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Fishing the Bay

We don’t think of our village as a fishing village, however, the first commercial enterprise in the area (other than farming) was fishing. And the fish that that they caught most often was the whitefish – leading to our village’s name.

In 1862, Mr. John Luck, a fisherman from the fishing district near Green Bay arrived in the area and, with the help of William Consaul, one of the first farmers in the area, constructed the first ‘pound net’ off the shore of our community.

The pound net had been developed in Scotland and introduced to North America in the 1830s. It consisted of a leader, a tunnel, and a pot (see figure 1, below).

A book entitled “Fishing in the Great Lakes: An Environmental History 1783-1933,” describes the function of the pound net as follows: “The leader was a net positioned at a right angle to the shore. Leaders used in 1879 measured from 500 to 1,400 feet in length. The leader guided fish toward the core of the net, a heart shaded enclosure from where they passed through a tunnel into the pot of the net.”

The construction of a pound net typically required a scow fitted with a pile driver to set the stakes that supported the nets (see figure 2, below).

In order to harvest the fish, a crew using a pound-net boat lifted the pot of the pound net and pulled the whitefish into the boat (figure 3).

Many years ago, Mary Jane Scheife provided her recollections of pound net fishing in Whitefish Bay. Mrs. Scheife was the daughter of William Consaul, one of the first farmers in Whitefish Bay whose land extended from the lake to what is now Santa Monica Boulevard and with a southern boundary of what is now East Silver Spring Drive. A Village street that now traverses the property, North Consaul Place, is named after the family.

An extract of her oral history is as follows:

“The first pound net in Whitefish Bay was put in in l862 by Mr. John Luck, a fisherman from the fishing district near Green Bay. It was a very warm day in May when he came down through the orchard and rapped at the door of our home and father went to the door. The man said his name was John Luck and he had come down with his boats and net and three helpers and now all he wanted was a nice landing place. […]

“The next day they went over to the tamarack swamp just north of Devon Street near the river to look for stakes. They found all the nice, tall trees which they bought and began cutting down, trimming off the branches and getting them ready to take up to the lake for shaving and pointing off. It was a busy time and by the first of June the nets were set and fish coming in fine. Mr. Luck fished on our beach for two years and then moved down about five blocks south about opposite Circle Drive where he fished about ten years, good fishing most of the time. He lived in the house that is now 942 East Sylvan Avenue; a very nice house at that time but not as large as it is now. It has been remodeled two or three times.

“The next year father and his brother, Captain Theodore Consaul, started fishing. They hired a fisherman from Green Bay for about two months to help get the nets in and everything started. The man’s name was William DeYoung, a very nice man and a good worker. Father built his own boats during the winter, one twenty-four foot flat bottom and one fifteen foot.

It was a warm spring and they wanted to get the net in for the early spring fishing. They got the nets in ready for business but that night a big northwest storm came up and lasted for two days. The lake was very rough so the net could not be lifted for two days. Father was very much worried that he expected to find his nets all torn to pieces by the rough weather and the drift wood, but to his surprise they only found one big hole where a big log had torn through and with about four hours mending it would be fixed like new.

They rowed out to the pot and found everything all right and there they had quite a surprise. When they lifted the net they found it contained fifteen sturgeon and about two bushels of small fish, mostly trout, sheepshead and bass but no whitefish.

When they returned to the beach there was quite a crowd of people waiting for fish, so most of them were sold right there on the beach. Most of the sturgeon had been ordered, so my older brother put the saddle on the old horse and went out to tell the farmers we had plenty sturgeon on the beach and were going to lift the nets again about one o’clock in the afternoon. They did and at that time came in with forty-five sturgeon, all sizes from two feet to four and one-half feet long.

This sounds like a big fish story, but it is the truth. We had no strict fishing laws in those days like we have now. I was five years old at the time but remember this as though it happened yesterday.

“Father fished about eight years, good fishing most of the time. Then the nets were mended and stored away in the fish shanty.”

