Cream City Brick Seeing The Light

The brick from which Milwaukee got its nickname. Home Back


Milwaukee has long been known as the "Cream City," and while many people assume that the name comes from the State's long pre-eminence in the dairy industry, it is in fact derived from the cream-colored bricks from which many of the City's buildings are constructed.

Deep veins of red lacustrine clay run along the western shore of Lake Michigan, and one of the unique properties of this clay is that when formed into bricks, it turns a light golden yellow color after firing. Not only pleasant in color, these bricks generally possess superior strength and weather resistance characteristics, as well as excellent color-retention properties.

Milwaukee masons have used these locally fired bricks since the first brick homes were built in the area in the late 1830s. By the 1850's, word of Milwaukee's cream-colored bricks had spread throughout the Midwest, and demand increased dramatically. To supply that need, brickyards grew throughout the area, with most of the outbound shipments being made via scows and tugs leaving the growing docks on the Milwaukee and South Milwaukee waterfronts.

Milwaukee's brick making boom lasted well into the 1870's. More and more of the city's buildings were constructed of the local bricks, to a point that visitors could not help but notice the overwhelming cream coloration of the city. As a result, it was during this era that the city became known as the "Cream City," and the bricks in turn became universally known as "Cream City bricks."

With the Lighthouse Depot in Milwaukee responsible for the construction of Lake Michigan's remote lighthouses, it is understandable that construction supplies were purchased locally and shipped via lighthouse tender to the remote building sites. Thus, when the Milwaukee Depot's masons were assigned to build a new station, bricks were purchased from Milwaukee's brickyards, and thus cream city bricks were used.

While the Cream City brick was known for its durability, as in any industry, some of the local brickyards' output was likely of inferior quality to others. It is also likely that the Lighthouse Depot would have purchased bricks from a number of different brickyards, as bids were  accepted for various construction projects.

This would explain the reason that some of the Lights constructed of Cream City brick such as White River and Eagle Bluff have withstood the ravages of time in extremely good condition, and stand in their original condition today some one hundred and twenty years later. Whereas some of the Cream City brick lighthouses began to deteriorate within a few decades, and required significant rebuilding, such as Cana Island and Big Sable Point, which both required encasing with steel plates to protect the deteriorating brick within thirty years of their construction.

References

History of South Milwaukee, South Milwaukee Govt. website
Greater Milwaukee Recreational Handbook, City of Milwaukee, 2000
Milwaukee Architecture, Dr, Steven Ryer, website 
Massachusetts Institute of Technology Physical geology tutor.


Terry Pepper. This page updated 12/02/2007

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