Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography
North Central States
Wisconsin Milwaukee

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Milwaukee was chartered in 1846.

The first water works in Milwaukee were built by James H. Rogers to supply water to his new United States Hotel at the corner of Huron and East Water Streets.  He had tamarac logs bored and installed from a spring on the south side of Wisconsin street, midway between Jackson and Van Buren streets.  Water was also supplied to other customers along Michigan street and this system remained in service until the hotel burnt in 1849, after which water continued to run into the basement of the old structure.

The Lake Hydraulic Company was incorporated in 1852 with John Lockwood, James Kneeland, D.P. Hull, J.M. Gliddon, and Alexander Mitchell appointed as commissioners to sell stock in the company, which was given the "power and the exclusive right and privilege of building water works in the city of Milwaukee, for supplying water to said city and its inhabitants, to be taken from Lake Michigan ... as provided for in a contract entered into between the city of Milwaukee and John Lockwood, on the fourth day of February, A. D. 1852."  The company engaged engineer Theodore R. Scowden to design the works, but nothing was built.

The Milwaukee Hydraulic Company was incorporated in 1854 by Charles E. Jenkins, James Ludington, Joseph W. Haskin, William P. Young, Duncan C. Reed, Asahel Finch, junior, and James H. Rogers, with the "right and privilege of building water-works in city of Milwaukee for supplying water to said city and its inhabitants, to be taken from Lake Michigan."

Several individuals and firms proposed construction of water works prior to the city's decision to build its own system.  These included Alexander Easton and William C. Weir of the Holly Manufacturing Company.

The city of Milwaukee was authorized to build water works in 1871 and the first water was delivered to consumers on November 3, 1873 from a temporary plant pumping water into a reservoir.  The permanent pumping station was completed the following year, and the system included the North Point Water Tower

The waterworks are currently owned by the City of Milwaukee, which also provides water service to eleven wholesale customers who maintain their own distribution systems.


1845Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, July 18, 1845, Page 2.
City Water Works - We feel it out duty to invite the attention of the Honorable Board of Trustees, to the expediency of the establishment of Water Works in this city.  The eminences surrounding the town in almost every direction possess living and enduring springs of beautiful clear water, and that in sufficient abundance to supply fully the entire city.  Excavations could be made, and pipes laid in different sections, at the lower end of which hydrants could be erected at a comparatively trifling expense; and according to the closest estimate we can make, will not cost to exceed $2 per rod.

1845 Map of Milwaukee

1849 Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette, August 6, 1849, Page 2.
More about the water works

1850 Milwaukee Sentinel and Gazette, April 5, 1850, Page 2.
Gas and Water Works  Davis & Lee

1852 An act to incorporate the Lake Hydraulic Company.  April 5, 1852.

1852 "Milwaukee Water Works," Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, June 2, 1852.

1852 "Milwaukee Water Works," The Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), June 10, 1852, Page 1.

1852 Charter of the Lake Hydraulic Company, together with the contract for supplying the City of Milwaukee with Pure Water; and the First Annual Report of the Board of Directors, Milwaukee, December, 1852.  Also includes the report of engineer Theodore R. Scowden.

1853 An act to authorize the city of Milwaukee to aid in construction of the Water Works in said city. March 23, 1853.

1853 "Water Works and City Bonds," by John Lockwood, Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, March 30, 1853, Page 2.

1853 "The Water Works," Milwaukee Daily Sentinel, April 11, 1853, Page 2.

1853 An act to amend an act entitled an act to incorporate the Lake Hydraulic Company, approved April 5th, 1852.  July 12, 1853.

1854 An act to incorporate the Milwaukee Hydraulic Company.  April 1, 1854.

1857 An act to amend an act to incorporate the Milwaukee Hydraulic Company, approved April 1, 1854.  February 28, 1857.  Increases capital stock to $500,000.

1859 An act to authorize the city of Milwaukee to assess water rents.  February 24, 1859.
Section 1. That from and after the passage of this assess water act the city of Milwaukee shall have power to adopt a schedule or schedules of rates by which all water rents shall be assessed to the owner or owners of improved property in said city, contiguous to any street or alley through or along which the line or lines of water pipes shall have been laid, for the supply of water to the inhabitants of said city, and such water rents so assessed shall be a lien upon said premises, and collected in the same manner as city taxes are now by law, a lien, and collectable; Provided, however, That no such water rates shall be assessed upon any property of any citizen until the water is let into such pipe or pipes ready for distribution.

