In Milwaukee History

Though the current building and name date back only to around 1915, MPS' Riverside University High School's story goes back much further.

Riverside High celebrates 150th birthday with history book and gala

After a few false starts, Milwaukee opened its first permanent high school Downtown in 1868. That high school slowly worked its way northeast and these days it continues on as Riverside University High School, 1615 E. Locust St.

As the school celebrates its almost astonishing 150th anniversary, Jim Gibson – a former MPS teacher and employee of MTEA and then WEAC teachers' unions – has assembled an in-depth look at a century and a half of Riverside High.

Gibson – a key member of the Riverside University High School Foundation and who is married to a retired teacher who spent more than three decades working at Riverside – published a shorter, earlier version of the book a few years ago as a fundraiser for the foundation, but the new volume is greatly expanded.

Copies of the book will be ready in time for the RUHS Foundation's 150th Gala Anniversary event, Friday, Aug. 10, at Potawatomi Hotel and Casino, 1611 W. Canal St. Tickets for the event, which starts with a cash bar cocktail hour and silent auction at 5 p.m., with entertainment to follow at 6:30, are $100.

They can be purchased online at, or by mailing a check to RUHS Foundation, c/o Tri City National Bank, 4295 W. Bradley Rd., Brown Deer, WI, 53209, attn: Audrey Sellers.

A number of Riverside graduates will receive awards and honors at the event – which is emceed by 1977 alumna Sheri Williams Pannell – including Milwaukee Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton and Alders Milele Coggs, Khalif Rainey and Nik Kovac, alongside Lee and Donna Whitcomb, David Riemer and longtime RUHS teacher Tom Wild.

Williams will also present an original skit called "Riverside Past, Present and Future."

As for the past, there were modest attempts at high school instruction in Milwaukee schools in the 1850s, but the first real high school came after the state legislature approved an act in March 1867 to establish one in Milwaukee.

MPS Superintendent Francis Pomeroy then established the first high school, which opened inside the Seventh Ward School house on the west side of Jefferson Street between State and Juneau the following January. In September 1869, the program moved to the nearby First Ward School building at Van Buren and Juneau (pictured above).

In 1877, the city acquired the former Milwaukee Academy (later called the Markham Academy, after its principal from its founding in 1864 until 1877, Albert Markham) building on the northeast corner of Cass and Knapp Streets for $10,000 for use as the new Public High School.

The Academy erected a new building at Van Buren and Wells Streets (pictured at right).

In 1866, Henry C. Koch was tapped to design a new, modern high school on the site (pictured below). But even that building became too small to meet demand – despite the fact that South, West and North Division High Schools had been erected, leading to the first high school being designated as East Division in the interim – and by 1911 a site had been selected for a replacement.

That site, along the Milwaukee River, is the where the current Riverside building – a collegiate gothic gem designed by Van Ryn & DeGelleke – opened in 1915 and where notables like Colleen Dewhurst and Edmund G. Fitzgerald went to school.

In 1928, MPS built a new high school, called Lincoln, on the playground to the north of the old East Division, which was then demolished to create the current parking lot for Lincoln Middle School of the Arts. The old building can be seen in the background in this construction photo.

After entering into a partnership with nearby UW-Milwaukee, Riverside was renamed Riverside University in 1984.

Of course, along this long road of history, there are all kinds of interesting details about long-serving principals, alumni sent off to war, state sports titles and much more. But I'll let Jim Gibson tell you about those.

To inquire about copies of Gibson's book, please visit


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