Gertie the Great

January 2010


In late April 1945, just after President Roosevelt died and World War II was finally winding down, an ordinary mallard duck brought the promise of life’s renewal back to the residents of Milwaukee. The little brown duck built a nest on one of the white-oak pilings surrounding the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge. The bridge, bustling with noisy streetcars and commuters, seemed the most unlikely spot for the mallard to raise her young. The Milwaukee River was polluted by the oil-soaked wooden pilings. There was only one small clump of mud nearby for the duck to search for nourishment.


After hearing reports of a nest holding three eggs, the Milwaukee Journal named the brave duck Gertie the Great. On April 28, headlines announced the arrival of Gertie’s fourth egg. Gertie went on to lay nine eggs, but three disappeared. Crowds began leaving corn, bread, lettuce leaves, and cookies for Gertie. Bridge traffic would often be interrupted as masses of spectators tried to catch a glimpse of the feathered superstar. Streetcar conductors would stop in the middle of the bridge to check on her. On Mother’s Day, Gertie was sent hundreds of cards and poems. To protect Gertie, a bridge repair project was postponed. Even a VE Day parade quieted to a whisper when passing Gertie, so as not to disturb her.


The city mobilized to ensure that Gertie’s ducklings would be safe. Plans were made to pump more than 2 million gallons of fresh water into the river, so the oil wouldn’t soil the ducklings’ wings. A shanty was set up nearby with cornmeal and clean cotton. Rowboats were ordered into readiness. The Boy Scouts and a Humane Society attendant watched Gertie around the clock. The ducklings began hatching on May 30, and five of the six ducklings were free from their shells on the evening of May 31. That night, a powerful storm struck, and Gertie and her ducklings were strewn far apart from one another. Lawrence Hautz, a conservation league president, aided the sixth duckling in hatching, and reunited Gertie’s family, thanks to the ready rowboats. A few days later, the happy family was relocated to the Juneau Park lagoon.


The Gertie fervor spread around the globe via newspaper photographs, newsreels, military newspapers, and radio networks. Both the Associated Press and United Press International ran stories about Gertie, and a London newspaper gave her a cover story. Life Magazine featured Gertie in its June 18 issue. In 1959, a children’s book was published entitled Gertie the Duck. Today, bronze statues of Gertie and her ducklings adorn the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge, reminding all of us that amid the daily chaos, hope, tenderness, and the joy of new life are paramount.