Washington Heights, a neighborhood that advertises itself as, “In the City — Out of the Ordinary!” lies along Milwaukee’s western border. While the neighborhood is now only minutes from downtown and close urban amenities, this area was once considered remote. Development of the area began in 1838 when the federal government gave a parcel of land to the Wisconsin Territory. The land was intended for a canal that would connect the Rock River to Lake Michigan, but the venture quickly failed. The land was sold to private investors.

In 1839, roughly two-thirds of what is now known as Washington Heights was purchased by George Dousman and turned into an immense farm. In addition to its agricultural operation, the Dousman family founded the Ne-Ska-Ra Mineral Springs Company, which sold bottled water from a spring on their property. Today an elementary school named Neeskara occupies the land where the spring flowed. Later, the Dousman land was sold in several parcels between 1880’s and the 1920’s.

Early settlement of the area owed much to two major 19th Century projects — the extension of the streetcar line to Wauwatosa and the construction of Washington Park. Designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, architect of New York City’s Central Park, Boston’s ‘Emerald Necklace’ park system, and Lake Park on Milwaukee’s east side, Washington Park opened in 1892. It soon proved a major recreational haven for the entire urban area, drawing people to its lagoon, bandshell, beer garden, and eventually to its zoo.

Additionally, a new streetcar line running along Lloyd Avenue (then called Pabst Avenue) was extended to the Pabst farms in the Town of Wauwatosa. With this line in place, the land just west of Washington Park became an easy commute from downtown Milwaukee. A building boom began shortly thereafter, and by 1930 more than 95% of Washington Heights’ homes were completed.

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