Click the image to learn more. Photograph featuring a bridge at the Seventeenth Street dock of the Milwaukee Western Fuel Company in 1942. The bridge is used for unloading coal from ships and loading it into cars and hoppers.

Energy has many different forms. Over the years, businesses and homes in the Milwaukee region have relied on a broad variety of energy types to fuel daily activities, from illuminating, heating and cooling homes, for travel and transport, and for manufacturing and commercial activities.

Energy has the remarkable quality that it can be neither created nor destroyed, but only converted from one form to another. Yet there is a puzzle. If energy cannot be created or destroyed, then why we are always looking for new deposits of coal, oil, and gas? The answer involves the limits of the technologies that convert energy from one form to another. While the total amount of energy always remains the same, the intensity of energy is diminished when it is converted into another form. The initial energy is not lost; it is merely converted into other forms of technologically less useful energy. Thus the history of energy use in the Milwaukee area encompasses an understanding of both the types of energy sources and technologies and the search for more efficient and less expensive energy.

Fur traders found Native American villages at the mouth of the Mahn-sh-wauk-ee[1] (the future site of the city of Milwaukee) where the Menomonee, Milwaukee, and Kinnickinnic rivers came together and flowed into Lake Michigan. The rivers flowed sluggishly because their mouths were obstructed by sandbars, mud, and weeds; it was as much a swamp as a river. Early European settlers looking for rapidly flowing water to power mills and rich soil for farming passed over the site of Milwaukee, instead seeking out more productive locations along the lakeshore and along the many rivers of the future state. These early settlers harnessed the mechanical energy usage of the water sources in Wisconsin through the two-thousand-year-old technology of grist mills[2] and sawmills driven by waterpower. Wisconsin’s vast waterways had been carved by the glaciers thousands of years before[3] and were known as Wisconsin’s “white coal.”[4] The Milwaukee River Basin is divided into six watersheds. Three of the watersheds (Milwaukee River North, Milwaukee River East-West, and Milwaukee River South) contain the Milwaukee River. The other three watersheds (Cedar Creek, Menomonee River, and Kinnickinnic River) are named after the major rivers they contain.

Milwaukee-area settlers depended on bread as a basic part of their diet. Farmers brought their grain to nearby gristmills for grinding into meal or flour. Millers took a percentage of grain (called the “miller’s toll”) as their payment for the service. Towns blossomed along rivers with nearby gristmills or sawmills.

Water was not the only source of power required to run gristmills and sawmills. Early milling operations required a great deal of human labor. Millstone dressing and millwrights required uncommon skills. Carrying sacks of grain and flour within a mill demanded constant, strong labor. The system often bogged down during the process of sifting the flour, which became warm and moist from the friction of the moving stones and easily clogged the sifters. Also, warm flour packed before cooling completely could quickly spoil, turning rancid.

In 1854, the Milwaukee area had five grist mills in driven by water power. The number reached fourteen by 1860. In 1864, the Cedarburg woolen mill was built to make clothes and blankets for Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War.[5] After the Civil War ended, American settlers across the west bought up the trees from Wisconsin’s forests to build homes.[6] The rise of lumbering in Wisconsin ushered in a new era of dam construction along Wisconsin’s waterways to facilitate log driving and provide power for saw mills.

By 1848, when Wisconsin attained statehood, there were more than one hundred grist mills run by water power in the state. The census of 1860 indicated that the number of grist mills in Wisconsin had increased to 374,[7] and by 1879 that number exceeded seven hundred. In the 1880s the state’s railroad transportation system had improved significantly, bringing Wisconsin’s wheat to a national market. The Milwaukee Grain Exchange (1854-1949) facilitated the sale of Wisconsin’s grain beyond the state’s borders.[8] But the milling process became more complex and expensive, causing the old rural mills to be unprofitable and fail.[9] Wisconsin reached its peak as a wheat growing state in the 1870s.[10]

After wheat production expanded in Minnesota and Iowa in the 1870s, large scale papermaking began in the lower Fox River area, where water power was cheap and plentiful. The year 1871 saw the area’s first wood pulp mill, located in Appleton.[11] Most of the paper mills on the Fox River were converted grist mills, while those on the upper Wisconsin River were more commonly associated with lumber mills. Paper companies grew rapidly from 1900 to 1930. By the 1940s they represented the third largest industry in Wisconsin.[12]