Another account of pound net fishing in Whitefish Bay is provided by an interesting article that ran in the Milwaukee Sentinel, July 17, 1862. It’s a reporter’s account of his excursion to Whitefish Bay. He reports:

“Five minutes pull brings you to the pound; a few minutes inextricable twisting of ropes ducking of heads and in our case a continual chorus of nautical phrases in which all joined, and above which the horse la', could be heard loud and distinct. After getting in sight of the web, the doors are shut and the net pulled up so as to bring the fishes near the surface. The sight is well worth seeing. The water becomes alive with the finny creatures, all wiggling gliding and squirming in an almost solid mass of tails, heads and fins. Thousands of the silvery herring, the plump, scintillating white fish, the broad flounder, the succulent bass, the rank sheep’s head, the great sluggish sturgeon, the pickerel and many others, all massed in a living community. The visitors are allowed to haul out all they want, which is easily done as they (the fish) are so congregated that they can be caught with the hand.

“The scene is an exciting one, and Mr. Luck who owns the nets, takes great delight in the interest shown at his unique exhibition. Parties always come to shore with selected strings of fish for which a mere nominal fee is charged.

These men have already salted and packed 500 barrels of white fish at this place. They take two loads to the city every morning and the smoked sturgeon which is served up in our saloon is of their preparation.

“We found on our arrival, a party of gentlemen accompanied with ladies, who had just been out to visit the pound.

“The scenery in the vicinity is picturesque and the locality pleasant.”


Additional References:

Figure 1: Green Bay pound net. (Drawn by L. Kumlien; from Hugh M. Smith and Metwin-Marie Snell, "Review of the Fisheries of the Great Lakes in 1885," U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Report, 1887, Appendix, 50th Cong., 2d sess., 1889, H. Misc. Doc. 133 [Serial 2661], facing 108)

Figure 2: Crew of a stake boat driving stakes for a pound net, Lake Erie. (Drawn by H. W. Elliott; from Hugh M. Smith and Merwin-Marie Snell, "Review of the Fisheries of the Great Lakes in 1885; 'U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Report, 1887, Appendix, 50th Cong., 2d sess., 1889, H. Misc. Doc. 133 [Serial 2661], facing 28)

Figure 3: Crew of a pound-net boat lifting the pot of a pound net, Lake Erie. (Drawn by H. W. Elliott; from Hugh M. Smith and Merwin-Marie Snell, "Review of the Fisheries of the Great Lakes in 1885," U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, Report, 1887, Appendix, 50th Cong., 2d sess., 1889, H. Misc. Doc. 133 [Serial 2661], facing 250)

“Fishing in the Great Lakes: An Environmental History 1783-1933,” Margaret Beattie Bogue, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1924

The above articles were found in the Mimi Bird files, part of the WFB Historical Collection maintained by the WFB Library.

Big Bay Park and the WPA by Tom Fehring

I just obtained a book entitled, “Milwaukee County Parks” – part of the Images of America series*. It includes a lot of interesting pictures of the development of the Milwaukee County Park System. One particular photograph caught my eye, a picture of the stairs at Big Bay Park in Whitefish Bay.  I was able to obtain a more detailed photograph, showing the actual construction of the stairs and associated landscaping:

The stairs were constructed in 1940 using WPA labor. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) was established by Franklin Roosevelt in 1935 as part of his ‘New Deal’ efforts.

I’m sure that most of us that live in Whitefish Bay are familiar with these stairs – however it has been a long time since it has looked anything like the above image. The comparable view today looks like the following:

It’s still a nice way to walk down the bluff, when the mosquitoes aren’t in season. But it’s disappointing that the walk hasn’t been more carefully maintained over the years.

The walk contains some interesting views, although the area could be improved by some prudent pruning of the foliage.

There is a natural flow of water through the area, which transverses a small ravine. Interestingly enough, when the retaining wall area at the base of the bluff was rebuilt a few years ago, no apparent provision was made to deal with the stream. As a result, the water flows over the walk way, creating a muddy mess.

Working with Joe Rice, our County Supervisor, the Milwaukee Parks Commission has been asked to maintain the area better, to ensure that this significant asset is available into the future.  The site has been added to the Village’s architecture and history inventory.

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