1859 "Report of the Water Works Committee," The Daily Milwaukee News, May 6, 1859, Page 4

1867 "Milwaukee Water Works," The Daily Milwaukee News, October 17, 1867, Page 6.
Notice to Capitalists

1867 "Milwaukee Water Works," The Daily Milwaukee News, Novemeber 7, 1867, Page 6.
Notice.  Proposals to be accepted until the 5th day of November, 1867.

1868 An act to authorizing the levy of taxes in the city of Milwaukee for the year 1868, for certain purposes therein specified. March 3, 1868.
Section 1. for surveys and estimates for the construction of water-works, five thousand dollars.

1868 Report on Milwaukee Water Works, by Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, October 28, 1868.

1868 The Daily Milwaukee News, December 11, 1868, Page 5.
Personal. -- B. Holly, the inventor of the Holly system of water works, we learn by private letter, will be in our city to-day or to-morrow and visit the city authorities and some of our citizens.

1868 The Daily Milwaukee News, December 17, 1868, Page 5.
The Holly Water Works.  Mr. Wm. C. Weir, Mr. Holly's agent, expatiated at length last evening before a committee of both boards of the common council, over the Holly system of water supply protection.  The following is in substance what he said of his system:
Mr. Holly's plan is to place one or more of his Elliptical Rotary Pumps within a frost-proof and fire-proof building. He propels them either by water or steam power.  These patent pumps are connected with water pipes of suitable size, laid of a depth which secures them against frost, and running through the streets of the town to be protected against fire, or supplied with water.  Hydrants are set at proper intervals -- each hydrant being equivalent to a fire engine, and also a water reservoir -- and branch pipes laid as required for the supply of dwelling houses, fountains, sprinkling streets and lawns, or any other purpose.  In addition, it embraces a set of pressure gauges, registers, safety valves and water telegraph, which, by their practical operations, secure an uniform flow of water through all the pipes, notwithstanding the fluctuations in the amount of water drawn from them, and the still farther and most important peculiarity, that is case of fire, the Holly Water Telegraph provides for any required additional supply for its prompt and sure suppression.
The advantages claimed for this system over others are:
1.  The great strength and power of the machinery, as compared with fire engines, for the suppression of fires.
2.  That these works save and make available the precious time consumed by fire engines in reaching a fire after an alarm has been given.
3.  That they obviate a serious difficulty with other systems in regard to a supply of water for the extinguishment of fires -- the Holly system never supplying a merely partial supply of water as is the case in other systems.
4.  That the severity of winter weather does not in the least interfere with their efficient operation.
5.  That they dispense with reservoirs in their construction -- thus securing economy.
6.  That the system dispenses with fire engines.
7.  That they require but a nominal sum to superintend and keep in repair.
8.  That they combine fire protection and water supply.
9.  That the rotary pump used in this system is more efficient than in any other.
The sum required to introduce the works, approximately is $750,000.
Mr. Weir could not inform the committee what would be the annual sum required to "run" the works.
He answered several questions put to him by the gentlemen present, and seemed to have full confidence in the superiority of the system to all others.
The Holly system has been introduced in Lockport, Auburn, Gouverneur, and Memphis, in all of which places they seem to be giving good satisfaction.  Whether Milwaukee introduces them or not, it is a debt which she owes to herself to look into their merits as compared with other systems of water supply.

1868 "The Question of Water," Semi-Weekly Wisconsin, December 19, 1868, Page 3.  Expanded discussion of Holly system.

1868 "Water Works," Semi-Weekly Wisconsin (Milwaukee, Wisconsin), December 19, 1868, Page 3.
The Committee on Water Works, with city officers and others, hold a meeting at the City Clerk's office this evening to examine Hawley's plan of works, which is creating something of a sensation in the East.

1868 The Daily Milwaukee News, December 29, 1868, Page 5.
Holly Water Works.  Mr. Weir, agent for the Holly system of water works, claims that several important omissions occurred in the published account of his interview with our city authorities on the night of the 17th inst. and desired to call the attention of the public to the following list of questions and answers.
Questions propounded by the committee on water works to Wm. C. Weir at a meeting held on the night of Dec. 17.
Question - How many engines and pumps will be required under the Holly plan to supply Milwaukee with water?
Answer - I would propose four engines and four pumps.  Engines to be arranged in two distinct sets.  Each set with double cylinders, quarter crank and variable cut off.