Coal and Manufactured Gas Energy

During the early years of Milwaukee’s development, economic and residential activity took place near the available energy sources, water power, wood or biomass for burning, and human and animal labor. The industrial boom in the United States occurred when Americans made energy portable, bringing the energy source to the locations where people lived and worked. Chief among those new energy sources was coal, which could be mined far from Milwaukee and then transported on lake vessels to the port of Milwaukee to be converted to mechanical energy in stationary steam engines for manufacturing, or railroad locomotives for transportation. From the late nineteenth century onward, Milwaukee’s docks housed coal shipments, which were then transported locally to homes and businesses.[13]

The Milwaukee Coke and Gas Company pioneered in converting coal to coke, a more energy efficient form of coal used in manufacturing, and produced coal gas for a more usable energy form. Americans used manufactured gas for lighting, heating, and cooking purposes throughout most of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. It was made by “gasifying” combustible materials such as coal and wood and storing the released gasses. Coal was gasified in ovens that contained little oxygen. The gasses given off in this process included a variety of chemicals such as hydrogen, methane, and carbon monoxide. Once delivered to homes and businesses, they could be burned for heat and light. Also known as the Milwaukee Gas Light Company, the firm provided gas to light the city’s homes and street lamps from its West Side Works in the Menomonee Valley. Constructed in 1902, the building housed furnaces where coal was converted into gas. The resulting gas was then stored in gasometers (large cylindrical structures used to hold gas at low pressure) and sent through a network of pipes throughout the city for illumination.[14]

Electrical Energy

Electrical energy became widely used in America after September 1882, when Thomas Edison opened his first commercial steam-driven electrical power plant in New York. It soon became a model for the development of other electrical generating facilities around the country. Early electrical power facilities were concentrated in cities and were usually privately owned companies. The availability of electric power for urban transportation, elevators, and factory machines transformed small towns into cities. Milwaukee became a center of business as employees rode streetcars from residential neighborhoods to employers such as Allis-Chalmers, Allen-Bradley, and Miller Brewing Company.

Milwaukee saw its first electric streetcar route open on April 3, 1890, running along Wells Street, with interurban service between Milwaukee and Kenosha starting June 1, 1897.[15] In 1896, The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company (TMER&L) was incorporated, and by 1905 it became Wisconsin’s largest electric railway system.[16] At first, many people feared electric streetcars. They thought they might be electrocuted while riding in them or stepping on their rails. In 1884 the first safe method of powering streetcars was developed by connecting the cars to overhead wires (called a “troller”) that carried electricity. Appleton pioneered the use of the troller in Wisconsin in 1886. Milwaukee began using the troller system of streetcar electrification in 1890.[17]

As in cities around the United States, streetcars quickly altered Milwaukee’s culture, changing how people worked, lived, entertained, and conducted business.[18] The streetcar allowed people to live further away from their worksites, which promoted the early growth of suburbs to the north, south, and west of the city. Streetcars became an integral part of life in Milwaukee in the years between 1900 and 1920. They then began to decline with the increasing use of buses and automobiles. So important were the streetcar lines to Milwaukeeans that the community came together to support a strike against the corporate owners of The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company. In 1896, TMER&L workers went on strike, demanding a one-cent raise.[19] TMER&L declined to engage with its employees and brought in strikebreakers.

Because of the availability of gas for heating and lighting, urban residents adopted electricity more slowly than they accepted streetcars. Electric utilities developed extensive advertising campaigns to persuade consumers to switch to electrical power. In 1916 The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co. distributed a pamphlet entitled “The Electric House that Jack Built”[20] describing how electricity could change home life. It illustrated the “convenience, comfort and health” offered by electrical appliances.

While the regulation of utilities by the Wisconsin Railroad Commission brought relatively economical electrical power to urban markets, rural areas were largely ignored. The first rural electric power line in the United States was built in 1919 by West Bend Heating and Lighting. Their twenty-four-mile-long line brought electricity to a total of fifty seven farms in West Bend, Barton, Addison, and Wayne.[21] A monthly charge was determined by the number of lights that were in the home. West Bend was clearly ahead of the times, because even by 1930 only sixteen percent of the remaining Wisconsin farms had electrical service.

