Milwaukee's Second Bridge War

This two-part article is combined from the Summer and Fall 2015 Soundings

By John Buellesbach

Photo courtesy of MPL/WMHS Marine Collection
Coal yards along the Milwaukee river. (ca. 1930)

At a time when the Dionne quintuplets were making history and federal agents were chasing John Dillinger around the Midwest, in Milwaukee, a ship's captain and the city attorney captured headlines. Because of a strike, vessels were forced to navigate Milwaukee's rivers and its bridges without tugboats. This snarled traffic and disrupted rail service.

To prevent delays, the city attorney attempted to enforce a local ordinance that prohibited vessels from backing through moveable spans without tugs. A standoff ensued when one captain denied police permission to board his boat so they could serve a warrant for violating the bridge ordinance. Much to the chagrin of the city attorney, the captain became a media sensation. While many Milwaukeeans may have cursed the bridge delays, thousands lined the river to cheer on the rebel skipper. The Milwaukee Sentinel exclaimed: "Not since Solomon Juneau wheeled out the old brass cannon and pointed it toward Kilbourntown has there been so much excitement on the river front."

The city attorney went on to become a colorful and respected judge. The captain would enjoy a distinguished career with the Coast Guard. But in June of 1934, they played leading roles in "the grim siege of the Milwaukee river.""

This story was inspired by Carl Swanson's post about The Spectacular Defiance of Captain Bodenlos. Carl blogs about his adopted hometown of Milwaukee and you can follow him at

Boat Captain, Police Wage River 'War' Here

Milwaukee Journal, June 8, 1934

Today, Milwaukee's rivers are lined with condos and apartments. It was very different in 1934. Coal was king and Milwaukee was the second largest coal distribution port on the Great Lakes. The International Ship Masters Association listed 18 coal docks at Milwaukee, and it was huge piles of coal that lined its rivers.

Milwaukee's economy had remained fairly strong immediately following the stock market crash in 1929. But by 1932, the Great Depression had hit Milwaukee hard. Because of widespread unemployment and poverty, socialism became more popular. Milwaukee already had a socialist mayor and elections in 1932 would give socialists control of the Common Council. It was in this environment that Max Raskin, a young socialist lawyer given little chance, captured the office of city attorney.

The United States entered World War I in April 1917. The following month, a young man in Cleveland, Elmer J. Bodenlos, enlisted in the Naval Auxiliary Reserve. He was honorably discharged in June 1919 at the rank of ensign. It was about 1924 that Bodenlos went to work for the Valley Camp Steamship company. He worked his way through the ranks and in 1934 became captain of the Harry T. Ewig, a 350-foot bulk carrier built in 1902. It was his first full-time command.

By 1934, the economy was beginning a very slow recovery from the depths of the Depression. Workers were restless and unions became more aggressive. In Cleveland, tugmen negotiated with the Great Lakes Towing company, the dominant tugboat operator on the Lakes. On June 1st, tugmen in Buffalo walked out after an arbitration panel denied their demand for an eight-hour day with wages restored to 1929 levels. Overnight, this unofficial strike spread to almost every port from Buffalo to Duluth.

Great Lakes Towing did not provide service at Milwaukee, so tugmen here were not directly affected by the proceedings in Cleveland. Nonetheless, union officials soon ordered Milwaukee men out in sympathy with strikers at other ports. On June 3rd, men of the Milwaukee Tugboat Line did not report for work. If they were going to deliver their cargo, the coal boats would have to navigate Milwaukee's rivers without assistance.

It did not take long before Milwaukeeans felt the effects. On Tuesday morning, June 5th, the Sixth street viaduct was blocked for 25 minutes as two coal boats traveled the Menomonee river without tugs.

While the Sumatra backed upstream the James E. McAlpine backed downstream. Backing a large vessel downriver can be especially challenging depending on wind and current. At one point, the Sumatra was strung across the channel. Streetcars, automobiles, trucks, and trains of the Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee railroad were all significantly delayed. More important than any inconvenience, this incident highlighted safety concerns about response time in case of an emergency.

