, 2024 at 2:01 PM

Listen to the Urban Spelunking Audio Stories on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee.

This article originally ran on April 12, 2022 – but in honor of Summerfest, take a look back at this iconic piece of lakefront history!

All hail the kindness of strangers.

Recently, I stopped in at the office (we’re still pretty much entirely remote) and found a small, square padded envelope on my desk, with no return address and a postage sticker that bore no city of origination.

But, considering the shape and the usual contents of mail like this, I figured it was a CD.


Nope. Inside were 29 black and white square photographs, dating from 1970 and 1974, and 17 small envelopes of negatives. Each envelope was dated with a specific date, beginning in August 1972 and ending in August 1973. They bore the name of the John F. Beasly Construction Co.

These were all aerial photographs of the Milwaukee harbor, the lower Third Ward and Jones Island. Beasley was one of the contractors that built the Hoan Bridge and the photographs detail the progress of the construction of the bridge and in them you can also watch the progress construction of the eastern end of I-794 Downtown.

The shots also offer great views of the lower Third Ward, much of what we now call the Harbor District, Port Milwaukee and Jones Island.

A small sheet torn from a spiral bound note pad said, “For your use. Frank.”

Before donating the whole kit and caboodle to the Milwaukee County Historical Society, I scanned a handful of images to share with you here. They, along with the rest, will be forever available (I hope) in the MCHS research center.

Construction on the bridge – which was initially called the Harbor Bridge, though was named in honor of longtime Milwaukee Mayor Daniel Hoan pretty early on – began in 1970 and wrapped up in 1974, though it wasn’t connected and open to traffic until 1977, when ramps were completed.

Some of the construction work was also completed by Milwaukee's Druml Construction, which you can read a bit about here, and steel was fabricated by Lakeside Bridge and Steel on the North Side.

At that point, the Bridge to Nowhere finally went somewhere.

The reason for the delay was the ongoing battle against the Lake Freeway, which would’ve resulted in massive demolition in Bay View and other neighborhoods and would’ve run a freeway along the lakefront both north and south of Downtown.

In the end, the north end of the bridge was attached to I-794 and to Lincoln Memorial Drive on the north end, and down to city streets on the south end. Later completion of the Lake Parkway on the old railroad right of way south from Bay View added a connection there, providing a high-speed route south to near the airport.

Some folks will recall that the incomplete 794 freeway was the setting for some scenes in “The Blues Brothers” movie, released in 1980, filmed here Aug. 28-29, 1979. Although 794 had been connected to the bridge by then, some portions of the freeway still remained unfinished at that point.

In doing a little research on the photos, I came across a report from the day the basic span of the bridge was completed.

“Milwaukee’s harbor bridge actually became a bridge – of sorts – Wednesday,” wrote the Milwaukee Journal on Dec. 20, 1972. “One of the biggest pieces of the largest bridge building project in Wisconsin history was hoisted into place, and the other was to be in by nightfall. At precisely 10 a.m. (today) the bridge carried its first passenger, from south to north.

“Ed Kent, foreman of the bridge raising gang, walked over. In spite of the height – about 130 feet, the narrowness on top of the beam – four feet, and the ice clogged harbor below, Kent walked as spiritedly and confidently as a man out for a morning stroll on Broadway.”

If you thought the road up to the construction of The Couture took a while, consider that planning for what would result in the Hoan Bridge lasted nearly four decades.

“‘Thirty-seven years for closing that gap,’ a jubilant Thomas Makal, special projects manager for Milwaukee County said as the first huge center beam was hoisted into place,” the Journal wrote that day. “He referred to the time in which the bridge had been talked of as a vital transportation link for the city.”

Holding things up and slowing progress was the pitched battle over the Lake Freeway, but also, in more immediate terms for the then-Dallas-based Beasley Construction Company – founded in 1931 and known for building bridges over water – was Mother Nature.

“Weather for weeks and time after time have delayed erection of the center spans because of snow, ice, sleet or rain,” the paper noted. “Wednesday’s conditions weren’t ideal. Mist fell over the area throughout the morning, and fog obscured both ends of the bridge for workmen at the center.

“But the hoisting rivaled the proudest moments high in the circus big top, as about 30 human spiders in the ironworking crew of the John F. Beasley Construction Co. crawled in and out of the giant superstructure preparing for their biggest day.”

The beam was 174 feet long, 14 feet tall, weighed roughly 122 tons and required 3,000 bolts to be secured. It was hollow and men could walk through it easily, the paper reported.

Work to put it into place was undertaken from barges anchored just below in the opened between what is now the site of the American Family Insurance Amphitheater on one side and Jones Island on the other. One of the barges was equipped with a large derrick.

“About 9 a.m. Master Pat, a Dallas tug, moved the barges into position,” the Journal wrote. “About 9:30 the lift began. After these two beams are in, work can continue on the rest of the floor beams and bracing, plus deck girders on which concrete flooring will rest.”

The steel structure was expected to be completed by June 1973 and the hope was that traffic would be using the 1.06-mile, $24 million bridge by autumn of 1975.

“What its eventual connections on both ends will be are still obscured in political and environmental controversy,” wrote the Journal. “As of now, however, work is proceeding on contracts to connect the bridge at least to the East-West Freeway on the north and to an interchange near Lincoln Avenue and Lincoln Memorial Drive on the south. Only time will tell if it will ever provide a link to the Lake Freeway south to Illinois and north through Juneau Park, now blocked by court action.”

While these images are certainly not the only ones charting the construction of a proud Milwaukee landmark – long a fixture of the OnMilwaukee logo – they have likely gone unseen for decades.

Now, thanks to Frank – whoever he is – we can go back in time and watch.

Aug. 6, 1970


Aug. 25, 1972


Sept. 22, 1972


Oct. 6, 1972


Dec. 1, 1972


Dec. 29, 1972


Jan. 26, 1973


Aug. 29, 1973


March 14, 1974


Sept. 14, 1974


Nov. 22, 1974

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

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 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 has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.