An Unrecognized Past Can Lead to a Troubling Future
Current associations with the Milwaukee Hoan Bridge may remind locals of the beauty and love of our city. However, it may also be a reminder of grief and danger to those who are connected to the deaths from the bridge.
Although it is unclear just how many hazardous situations have occurred within the bridge’s nearly 100-year-old history, a WISN article “Hoan Bridge popular place for suicides” shows our residents some clarity. Milwaukee broadcast journalist Colleen Henry said, “there have been at least 30 jumpers from the Hoan Bridge in just the last 15 years.”
It’s crucial for locals to understand the bridge’s history of the big, yellow structure. Today, midwesterns face both the repercussions of the envisage that has become a staple of Wisconsin’s Lakefront. It is clear that our Hoan Bridge represents the beauty of our city.
History of the Bridge
It all began In 1909 when plans for a route between downtown and the south shore of Milwaukee were considered. However, poor planning and negative opinions from the public interrupted the process.
It wasn’t until 1936 when the city finally applied for federal funding. Fast forward to another 34 years, when the construction of a memorial bridge in the name of Daniel Hoan began. As a long-serving Mayor of Milwaukee who spent 24 years earning the reputation of being an efficient figure for the Lake Michigan shore, it was believed that the bridge could positively represent this public figure.
Bay View Historian describes Daniel Hoan as “a socialist whose term is considered to be the longest continuous socialist administration in the country,” said Ron Wrinkler, historian of Bay View Historical Society. Like the efficiency of his term, the bridge was meant to be “an efficient route between Milwaukee’s south shore (Bay View, St, Francis, Cudahy, South Milwaukee) and the east side/downtown,” said Wrinkler.
Though this six-lane tie between downtown Milwaukee and the Lake Freeway was thought to be a successful plan, the bridge was still not complete in 1975 and the push to continue construction was minimal. Some residents wanted their city to stay the way it already was. At this point, the big, blue and yellow structure was merely an ornament of Wisconsin’s Great Lake. However, federal funds were finally released by president Gerald Ford, which would allow the state of Wisconsin to finish the bridge by connecting the ramps to Carferry Drive.
In 1977, the bridge was officially generating traffic. However, the roadways were not fully connected until 1998 making the “Gateway to the City” earn a new nickname as “The Bridge to Nowhere” for several years.
This offical connection in the last 90’s occurred when Highway 794 opened bridge’s southernmost exit, which connected the bridge between Bayview and downtown Milwaukee’s southeastern tip.
Danger became apparent in 2000 when three of the Hoan Bridge support beams nearly collapsed, leaving one lane open on each side for almost eight months. Although the bridge went through reconstructions for improvement, residents are unsure of the overall safety of this bridge, even to this day.
“The Hoan Bridge is a part of Milwaukee’s image, both figuratively and literally, because it figures prominently in the city’s lakefront skyline,” Winkler said, Historian of Bay View Historical Society
Suicide From Our Bridge
Two lanes in each direction reopened in 2001, quickly diminishing any fears that people had in connection to another possible collapse. Though not talked about enough, the question remains, what about the other dangers of the bridge, like suicide? There is no proof that suicide was even thought of during the initial development of the bridge.
In 2018, the Prevention Suicide Greater Milwaukee reported that at least 20 people have jumped from the Hoan Bridge since 2001. Even so, Barbara Moser, chair member of Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee Coalition, said that deaths from the Hoan Bridge are still occurring, including the deaths on February 28, 2017, June 2nd, 2017, and January 8, 2018. Though a jumper was convinced by a bystander on August 30, 2017, not to jump, the danger persists.
In 2010, a letter to Sheriff David Clark was written by Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, to encourage barriers on the Hoan Bridge. The letter included the following point:
“Death (from jumping from the Hoan Bridge) is almost certain. Many other suicide methods have intrinsically high failure rates or allow the attempter a window of opportunity to back out mid-attempt.”
Suicide barriers have still not been implemented.
Milwaukee author and historian, Mathew J. Prigge, has worked to develop publications such as “Bridge to Nowhere! A Brief History of the Hoan Bridge.” His work discusses the delay of the initial Hoan Bridge project, and the story of the people behind it. is personal experiences with the Hoan Bridge help the community understand the symbolic meanings behind it.
Prigge said that the bridge is undeniably a symbol for the city, regardless of the connotations associated with it.
“It’s easy to see why, from an aesthetic point of view,” Prigge said. “It’s a handsome structure, prominent and easy to recognize. But the bridge, using a historical perspective, symbolizes a time in Milwaukee’s history when people were advocating for a vision of the city’s future that never came to be and that, today, most people would probably find abhorrent. The ideas that led to the bridge put a focus on freeways and modernization over historic preservation and seemed resigned to the concept that people would forever prefer suburban life to urban.”
Prigge said that the bridge could also be represented as a great folly. His understanding is that although the bridge symbolizes the city, it could be seen as an ironic symbol, due to the years of work put into a structure that had no practical purpose for years.
In addition to Prigge’s work on the history of Milwaukee, he also works on a Milwaukee tour boat in the summers, where his view of the bridge is from the water, a very different perspective than us daily drivers. Though decades have passed since the initial build, he describes the Hoan Bridge as the “front door to the city.”
“The bridge symbolizes a time in Milwaukee’s history when people were advocating for a vision of the city’s future that never came to be and that, today, most people would probably find abhorrent,” Prigge said. “The ideas that led to the bridge put a focus on freeways and modernization over historic preservation and seemed resigned to the concept that people would forever prefer suburban life to urban.”
Prigge is aware of the problem with jumpers on the Hoan Bridge. “I’ve been told they average a few a year, but it’s just not publicized,” Prigge said. “One actually happened during a tour, we didn’t see it, but we saw the body being pulled out afterward. I never really connect those things to the bridge itself, though. I’m not sure why. I know of some similar bridges that draw jumpers, they’ve done things like put up nets or telephones to suicide hotlines.”
In 2018, the question must be asked: “Is the bridge our town’s greatest folly, or is there still a chance to protect our suicidal locals who believe that the bridge may, in fact, be their door to death?”