Photo courtesy of MPL/WMHS Marine Collection

With no tugs available, Sumatra (foreground) blocks Menomonee river just west of Sixth street viaduct as James E. McAlpine (background) backs downstream on June 5th, 1934.

Under the U.S. Constitution, states and their municipalities have the power to establish and enforce laws protecting the welfare, safety, and health of the public (police powers). To address safety concerns and minimize inconvenience, Milwaukee exercised that power. In 1885, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited all vessels from passing through the Menomonee bridge draw except bow first. By 1934, Milwaukee ordinances prohibited any vessel from: (1) passing through the draw of any bridge stern first unless towed by a tug; (2) causing any bridge to remain open for more than five minutes.

But the Constitution reserves for Congress the power to regulate commerce among the states (commerce power). This includes oversight of navigable waterways, which Congress delegated to the Secretary of War. So in 1934, it was the war department that determined where a bridge could be built and how it would operate. Any ordinance inconsistent with department regulations was not enforceable (federal preemption doctrine). Therefore, the tug strike would raise a constitutional question: did Milwaukee's exercise of its police power infringe on the federal government's commerce power?

On Wednesday, June 6th, coal companies and vessel operators sought federal guidance. They wanted permission to back boats upriver to the docks. This would be easier than proceeding upriver bow first and then having to back down. An assistant United States Attorney replied that a special regulation of the war department, as well as city ordinances, prohibited vessels from backing through drawbridges without a tug. City Attorney Max Raskin was now determined to make sure coal companies did not ignore Milwaukee's bridge ordinance.

Into this storm sailed the Harry T. Ewig and her rookie skipper, E.J. Bodenlos. Making things worse, the Ewig would be the first large vessel moving up the Milwaukee river, taking her right through downtown and past city hall. The Ewig was a 350-foot collier built in 1902 and operated by the Valley Camp Steamship company, a subsidiary of the Pennsylvania based Valley Camp Coal company. Most Milwaukeeans were not yet awake when the Ewig arrived at 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 6th. With little fanfare, she slowly made her way upriver arriving at the Fellenz Coal & Dock company about 4:45 that afternoon.

After delivering her cargo, the Ewig prepared to depart on Friday, June 8th. The return trip would require her to back through 11 bridges before turning around at the confluence of the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers. Max Raskin would be waiting.

Early that Friday morning, with some difficulty because of wind, Captain Bodenlos backed the Ewig through four bridges: Holton st., Pleasant (Walnut) st., Cherry st., and Juneau av. The Ewig then tied up along the west bank at Highland avenue to wait for better conditions. It was about 9:00 a.m. and traffic had been delayed for about 25 minutes at each bridge.

Soon the Milwaukee Police arrived armed with a city warrant charging Captain Bodenlos with violating Milwaukee's bridge ordinance. But the captain refused to lower a ladder. Unable to board the vessel, police could not execute the warrant. The city attorney's office next called on the fire department to throw a ladder against the boat. But the Ewig moved into the channel and firemen could not bridge the gap.

Captain Bodenlos contended the Milwaukee police had no jurisdiction aboard his vessel. The Ewig was on a navigable waterway, lawfully engaged in interstate commerce, and owned by a "foreign" corporation. If any law was violated there needed to be a federal warrant, served by a United States Marshal, answerable in federal court. Friday afternoon the city attorney appealed to the United States Attorney, the Marshals Service, and the Army Corps of Engineers, but none would get involved.

Milwaukee Journal
Capt. Bodenlos, on deck with arms folded, talks with police shortly after tying up just south of the Juneau avenue bridge on June 8th, 1934.

City officials decided the Ewig "was lying abreast of a fire plug" and ordered her to move upstream. So on Saturday morning the Ewig moved back through the Juneau avenue bridge to the Callaway Fuel Company dock. All the police could do was post a guard and wait. The city warrant could be served only if Bodenlos left the sanctuary of his boat. And the captain said that he would remain tied up until he decided it safe to proceed to the harbor. For the next few days not much would happen.

