A Brief History of Kletzsch Park
In the late 1600s, French explorers were looking for a waterway from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. They investigated the Milwaukee River as a possibility, but found it to be a dead end. In the midst of their exploration they came upon a Native American Summer encampment made up of bark lean-to structures nestled along the river and bluffs overlooking the spot where the river empties into the big lake (now known as downtown Milwaukee.) As Robert R. Morris writes in his book Glendale Wisconsin:
Chippewas, Foxes, Menomonees, Potawatomies, Sac and Winnebagos took their summer vacations here. The Potawatomies lived in villages in what would become Glendale, even burying their dead in ceremonial mounds along the Milwaukee River
in what is now known as Kletzsch Park.
The pioneering cartographer Increase Lapham included a map of the area known as “Indian Prairie” in his Antiquities of Wisconsin, describing the Native American mounds and earthwork that were located on a plot of land called the Pierron Tract. According to Dr. Lapham, the site contained a total of 31 mounds, three hut rings and an Indian garden.
The history of the land as a public park began in 1918, when the 35 acre Blatz farm was purchased. The Pierron farm, a 45 acre parcel to the north of the Blatz land, was acquired in 1927. Since these parcels were not contiguous, two separate parks existed. The fissure was healed when the 15 acres between the sites was acquired in 1929, creating the 118.9 acre park we know today.
The park was named for Alvin P. Kletzsch, who fulfilled a number of notable roles in Milwaukee city history. For many years the co-proprietor of the Republican Hotel built by his father in Milwaukee’s downtown, he was also a real estate investor. Many knew him from his tenure as a member of Milwaukee County’s park commission, serving from 1907 to 1941. An avid football player during his college days in New Jersey, he later enjoyed the distinction of being named the University of Wisconsin’s first football coach in 1887.
Kletzsch Park was used in the 1920s as a spot for fishing on Sundays and holidays, and was also popular with picnickers and ball players. Usage expanded in 1931, when a contract was awarded to excavate a portion of the river for swimming. The result was a pond of 4-5 acres, a semi circular beach area approximately 1000 feet in length and a bathhouse. By the summer of 1932 Kletzsch Park had become one of the most popular spots in the county’s park system.
The park was also the beneficiary of work programs during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A camp of the Civilian Conservation Corps was established in the park in May of 1935 and discontinued in November. CCC projects included the construction of a new reinforced concrete dam across the river. The dam’s serpentine design lengthened the crest and provided increased discharge capacity without widening the river. A stone facing and a fish ladder were built into the dam’s face, creating the appearance of a natural waterfall. CCC crews also constructed the Kletzsch Park shelter at the top of a bluff overlooking the river. The building, built with Swiss architectural features, required grading and landscaping along the bluff to provide a proper view of the river from the open east wing of the pavilion.
IThe building, built with Swiss architectural features, required grading and landscaping along the bluff to provide a proper view of the river from the open east wing of the pavilion.