A Closer Look
Janesville's Downtown Bridges
From Center Way to Monterey - Bridging the Heart of our City
Story by Teresa Nguyen
The Blain Gilbertson Family Heritage Pedestrian Bridge - Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
"We build too many walls and not enough bridges." ~ Sir Isaac Newton
People have needed and constructed bridges since the dawn of human history. We are curious beings, in need of discovering what’s on the other side, of expanding our world, our knowledge. Our sense of adventure is like an eternal flame, ever ready for a new wildfire of exploration. A bridge brings us to new places, new communities, new people and seemingly endless escapades. They make life easier, business trading easier and visiting our friends and relatives much easier.
“Bridges are metaphors for everything in life…The bridge is not just about getting back and forth between north and south. The bridge is about connecting our communities.”
~ Jim West
Monterey Bridge in the fog - Photo by Abb's Tracks Photography
The bridge is symbolic for connecting, not just one piece of land to another, but also connecting us to each other. It is used as a word to describe communication, suggests reaching an agreement, a deal, a compromise and a meeting of the minds. It is a way to open a path, to open our thoughts or open our hearts. Bridges, both literal and figurative, are incredibly meaningful in our lives.
When a new American community settled along the banks of a river, the need to build on both sides was essential. A river gave us access to quality land on which to build, to expand. Rivers were often a main water source and a way of traveling between communities. Rivers eventually brought power through man-made dams, leading to the success of mills, businesses and a variety of new industries along a river's banks.
Prior to bridges, crossing rivers by boat posed risks and problems, sometimes real dangers, depending on the height of the water level, the current or the weather. Ferries could only hold a limited number of passengers and cargo creating a wait time, as each load went across and the ferry returned.
Bridges were the answer to making life along a river very convenient and economical. They were a surefire way to grow a community from a village to a city.
Janesville, Wisconsin was no exception. The beautiful Rock River attracted early native tribes to the area, who fished, hunted and set up communities along its banks.
Our history's darkest chapters brought the Indian Removal Act of 1830, forcing native tribes out of this Rock River valley, pushing them westward to other far away territories, while white settlers began to claim the land, taking possession of the area.
Many of our Janesville settlers came from New York, looking for open farmland, new opportunities and to set up businesses. We were a mix of European nationalities, without one dominant subculture. Here, we made our own Janesville culture.
In 1835, the first settlers made their way up the Rock River to what was known as “The Big Rock” (Monterey Rock).
The Old Milwaukee Street Bridge - Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
Of course, there were no bridges back then. There were also no river walls, so areas of shallow water gave these pioneers a chance to ford the river. This usually worked, but if the water level rose, crossing was impossible.
Mr. John Inman, George Follmer, Joshua Holmes, and William Holmes, Jr. built a crude log cabin on the south bank of the Rock River, where it runs east and west, not far from the current Monterey area bridge.
"The Big Rock" landmark (Monterey Rock) along the Rock River
Photo by Kim Hoholek
By the spring of 1836, Janesville’s Mr. Holmes built a ferryboat to ferry people across the Rock River near where Monterey Rock is located.
Farther up river, two men named Henry F. Janes and Aaron Walker constructed a larger ferry and helped people back and forth across the river in the new village downtown area at the site of the current Milwaukee Street Bridge. A one-story log tavern was a frequent stop, where the Lappin block now stands.
It wasn’t too long before the population grew by leaps and bounds. Settlements on both sides of the Rock River made the idea of building a bridge very enticing.
The following is a timeline of Janesville’s downtown bridges. It is by no means completely thorough, as accurate and in-depth information is not always readily available.
However, it is a fascinating journey through our early history. The story is a look back in time at new growth in our community. Our people’s ingenuity and construction of these great bridges truly created the heart of Janesville.
1842 - A fellow by the name of Charles Stevens purchased the ferry business near the downtown tavern and began construction of a toll bridge, where Milwaukee Street Bridge is now.
Some Janesville citizens decided it wasn’t fair that the Stevens toll bridge had a monopoly and the bridge owners were taken to court. Building another bridge was declared legal, so a "free bridge" was built just down the road. We know it as the Court Street Bridge.
Milwaukee Street Bridge - Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
1846 - Captain Ira Miltimore built the first Monterey Bridge, making for easy crossing to the south end of the Janesville area.