Mr. Raskin did himself no favor when he complained to reporters about the "air of burlesque" they had created. Following up on that theme, the Associated Press referred to the city attorney's staff as "victims of an impromptu 'burlesque' in which they were the 'stooges' while a legally learned ship captain did the routine." The story described how the captain "laughingly defied" city officials when they tried to serve their warrant.

On Saturday the crew noticed the police guard did not leave to get lunch so the Ewig's cook dropped a package of sandwiches to the hungry officer. Sunday night Bodenlos climbed into a waiting rowboat and quietly came ashore to see a movie. He enjoyed the city so much he did the same on Monday night. He told a reporter from The Milwaukee Journal: "I'm having a lot of fun. The ship has plenty of food and water and I must say that Milwaukee's movies are first class."

In the meantime, Mr. Raskin was busy. If he could not get the masters he would go after the owners. On Monday, June 11th, Raskin obtained two court orders requiring ship owners to appear and explain why their vessels did not have to comply with the bridge ordinance. Monday evening, armed with these orders, sheriffʼs deputies visited two boats that were docked in the Menomonee river. The deputies were refused permission to board either vessel. All the sheriff could do was post a guard who would serve the orders should either captain step ashore. The sheriff had fared no better than the police.

Both vessels departed the next morning, backing through bridges as they left. The court orders were simply ignored. Milwaukee could not stop vessels by refusing to open bridges. War department regulations required that they be opened for boat traffic. If the city failed to open the bridges as required, it would be fined $1,000 for each occurrence.

Now Mr. Raskin engaged in some very creative lawyering. He claimed the wages of Ewig's crew had been stopped; ergo, she had no crew. Because there was no crew, the Ewig was not legally in commission and maritime law did not apply. On Tuesday morning, June 12th, Raskin directed police to board the Ewig and arrest Bodenlos. As police approached, Ewig's crew lined the rail. When an officer began climbing the ladder, Bodenlos announced: "If you come aboard I'll have my crew throw you into the river." The officer responded: "Oh, no, you wouldn't do that." Bodenlos replied: "Oh, yes, I would. And I'd still be within my rights." Once again the police backed off.

"'Navy' Repulses Boarding Party in Battle of Milwaukee River," proclaimed the headline in the afternoon paper. It was now General Raskin and his army verses Admiral Bodenlos and his marines. The victorious crew hurled jeers at the police:

"The language was of the sort that sailors are generally credited with using." The defiant Bodenlos then declared that he would go ashore whenever he wanted, "the same way I did last night." The police promised "they would deploy squads to all the vantage points to prevent the captain from breaking through their lines again." So far, it had been a bad day for City Attorney Max Raskin.

The siege, however, was about to end. When things calmed down, Captain Bodenlos met with a police inspector aboard the Ewig. After discussing the matter with vessel owners and attorney Harney B. Stover, Bodenlos informed the inspector that he would appear voluntarily the next morning. On Wednesday, June 13th, Bodenlos arrived at the safety building as agreed and two warrants were served. He paid $150 cash bail and left. Bodenlos said he agreed to surrender after police threatened to board his vessel by force. He explained: "It's been fun but I don't want to be responsible for any real trouble, or injury to my men."

One big problem remained. The Ewig was still trapped in the Milwaukee river and would have to back through eight bridges to reach freedom. So unless the tug strike ended soon, there was going to be an encore.

Photo courtesy of MPL/WMHS Marine Collection
Milwaukee river north of Holton st. (2015)

A tugmenʼs strike in 1934 forced lake boats to ply Milwaukeeʼs rivers alone. But a local ordinance prohibited vessels from backing through moveable spans without tugs. When the Harry T. Ewig backed partway down the Milwaukee river on June 8th, the city attorney, Max Raskin, charged her captain, E.J. Bodenlos, with violating the bridge ordinance. After quite a show, Bodenlos surrendered on June 13th. He paid $150 cash bail and was released. The Ewig, however, was still trapped in the river and would have to back through eight bridges to escape. Unless the tug strike ended soon, there would be an encore.