Homes in the outlying village of Cedarburg first received electric lights in 1897 when a wire from a generator in the woolen mill was connected to a nearby house. In 1901 Cedarburg created a formal electric utility company. Three decades later the Cedarburg Light and Water Utility supplied power for 138 street lights and 845 homes and businesses. Before police cars had mobile radios, the power plant operators let police officers know there was an emergency by dimming the village’s street lights.[22]

The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company used its own power plants to fuel its web of streetcar and interurban lines. The company sold the electricity it generated but did not need, becoming the Wisconsin Energy Corporation—eastern Wisconsin’s major power supplier.[23] There were many small electrical power generating facilities in and around Milwaukee.[24] One of the largest was the Oneida Street Station (also known as the East Wells Power Plant) in downtown Milwaukee, which was built at the end of the nineteenth century. Between 1918 and 1920 the Oneida Street plant developed new methods for using pulverized coal in their boilers.[25] In 1921, the new Lakeside Power Plant, in St. Francis, relied on pulverized coal alone to generate power. Soon, boilers all over the country followed suit, adopting the innovation of pulverized coal because it improved the efficiency of boiler heating. The Oneida Street plant stopped operating in 1983. The structure was rehabilitated in 1987 and repurposed as the Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex, the home of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater.

In the 1920s most of the electrical generating capacity for the Milwaukee area was on the city’s South Side. It was decided that a new plant should be built north of Milwaukee in Port Washington. That city was located about the same distance as the Lakeside Power Plant was from the company’s central substation on Milwaukee’s northwest side. Construction began on the Port Washington Power Plant on May 26, 1930 and went online on October 14, 1935.[26] The completion of the plant coincided with Port Washington’s centennial. Between 1935 and 1948, the Port Washington power plant was the most efficient power plant in the world.[27] In 1980 the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized both the Oneida Street Station and the Port Washington Power Plant as National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks.[28]

Petroleum Energy

In the mid twentieth century, the rise of the automobile and petroleum industry shifted energy usage locally and nationally.[29] Wisconsin does not have natural sources of petroleum, and once again depended on importing oil and natural gas, particularly through the Port of Milwaukee, as oil tanks replaced coal piles on Jones Island.[30] According to the Energy Information Agency, currently “[m]ore than three-fourths of the petroleum consumed in Wisconsin is used in the transportation sector.”[31]

Nuclear Energy

Several nuclear power plants have provided energy to the Milwaukee area since the early 1970s, although only one remained open in 2018. The La Crosse Boiling Water Nuclear Reactor was built in 1967 as part of a federal project to demonstrate the viability of peacetime nuclear power. It served until April 1987, when the decision was made to close it for economic reasons.[32] The Point Beach Nuclear Plant is located on Lake Michigan, north of Two Rivers, in Manitowoc County. It produces a total of 1,023 megawatts of electrical power. Point Beach’s nuclear reactor, one of the oldest operating reactors in the United States, started operating in 1970; in 2005 its operating license was extended until 2025. Built in 1973 southeast of Green Bay, the Kewaunee Power Station was Wisconsin’s third nuclear power plant. By 2010, eighteen percent of the electricity in Wisconsin was produced at the Point Beach and Kewaunee plants.[33] The Kewaunee plant was closed in May 2013 due to falling electricity prices.

Wind Energy

Wind power makes up only a small portion of the Milwaukee area’s energy supply. An 1872 Cedarburg windmill ground barley to be used in soup and as sausage filler. After burning down in 1894, it was not rebuilt.[34] While the four-county Milwaukee area does not currently contain a significant wind power facility, in 2014 Wisconsin had 417 wind turbines. The state ranked 22nd in the nation for installed wind electrical power. In 2016, wind energy provided 2.35% of all in-state electricity production.[35]

As of 2014, Wisconsin had a total of 13 wind farms. Generating a total of 647 megawatts among them, their individual productivity ranged from 1.3 megawatts to 162 megawatts. Half of Wisconsin’s wind-generated electricity came from these facilities, with the balance produced in the adjoining states of Iowa and Minnesota.[36] Wind power is local, has no emissions, and is one of the least intrusive sources of electricity in Wisconsin and the Midwest.

Biomass Energy

Biomass energy can be made from any material that is or was living. In the twenty-first century biomass energy comes from three primary sources. One form of biomass energy comes from wood. Some wood is harvested for turning into fuel; other wood biomass comes from waste produced in sawmills and wood manufacturers. The second biomass energy, waste energy, is a byproduct of garbage from homes and manufacturers, and from the methane gas given off in landfills. The third form of biomass energy is biofuels, which are made from corn and vegetable oil, from the fat of animals, or from repurposed restaurant grease.[37] Wisconsin firms in the twenty-first century are experimenting with economically viable approaches to using biomass energy.