1869 The Daily Milwaukee News, January 30, 1869, Page 5.
Wager Decided. -- We learn that the referees to whom was referred the question at issue between Emile Dumais and W. T. Casgrain on the relative merits of the Chesborough and Holly system of water works, decided in favor of Mr. Dumais.  The money at stake -- $100 -- goes to St. Mary's hospital.  Mr. Casgrain, we understand, yields gracefully.

1869 The Daily Milwaukee News, March 9, 1869, Page 5.
The Water Works.  We have received the following note from W. C. Weir in relation to the Holly water works system:
Office of the Holly Manufacturing Co, Lockport, N.Y., March 5, 1869.
Ed. News: Permit me to ask of you a little space for the purpose of disabusing the minds of those citizens who have misconstrued the statement made by myself in a previous communication regarding the capacity of the Holly water works machinery.
Messrs. Lapham and Harrison in their decision as referees it seems have also thus misinterpreted.
I regret very much that the gentlemen were misguided by my statements, and I trust they will observe the following description which I thought was understand while in the presence of the water works committee.  I will repeat the statement made at the time and which I have not since changed:
"I would propose four engines and four pumps.  Engines to be arranged in two distinct sets, each set with double cylinders quarter crank and variable cut-off.  Two pumps connected with each set of engines."
Now let it be understood that each of these sets is estimated to have a maximum capacity for pumping 7,500,000 U. S. wine gallons of water in twenty-four hours, or both sets together a capacity for pumping 15,000,000 gallons in twenty-four hours.  the two sets would be arranged entirely separate and disconnected or in duplicate sets.
One of these sets it is intended shall remain idle or in reserve to be run only in case of accident to the one in operation or in case of emergency.
Each set to have two engines and pumps so arranged that each pump or either engine can be run separately.
Now let us figure a little on the capacity of one set.  Its capacity is 7,500,000 gallons in twenty-four hours will supply each inhabitant in a population of 187,500 with 40 gallons of water.  Therefore, I cannot see the necessity of 18,000,000 gallons of water in twenty-four hours for a population of 80,000 inhabitants.
Very respectfully yours, Wm. C. Weir.

1869 "Report of the Committee on Waterworks," The Daily Milwaukee News, April 10, 1869, Page 5.  Largely illegible, but appears to not recommend any specific system of water works, instead providing the council with all of the relevant information.

1869 "City Water Works," The Daily Milwaukee News, October 12, 1869, Page 5. | also here |
The Messrs. Easton, of Rochester, N.Y., propose to furnish this city with water from the Pewaukee lake, and last Saturday Messrs. Cosgrain & Saulerin, civil engineers of this city, commenced making survey of the grounds.  The Messrs. Easton are about to ascertain the full cost of accomplishing the work, and then will make an offer to the city.  The Pewaukee lake is 256 feet above the level of this level, and it is proposed to supply water from them in the same way as New York city obtains it by the Croton aqueduct.

1871 An act authorizing the city of Milwaukee to issue bonds.  March 23, 1871.
Section 1. The common council of the said city shall have power by ordinance to authorize the issue of the corporate bonds of said city to the amount of one million of dollars, payable in not less than twenty nor more than thirty years, with interest not exceeding the rate of seven per cent per annum, to be called water bonds, and to be used exclusively for the purpose of the construction of water works in said city, for the supply of water therein under the authority of law granted or to be granted to the said city.

1871 An act to enable the city of Milwaukee to construct water works, and to carry on and manage the same.  March 24, 1871.

1872 "County Court - Judge May," The Milwaukee Sentinel, March 16, 1872, Page 4.
Case of Wm. T. Casgrain and Leaon Soulerin vs. Alexander Easton.  Contract for survey between Lake Pewaukee and this city for water works.

1873 Green Bay Weekly Gazette, November 8, 1873, Page 2.
Tuesday, Nov. 4. Milwaukeeans were rejoicing last night over the completion of their water-works system.

1881 Milwaukee, Engineering News, 8:203 (May 21, 1881)

1881 "The Water Works," from History of Milwaukee, Wisconsin

1882 Milwaukee from "The Water-Supply of Certain Cities and Towns of the United States," by Walter G. Elliot, C. E., Ph. D.