The city did not have to wait long. About 10:00 the next morning (Thursday, June 14th) Bodenlos received a telegram from the Valley Camp Steamship company, the Ewig's owner. Shortly thereafter, her fires were stoked, the lines released, and she was headed for the lake. Police arrived quickly but could only watch as the Ewig backed through the Juneau avenue bridge. A large American flag flew from her foremast; after all, it was Flag Day.

Things were going well until the Ewig reached Wells street. Bodenlos signaled for the bridge tender to open the span but he refused. It was about noon and war department regulations allowed the city to keep bridges over the Milwaukee river closed during the noon hour. So the captain decided to get some lunch and maneuvered the boat toward the Electric company dock just one block from city hall. He elected not to put out a ladder for city officials.

By now, thousands lined the river and hung out of open windows in downtown buildings to watch the spectacle. City officials were also busy. The city attorney was preparing a stack of warrants. The superintendent of bridges and buildings was photographing bridges to document damage claims. And police were stationed at every bridge to verify how long each was open. An assistant city attorney vowed this journey would be very costly to the Valley Camp Steamship company.

Milwaukee Sentinel
After struggling to clear the Wisconsin avenue bridge, the Harry T. Ewig slides through the Michigan street span on June 14th, 1934. Many gathered to cheer on the rebel skipper. Inset: the dapper and defiant Capt. Bodenlos.

At 1:00 p.m. Captain Bodenlos was back on the bridge smoking a cigar and decked out in "natty white trousers, a brown coat, white shoes and a jaunty panama hat." As he sounded the signal for the Wells street bridge, the whistle cord broke. Possibly the captain had pulled too hard or maybe too often; either way, the Ewig was delayed another 26 minutes while the crew made repairs. Three blasts from her whistle and the journey resumed.

She cleared Wells street with little difficulty. Now came Wisconsin Avenue, quite possibly the busiest thoroughfare in the city. Complicating matters, a bend in the river made it difficult to pass through the Wisconsin avenue bridge while lining up for the Michigan street span, which followed almost immediately. It took skillful maneuvering and 51 minutes to clear Wisconsin avenue. There was a great cheer from the crowd, but traffic officers and streetcar dispatchers were overwhelmed as they tried to untangle the mess.

By mid-afternoon the Ewig had cleared the Buffalo street bridge and could turn around. She would pass through the remaining three bridges bow first. Before leaving, Bodenlos docked to take on a few supplies and call the company office. The Ewig was headed for Detroit while the city attorney's office promised 25 additional counts and a bill for damages.

Bodenlos was not present for his court hearing on June 16th. For his complete disregard of Milwaukee's ordinances when he backed the Ewig through the Cherry street bridge without a tug on June 8th, Bodenlos was fined $100. The judge told his attorney: "The captain may be master of the ship at sea but he can't mock the law of Milwaukee." The judge added: "I wish the captain were here now. Let him go and tell the other captains on the lakes that it cost him 100 bucks to break the law in Milwaukee."

But Milwaukee needed coal so the boats kept coming. Most discharged their cargo at docks along the Menomonee river. This path posed fewer problems because the channel was straighter, there were fewer bridges, and it avoided downtown. However, there were large stockpiles of coal and two power plants along the Milwaukee river. Coal boats would soon have to make that trip, with or without tugs.

On June 19th, vessel owners offered to confine backward movements to late night and early morning hours if the city allowed such movements. This would minimize any inconvenience caused by longer bridge openings. According to Mr. Raskin, the city was agreeable provided the unions did not object. Raskin explained that city officials did not want it to appear they were taking sides in the strike. Such a response was to be expected from a socialist administration and city attorney who specialized in labor law before being elected. The compromise was rejected when one union refused to consent.

With no end to the tug strike in sight, vessel owners were running out of options. On June 22nd, they went to federal court seeking an injunction prohibiting the city of Milwaukee from enforcing its bridge ordinance. Arguments were heard the following day. The war department had promulgated numerous rules covering the operation of Milwaukee's bridges, but there was no "special regulation" that prohibited vessels from backing through a bridge without a tug. The judge granted the owners' request and issued a preliminary injunction. Coal boats could now proceed to their docks without fearing the process server.