In October 2010, a coal-burning power plant in Cassville, Wisconsin (built in 1951) was converted to biomass energy. Various types of biomass could be used in the plant, including residue from forestry and tree trimming operations, railroad ties, demolition waste, and sawdust. However, in October 2015 it was decided that the plant was no longer economically viable. The cost of renewable energy was decreasing, while the cost to transport biomass fuel was increasing significantly in the Midwest region.[38]

We Energies constructed a biomass power plant that opened in November 2013 near Wausau.[39] It burned wood waste from sawmills and pulp mills as well as leftover wood scavenged from the forest floor after logging operations. The project was designed to give the Milwaukee utility an alternative to wind-, solar-, and water-based power sources to meet the state’s renewable power mandate. Unlike wind and solar, which are intermittent, a biomass plant can be run all the time. Unfortunately wood and waste biomass materials contain a relatively small amount of energy compared to coal and oil. Also, biomass can pollute the air when it is burned. Some localities have implemented bans on burning firewood precisely because it produces substantial local air pollution.

Solar Energy

Harnessing energy from the sun is a way to obtain clean and abundant energy. In the twenty-first century, there are three major solar energy technologies Photovoltaic converts sunlight directly into electricity. In concentrated solar power, large solar concentrators focus heat from the sun onto arrays of collectors, which make steam for large-scale electric power plants. Finally, in domestic heating systems, solar radiation is converted into thermal energy to heat air and hot water.

It is estimated that photovoltaic solar power on rooftops could provide 22%[40] of Wisconsin’s electricity demand.  In 2007, the Urban Ecology Center installed Wisconsin’s largest solar array, a 44.4 kilowatt system.[41] In 2008, the City of Milwaukee’s solar program, Milwaukee Shines, was formed to expand solar energy use through a comprehensive, citywide approach. As of 2014 there were about 2,250 homes powered by solar energy in Wisconsin. Today there are hundreds of solar hot water installations in the Milwaukee area and dozens of commercial installers.


Hydropower did not disappear with gristmills and sawmills. In a twentieth-century variation of this older technology, hydroelectric power plants convert the potential energy of flowing water into electricity. This works by directing water through a hydraulic turbine connected to an electric generator. In September of 1882, the first hydroelectric power plant in the United States began operation on the Fox River in Appleton. With hardware supplied by the Thomas Edison’s company, the Appleton Edison Light Company transmitted power to local paper mills, the water company, and a few of the city’s wealthiest families.

Hydropower is normally produced by collecting river water behind a dam that creates a “head” or height above the turbine-generator. These dams can cause large bodies of water (or lakes) to form behind them. In 1948 the Wisconsin River Power Company constructed a hydroelectric dam across the Wisconsin River near Necedah. The water that collected behind this dam formed Lake Petenwell, Wisconsin’s second largest lake.[42] The federal government has jurisdiction over most of the 150 large dams in Wisconsin that produce hydroelectricity. Most hydroelectric power dams were built were built by 1950 or earlier.[43] In Wisconsin, hydropower accounts for about 4.4% of the total electricity generated (about 2.1 billion kilowatt hours per year). This amount of electricity can meet the demand of approximately 650,000 people.[44]

