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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Life of all kinds has returned to the Milwaukee River. © Robert Queen
Life of all kinds has returned to the Milwaukee River.
© Robert Queen

April 2005

River on the rebound

Restoring the lifeblood that flows through the heart of Milwaukee.

Kathleen Wolski and William Wawrzyn


When "Milwaukee" meant the river | River interests regrouped

For more than 150 years it took a lot of kicks, but recent restoration and protection has helped revitalize the Milwaukee River, and it is definitely a river on the rebound. One of the most dramatic and controversial changes to the river focused on removing the North Avenue Dam in downtown Milwaukee, but the river's story stretches much farther upstream and much further back in time.

Almost 100 miles in length, the Milwaukee River flows from headwaters in Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties through seven counties draining an area of nearly 725 square miles that is home to a fifth of Wisconsin's residents. The river's north, east and west branches, and Cedar Creek merge with the Kinnickinnic and Menomonee rivers in this "gathering place by the waters" (the Native American meaning of "Milwaukee") to flow through the city into the Milwaukee River Estuary and Lake Michigan.

In its upper reaches, the Milwaukee River drains undeveloped portions of the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest and developed rural lands. Runoff from barnyards, feedlots, and ever increasing paved suburban developments flow downstream. The river's lower reaches tax the waters even more substantially. The Milwaukee River system drains the most densely populated region in the state. Moreover, more than 950 industries and 14 municipal treatment plants discharge wastewater into the water basin and runoff from streets, rail yards and rooftops strain its natural abilities to cleanse and recover. Still, there are encouraging signs that the river's vital role in Milwaukee's economic past will be reflected in renewed prosperity as the river recovers into the future.

When "Milwaukee" meant the river

During the city's formative years, the river helped transform the region into a major transportation, economic and industrial center. With the opening of the Erie Canal, the first trading vessels arrived in Milwaukee in 1832, creating demand to develop transportation routes that could move imported goods west and ship Wisconsin's ample natural resources to eastern and European markets. A Milwaukee canal was envisioned as a conduit and a catapult for economic growth.

The Milwaukee and Rock River Canal was an ambitious plan designed to link the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers with a manmade waterway that would follow the Menomonee west, cut through to the Rock River and the four lakes in Madison, link to the Wisconsin River, and eventually to the Mississippi.

In 1835, a timber dam across the Milwaukee River, just south of North Avenue, was built to control water flow in the Milwaukee and Rock River Canal. