The Water That Made Milwaukee Famous

Dec 7, 2009

Today, WUWM begins a week-long series called “Project Milwaukee: The Currency of Water.”

We will explore southeastern Wisconsin’s prospects of becoming an international hub for water technology.

WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence starts with a look at the history of water use in Milwaukee and what’s contributing to the water hub dream.

An evolving Milwaukee River.

John Gurda seems the right person to explain how Milwaukee’s identity is bound to its lake and rivers.

“Milwaukee is where it is because of water,” Gurda says.

The historian grew up here and has devoted 35 years of research to his hometown.

“Here we are on the shores of Lake Michigan. We have the best natural harbor on the western shore of the lake,” Gurda says.

Gurda says water wasn’t the only attraction that lured settlers here in the 1800s. The surrounding countryside was well-suited for farming.

“We were the largest shipper of grain on earth in the early 1860s,” Gurda says.

That meant Milwaukee’s water also served as a way to transport thing in and out of the harbor. By the 1870s, breweries took hold.

Gurda says that industry required huge amounts of water. Milwaukee’s climate also played a part.

“First of all, winters to make ice, because that’s what cooled the beer for all the summer months, when it was most copiously consumed. As well as a source of fresh water to brew,” Gurda says.

Gurda says by 1874, Pabst Brewing Company produced more beer than anybody in the United States.

“And Schlitz and Blatz were in the top 12. By 1890, Milwaukee was the largest tanner of leather on Earth. So this is very early, before 1900, Milwaukee had these water-based industries,” Gurda says.

Gurda thinks Edward P. Allis stands out among the city’s 19th century industrialist luminaries. The New York state native settled here in 1846, originally planning to practice law. Instead he built a manufacturing dynasty. But before he created what became Allis-Chalmers, the entrepreneur plunged into water technology. He landed the job of supplying miles of pipe needed to capture pollutants those prolific industries were spewing into waterways.

Gurda says up until then, Allis had never produced a piece of pipe or a single pump.

“And you know the North Point Water Tower up here on the East Side, the pumping station at the foot of the bluff there? The Alterra coffee shop there at the foot of the Lafayette Hill? The biggest water pump in the whole world is in there, made by Allis to use fresh lake water to flush what was then the putrid Milwaukee River back in 1888,” Gurda says.

“Do you have a sense from your research, what made that guy tick?” I ask.

“Risk! He was not an engineer, he was not an accountant, he was a capitalist. He took some enormous chances and reaped the rewards,” Gurda says.

Some people today might think it’s risky putting so much energy into promoting this region as a worldwide water technology hub, but Claus Dunkelberg says pieces are already in place. He’s a water industry specialist with the Milwaukee 7 Water Council.

“I mean, Milwaukee has got industries here that are dealing with wastewater treatment, mechanists and all the skill sets required that a water industry needs. It’s been here for many, many decades,” Dunkelberg says.

He says Milwaukee’s expertise could help countries around the world that are facing life-threatening water issues.

Great Lakes WATER Institute director Val Klump says 1.2 billion people don’t have safe drinking water and twice as many lack adequate sanitation.

“As a result water-born disease is the single leading cause of human mortality,” Klump says.

The scientist says experts predict it will take years and trillions of dollars to solve the word’s water issues.

Both Klump and Claus Dunkelberg say although the situation is grave, momentum is growing to come up with solutions.

“My role is provide a linkage between the water industries, both existing and then new technology and the universities, try to get that all linked together,” Dunkelberg says.

Scientist Val Klump sees connections even forming among universities.

“Water is one of those things that crosses a lot of disciplines. Marquette School of Law is starting a new water program,” Klump says.

At his own institution, UWM is creating a School of Freshwater Sciences.

“As the school is formed, we are going to expand our research agenda to include the development of new technologies to help solve problems. And that technology, once it’s developed, can be exported all over the world,” Klump says.

Klump says he’s never seen anything like it over his long scientific career; all of the regional players – academic, business and political – are coming to the table.

He says collaboration is what it’s going to take, not just to infuse the region with jobs, but to solve the water challenges facing the world.