A Stream Runs Under It: Wisconsin's State Fair Park Covers Part of Honey Creek

Oct 7, 2016

This week's Bubbler Talk question comes from Jim Thompson, who teaches mechanical drawing at MATC.

"I saw on a map there were two Honey Creeks in Milwaukee. One’s down close to the [Kinnickinnic River], and the other is up by the Menomonee [River] in Wauwatosa. And I was wondering if they’re just one stream or two separate streams."

Question asker Jim Thompson near the water facility above the Milwaukee River at the end of Chambers Street.
Credit Courtesy of Jim Thompson

Before we searched for the answer, we were curious why Jim wanted to know:  "I happened to be putting together a jigsaw puzzle…"

A jigsaw puzzle – of Honey Creek? Well, sort of…

"A map of our area...," he explains. "I bought it from National Geographic in 2009. You could give them your address and they would print a map formed into a jigsaw puzzle. It sat for 6 or 7 years, more or less unopened, and I was bored one day and I decided to open it and make it. And I could not place this Honey Creek anywhere."

To give Jim credit – he did try to figure it out on his own. "I tried searching the internet for watersheds of Honey Creek but there are so many Honey Creeks even in Wisconsin that it was kind of like – I’m just not going to get there. And then I thought of you guys."

Jim's puzzle
Credit Courtesy of Jim Thompson

WUWM'S BUBBLER TALK: What have you always wanted to know about Milwaukee and the region?

So we called the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, which studies the area’s watersheds, and got Tom Chapman on the line to give us the definitive answer.

Honey Creek flows in a culvert underneath Wisconsin State Fair Park.
Credit MMSD

"There is only one Honey Creek and it stretches from about 43rd Street and Grange Avenue on the South Side and goes north all the way to the Menomonee River," he answered.

But Chapman says he understands why there might be some confusion. "There is a section in the middle of that 9-mile stretch that is enclosed in culverts and underground. So it may appear as though there is a south section of Honey Creek and a north section, they’re actually connected by about a mile of enclosed culverts that are underneath State Fair Park."

READ: Milwaukee’s Empty Mile

It turns out that when that portion of the creek was enclosed sometime in the late 1950s, another 6 miles was lined with concrete.

It was an attempt to prevent flooding so the area could be developed. But that solution turned out to be not so good.

"That typically would move the problem downstream to another section where we would line that section too," Chapman explains. "But we don’t do that anymore. When we have flood management solutions, we restore the stream and look for better solutions that keep the stream’s attributes in place. When you line or enclose a stream you lose its habitat value, its potential for fish movement, fish passage, it has dramatic effects on water quality… nowadays we have better ideas on how to fix floods management and restore streams."

READ: South Side Neighbors Engage in Rebirth of Milwaukee's KK River

Chapman says there are plans to eventually tear out Honey Creek’s concrete linings on both sides of state fair park, but it won’t be for a number of years. And tearing down the park in order to reclaim the mile of the creek underneath would be prohibitively expensive and is highly unlikely.

So for the foreseeable future, Honey Creek will remain a divided, but single waterway.

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