Tugmen went back to work on July 31st, but the bridge battle was not over yet. The city appealed the order granting a preliminary injunction. In question were about 20 warrants issued prior to the order and several suits alleging damage to bridges filed by the city. Attorney Raskin focused on a Chicago ordinance that prohibited vessels of 1,200 tons and over (Ewig was 3,500 tons) from backing through bridges without a tug. In a 1913 decision, the United States court of appeals upheld Chicagoʼs ordinance. Raskin asked the obvious: if valid in Chicago, why not Milwaukee? Attorneys for the owners argued the Chicago case did not apply because the Secretary of War had no rules governing the operation of Chicago bridges in 1913.

The court of appeals released its decision on April 3, 1935. The court sided with the owners and upheld the preliminary injunction. In the exercise of power vested in him, the Secretary of War prescribed regulations for all bridges operated by the city of Milwaukee across the Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic rivers. These rules were detailed and comprehensive. Therefore, municipal action upon this same subject is precluded. In other words, Milwaukee could not enforce its bridge ordinance. The city asked the United States Supreme Court to review the appeals court decision. This request was denied on October 14th, 1935. Milwaukee's second bridge war was finally over.1

1 Milwaukee's first bridge war broke out in 1845 when west side (Kilbourntown) residents damaged two bridges and the eastsiders (Juneautown) retaliated. The animosity between Solomon Juneau and Byron Kilbourn is why Milwaukee's bridges are at unusual angles, which made backing through them without tugs more challenging.

Max Raskin was extremely upset with the press coverage of his attempts to enforce the bridge ordinance. His relationship with the Milwaukee Journal remained contentious. Raskin would say: "A lot of damn fools buy that newspaper." He lost his bid for reelection in 1936 and returned to private practice, often representing unions. Raskin joined the Democratic Party in 1944 and was appointed to the bench in 1963. He served as a judge for Milwaukee County until reaching the mandatory retirement age in 1973. He then served as a reserve judge in Waukesha and Jefferson counties until 1981. Max Raskin died in 1984. In praising his years of service, the Milwaukee Journal would admit that, "he and this newspaper had some differences of opinion."

In February 1935, Valley Camp Steamship sold almost its entire fleet, including the Ewig, to Oglebay Norton's Columbia Transportation division. This created a surplus of licensed officers and Captain Bodenlos lost command of the Ewig. He joined the Steamboat Inspection Service in 1936 and was commissioned a lieutenant commander when the Coast Guard took over that service in 1942. Named "Great Lakes Man of the Year" for 1959, he retired from the Coast Guard in 1960 as commander of the Coast Guard's St. Marys River Patrol at Sault Ste. Marie. Commander Elmer J. Bodenlos died in 1986 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

Milwaukeeʼs bridge ordinance survived. When some companies announced they would not use tugs in 1935, Raskin threatened to prosecute claiming the injunction applied only to parties in the case. But when the Milwaukee Tug Boat Line closed down in 1942 leaving the port without tug service, a new administration refused to enforce the ordinance. The tug requirement was deleted in 1954.

Discussions about closing the upper Milwaukee river to lake boats began in 1917. This would save money and eliminate traffic problems when opening downtown bridges. In 1962, the city asked the Army Corps of Engineers to close the river north of Buffalo street so a fixed bridge could be constructed for the expressway. The last coal yard on the river shut down in 1954, and no large commercial vessel had used that section since 1959. The corps approved the cityʼs request. The freeway segment crossing the river opened in 1969. Vessels proceeding up the Milwaukee river are now limited to a height of about 23 feet above the waterline.

Only one coal dock remains in Milwaukee. Located on the inner harbor at Greenfield avenue, its only customer is the Menomonee Valley power plant. WE Energies is converting the plant to burn natural gas. When that work is complete the coal piles will disappear, thus ending a long chapter in the history of Milwaukee's waterways.

Photo courtesy of MPL/WMHS Marine Collection
The Ewig backs through the State street bridge on June 14th, 1934.