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Dictionary of Wisconsin History

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Term: Kilbourn, Byron 1801 - 1870


surveyor, land speculator, canal and railroad promoter, politician, b. Granby, Conn. He moved with his parents to Ohio in 1803, and left school at the age of 13 to clerk in his father's store. In 1823 he secured an appointment as an Ohio state surveyor, and for ten years was active in surveying canal routes in that state.

In 1834 he surveyed a portion of Manitowoc and Sheboygan counties, Wis., and in 1835 purchased land on the west bank of the Milwaukee River. To promote this town-site, Kilbourn helped finance the Milwaukee Advertiser, and, hoping to make Milwaukee a trade center, actively promoted the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal Co., which would have connected the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. He also sponsored Milwaukee harbor improvement, boat building, the Milwaukee Claim Association, and the Milwaukee County Agricultural Society. In 1838 he and Solomon Juneau (q.v.), his townsite competitor, secured the union of Kilbourntown and Milwaukee village (Juneau's promotion on the east bank of the river). Differences soon arose over the bridging of the Milwaukee River, however, and the final settlement did not come until 1846.

A Democrat, Kilbourn served in the territorial lower house (1845), but opposed the state constitution of 1846 because of its banking provisions. Elected to the second constitutional convention (1847- 1848), he was chosen chairman of the committee on general provisions, and helped draw up the preamble, the declaration of rights, and the articles on banking, boundaries, and amendments. In 1855 Kilbourn was defeated in the contest for U.S. Senator. He was twice elected mayor of Milwaukee (1848, 1854).

A pioneer in promoting Wisconsin railroads, Kilbourn was the principal organizer of the Milwaukee and Waukesha R.R. Co. (1847), the first railroad company in the state to begin actual construction. The line was soon renamed the Milwaukee and Mississippi R.R. Co., with Kilbourn serving as president until 1852, when he was forced to resign because of alleged fraud and mismanagement. He then became the principal organizer of a rival road, the La Crosse and Milwaukee, and obtained a land grant from the state to aid in its construction. It was later discovered that Kilbourn and his associates had used $900,000 in railroad bonds to bribe various state officials in obtaining the land grant. The subsequent scandal and investigation ruined Kilbourn's public career and the company eventually went into receivership. In 1858 he attempted to obtain a charter from the state for a liberal arts college for poor boys that he intended to call Kilbourn University. The legislature denied his request and he retired from public life. In 1868 he moved to Florida.

Sources: B. Still, Milwaukee (Madison, 1948); Wis. Mag..Hist., 19; A. M. Thomson, Political Hist. of Wis. (Milwaukee, 1900); A. W. Derleth, Milwaukee Road (New York, 1948); [F. A. Flower], Hist. of Milwaukee (Chicago, 1881); WPA field notes.

The Wisconsin Historical Society has manuscripts related to this topic. See the catalog description of the Byron Kilbourn Papers for details. View related newspaper clippings at Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles.

[Source: Dictionary of Wisconsin biography]
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