1857 - The second Wisconsin State Fair was held in Janesville near Spring Brook. A bridge was built by the city across the river from the edge of Jackson street over to the fair grounds. This bridge remained in existence for several years, but was later destroyed. Another was built in the 1890’s.
1867 - A timber pile bridge was built on the Milwaukee Street site.
1886 - The Fourth Avenue Bridge (later Center Avenue Bridge) was built by local carpenter, John P. Cullen. The 400-foot wooden bridge spanned the Rock River on the north end of the downtown area. Mr. Cullen later founded JP Cullen and Sons, one of Janesville’s most successful construction companies.
1891 - The city’s council voted unanimously to erect no more wooden bridges. Fourteen years later, we would see the worst wooden bridge fire in our history.
1913 - Disaster struck on April 1st when the wooden Milwaukee Street Bridge caught fire! A Janesville Gazette article described the fire in great detail. Eight businesses were destroyed in the blaze.
The west-side fire station responded within minutes, but dense smoke made it impossible for the horses pulling the firefighting gear to get onto the bridge.
Center Avenue Bridge - Photo by Marsha Mood Photography
Shops along the Milwaukee Street Bridge in the early 1900s
Photo courtesy of Jim Schultz
A scene from the Milwaukee Street Bridge fire of 1913
Photo courtesy of Jim Schultz
Divers search the river after the Milwaukee Street Bridge fire in 1913
Photo courtesy of Jim Schultz
The fire chief ordered electric power to be cut and the entire downtown went dark.
Three large automobiles were brought to the edge of the bridge so that their head lamps could light the scene for the firefighters.
They never found the cause of that historic fire.
The bridge was rebuilt by Gould Construction Company of Davenport, Iowa in 1913.
The new Milwaukee Street Bridge opened in 1914. The spandrel and pier paneling and cast-concrete balustrade railing gave the bridge a modest Neo-Classical appearance. Single lamp posts were installed over each pier and abutment.
At some later point, the lamp posts were removed and two modern lights were located on the bridge, but only on the north and south sides.
1914 - The original Racine Street Bridge was built between the Court Street Bridge and the bend in the Rock River.
The bridge was constructed in the era of horse drawn carriages and just prior to the rise of the automobile. It connected the southern end of the Main Street area on the east bank to the Fourth Ward district on the west bank.
1918 - A newer Jackson Street Bridge was built, which lasted until the recently constructed bridge.
1930 - The new Monterey Bridge opened when Janesville’s population was just around 21, 500.
1942 - Another fire on the Milwaukee Street Bridge broke out and destroyed five businesses. It was not as damaging as the fire of 1913.
Looking toward the Racine Street Bridge from the Court Street Bridge
Photo by Teresa Nguyen
1949 - A new Racine Street Bridge was completed.
1963 - A parking lot was constructed over the Rock River between Court Street and East Milwaukee street.
2015 - The newest Jackson Street Bridge was completed.
2017 - Due to compromised structural stability, the downtown parking lot over the river was removed. This also opened up the view to the river for the newly developing Town Squares.
Jackson Street Bridge - Photo by Abb's Tracks Photography
Over the next few years, both Milwaukee Street and Court Street saw a conversion from one-way to two-way traffic.
2018 - Monterey Dam, which was no longer functional, was removed.
2020 - The newest Milwaukee Street Bridge was completed and opened to the public in March of 2020.
The Blain Gilbertson Family donated the funds to build a pedestrian bridge connecting the east and west side Town Squares. A beautiful tree sculpture over the center area of the bridge was designed by South Carolina public artist Deedee Morrison.
Opening of the Blain Gilbertson Family Heritage Pedestrian Bridge
- Photo by Kim Hoholek
The Blain Gilbertson Family Heritage Pedestrian Bridge and it's beautiful tree sculpture, symbolically connecting the two sides of our community, is located between the Milwaukee and Court Street bridges. This unique pedestrian bridge opened in the fall of 2020.
“I stood on the bridge at midnight,
As the clocks were striking the hour,
And the moon rose o'er the city,
Behind the dark church-tower.
I saw her bright reflection
In the waters under me,
Like a golden goblet falling
And sinking into the sea.”
~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Bridge