1883 The Weekly Pantagraph (Bloomington, Illinois), March 2, 1883, Page 4.
The water works at Milwaukee are out of order, and a water famine places that city in great danger in case of fire.

1886 "The Water Works System," from Industrial History of Milwaukee, the Commercial, Manufacturing and Railway Metropolis of the North-west

1886 Milwaukee Under the Charter from 1854 to 1860 Inclusive, Volume IV, by James Smith Buck
Pages 16-17: The Milwaukee Hydraulic Company Chartered.  The first step looking towards the construction of water-works for the city of Milwaukee was by an act of the Legislature of 1854, and approved April 1, under the above title. The corporators and first directors were Charles E. Jenkins, James Ludington, Joseph W. Haskins, Wilham P. Young, Duncan C. Reed, Asahel Finch, Jr., and James H. Rogers. They were to take their supply of water from Lake Michigan. There was also an act, March 11, 1855, authorizing the city to issue $100,000 in bonds to aid in their construction. This last act was to be submitted to the people for ratification. It is needless to say that no works were ever constructed by this company.
Page 231: Stephen A. Harrison.  He was on the committee for accepting the plans for the present Chesbrough system of sewage, as well as the present system of water-works as against the Holly plan.*
*This has reference to a committee consisting of Messrs. Harrison and Dr. I. A. Lapham, selected to decide upon the difference in cost, predicated upon a challenge given by the Holly people, through Mr. Casgrain, in which the Holly people were badly worsted. In this affair the writer (who was pitted against Mr. Casgrain in the newspaper discussion regarding the merits of the two plans) chose Mr. Harrison, and Mr. C. chose I. A Lapham.

1888 "Milwaukee," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 1.

1890 "Milwaukee," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 2.

1891 "Milwaukee," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 3.

1893 Duty Tests of Triple Expansion Pumping Engines. The Edw. P. Allis Co., Milwaukee, Wis.
Milwaukee and Chicago

1897 "Milwaukee," from Manual of American Water Works, Volume 4.

1944 "The Design and Construction of the Milwaukee Water Works", by Joseph P. Schwada, Journal of the American Water Works Association, 36(10):1019-1061 (October 1944) 

1944 "The Operation and Maintenance of the Milwaukee Water Works System," by Herbert H. Brown, Journal of the American Water Works Association, 36(10):1062-1069 (October 1944)

1953 Water Resources of the Milwaukee Area, Wisconsin, by William J. Drescher, Frederick C. Dreher, Paul N. Brown.  USGS Circular 247.

1958 A History of Water Supply in the Milwaukee Area, by Charles Beveridge,

1962 "Milwaukee," from Public Water Supplies of the 100 Largest Cities in the United States, 1962, US Geological Survey Water Supply Paper 1812, by Charles Norman Durfor and Edith Becker

1964  "The Milwaukee Waterworks Expansion: A Case Study in Urban Investment Planning," by Manuel Gottlieb, Public Administration Review, 24(4):217-225 (December, 1964)

1974 A Century of Milwaukee Water, by Elmer Becker | pdf file with readable text | Table of Contents |

1986 "Origins of the Milwaukee Water Works," Bruce Jordan, Milwaukee History 9(1):2-16 (Spring, 1986)

2001 Hard Water: Politics and Water Supply in Milwaukee, 1870-1995, by Kate Foss-Mollan
Page 11: Further, Bostonians discovered that even with a large source such as Jamaica Pond, both the pumps used for pushing the water into Boston and the pipes through which the water was conveyed were limited in size. [The Jamaica Pond system used gravity to distribute the water, there were no pumps.]
Page 71:  The inland alternative, proposed by William Wehr of the Holly Pump Company, recommended that water be obtained from Pewaukee, Denoon, or Big Muskego Lakes and gravity-fed into the city. [Wehr (actually William C. Weir) of the Holly Manufacturing Company actually proposed pumping water from Lake Michigan using Holly's direct pressure system that would not require reservoirs or standpipes. Water supply from the other lakes was proposed by the engineer E. S. Chesbrough in his 1868 report.]

2013 North Point Tower, by Elmer W. Becker

2014 History of the Milwaukee Water Works, 1874-2015

2016 Morris A. Pierce