North Point: A Milwaukee Water Tower That Never Held Water

Dec 9, 2016

At the far eastern end of North Avenue in Milwaukee, you’ll find a structure that looks sort of like a turret in a medieval castle. Joe Peschio, a professor of Russian at UW-Milwaukee, has driven past the historic water tower plenty of times and has been wondering how it worked, since it doesn’t seem like it could hold much water.

“It seems like a very unlikely building for that purpose,” he says.

So, Peschio turned to WUWM’s Bubbler Talk for the answer.

Historic Milwaukee's Stacy Swadish with Mitch Teich.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

Lake Effect’s Mitch Teich took a trip out to the tower, which is officially called the North Point Water Tower, where he encountered sunny skies, arctic temperatures and a woman huddled against the cold north wind.

It turns out that thinking of it in the same terms as our modern water towers is a theory that – like the water tower itself – doesn’t hold a lot of water.

“It’s actually a very tall stand pipe – 120 feet tall and four feet wide,” says Stacy Swadish. Swadish is the executive director of Historic Milwaukee, Inc., which has included the North Point Water Tower in its popular Doors Open Milwaukee event in years past.

Inside the North Point Water Tower.
Credit Milwaukee Water Works

The pipe was built in 1871 to relieve the pressure of steam engines that, at the time, were used to pump water from Lake Michigan to the Kilbourn Reservoir just to the west. “As the steam engines pulsed,” she says, “it would relieve the pressure and not allow the pipes to break.”

But why design such a fanciful structure, just to cover a pipe?

“Water works were relatively rare in 1871,” Swadish explains, “and Milwaukee’s was only the third in the country, after Philadelphia and Chicago. [The city] invested $1.9 million in it, and they were very, very proud of this. “

“It showed Milwaukee was a metropolitan city, and the architecture reflected the Germanic and Victorian era,” she says. “It was meant to say, ‘Look at us – we’re here, we’ve arrived.”
 

The North Point Pumping Station is down hill from the water tower.
Credit Michelle Maternowski

The pipe – er, water tower – remained in use from its construction in the 19th century until 1963, when electric pumps at the new North Point Pumping Station went into use. That station is just down the hill from the tower, and is still in use today.

While the North Point Water Tower has been open during past Doors Open weekends, the structure has been off-limits to the public for months as the city has undertaken tuckpointing and other renovation work. That work is expected to be complete next spring.

And when it’s done – the historic North Point Water Tower will still house a now-obsolete, 120-foot tall metal pipe that doesn’t actually hold any water.

"[North Point Water Tower] is just a really, really glamorous covering for a big pipe." - Stacy Swadish

North Point Water Tower
Credit Michelle Maternowski

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