In 2013, Wisconsin relied only a little on renewable energy resources such as biomass, wind, and hydroelectric power, which together provided only 6.9% of the state’s locally-produced electricity.[45]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ The word “Milwaukee” may come from the Potawatomi language minwaking, or Ojibwe language ominowakiing, “Gathering place [by the water].” Early explorers called the Milwaukee River and surrounding lands various names: Melleorki, Milwacky, Mahn-a-waukie, Milwarck, and Milwaucki. For many years, printed records gave the name as “Milwaukie,” “Milwaukee,” Wikipedia, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  2. ^ The terms “gristmill” refers to any mill that grinds grain.
  3. ^ Watersheds & Basics, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  4. ^ John A. Russell, The White Coal of Wisconsin, 1918: Wisconsin-Minnesota Light and Power Company (Grand Rapids, MI: Kelsey, Brewer & Co., 1918).
  5. ^ Lisa Curtis, Cedarburg (Charleston, SC: Acadia Pub., 2011), 56.
  6. ^ On the process of lumbering in Wisconsin, see William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1991), chapter 4.
  7. ^ Bulletin of the University of Wisconsin, Economics and Political Science Series, Vol. 5 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1909), 397.
  8. ^ The papers of the Milwaukee Grain Exchange are available for research at the Milwaukee County Historical Society, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  9. ^ A. Allan Schmid, “Water and the Law in Wisconsin,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History 45, no. 3 (Spring 1962): 203-215.
  10. ^ John Giffin Thompson, “The Rise and Decline of the Wheat-Growing Industry in Wisconsin” (PhD diss., University of Wisconsin, 1907), Table IV, 196-197.
  11. ^ The Rise of Skilled Manufacturing, Wisconsin Historical Society website, last accessed January 1, 2018.
  12. ^ Erika Janik, Short History of Wisconsin (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2010).
  13. ^ Daniel French, When They Hid the Fire: A History of Electricity and Invisible Energy in America (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017).
  14. ^ Milwaukee Solvay Quarter Century Club records, 1912-1983, UWM Library Archives, accessed January 8, 2018; Milwaukee Coke and Gas Company records, Milwaukee County Historical Society, accessed January 8, 2018.
  15. ^ The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company, Wikipedia, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  16. ^ Joseph M Canfield, “TM: The Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Company,” Bulletin 112 (Chicago: Central Electric Railfans Association, 1972).
  17. ^ Ken Smith, “A Short History of Milwaukee’s Old Streetcar System,” Urban Milwaukee, March 31, 2015, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  18. ^ The classic work on this subject is Sam Bass Warner, Streetcar Suburbs: The Process of Growth in Boston, 1870-1900 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962).
  19. ^ Smith, “A Short History of Milwaukee’s Old Streetcar System.”
  20. ^ Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co., The Electrical House That Jack Built (Milwaukee, Wis.: Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Co., 1916), last accessed January 1, 2018.
  21. ^ R0-021, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  22. ^ Curtis, Cedarburg, 23, 38, and 65.
  23. ^ Oneida Street Station, Wikipedia, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  24. ^ For example, in 1890 the Miller Brewing Company began generating its own electricity.
  25. ^ Oneida Street Station.
  26. ^ Port Washington Power Plant: A National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  27. ^ Its energy conversion efficiency was 32% in a period of time when the national average for electric power plant efficiency was around 19%.
  28. ^ American Society of Mechanical Engineers, History and Heritage Committee, Landmarks in Mechanical Engineering (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1997).
  29. ^ U.S. Energy Information Agency, “Energy Sources Have Changed throughout the History of the United States,” July 2013, accessed January 8, 2018.
  30. ^ Leah Dobkin, Soul of a Port: The History and Evolution of the Port of Milwaukee (Charleston, SC: History Press, 2010).
  31. ^ U.S. Energy Information Agency, “Wisconsin State Profile and Energy Estimates,” accessed January 8, 2018.
  32. ^La Crosse Boiling Water Reactor,” Wikipedia, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  33. ^ Nuclear Energy in Wisconsin, CASEnergy Coalition,, accessed in 2015.
  34. ^ Curtis, Cedarburg, 14.
  35. ^ Wind Energy in Wisconsin, accessed January 1, 2018.
  36. ^ Don Wichert, “Ten Positive Facts about Renewable Energy in Wisconsin,” last accessed January 1, 2018.
  37. ^ Encyclopedia Entry Biomass, Institute for Energy Research, last accessed January 1, 2018.
  38. ^ Anna Simet, “DTE Energy to Close 40 MW Biomass Plant in Wisconsin,” Biomass Magazine, October 15, 2015.
  39. ^ Thomas Content, “WE Energies Announces $250 Million Biomass Plant near Wausau,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 1, 2009, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  40. ^ Jim Witkin, “Report Argues for a Decentralized System of Renewable Power Generation,” New York Times, October 30, 2009.
  41. ^Solar Power in Wisconsin,” Wikipedia, last accessed February 7, 2018; Largest Wisconsin Solar Array to be Dedicated February 10, Madison Peak Oil Group, Inc., February 5, 2007, accessed January 1, 2018.
  42. ^ Hydroplants, Wisconsin Valley Improvement Company website, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  43. ^ Hydro-electric Generation, Wikipedia, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  44. ^ Hydropower Planning, Wisconsin Ecological Services Field Office, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, last accessed February 7, 2018.
  45. ^ Wisconsin State Energy Profile, U.S. Energy Information Administration, last accessed February 7, 2018.

For Further Reading

American Society of Mechanical Engineers, History and Heritage Committee. Landmarks in Mechanical Engineering. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1997.

Donahoe, Jamie. “Volunteers Successfully Resuscitate Ailing Grist Mill.” Old Mill News (Winter 2009): 14-18.

Walter, Robert C., and Dorothy J. Merritts. “Natural Streams and the Legacy of Water-Powered Mills.” Science 319 (2008): 299-304.

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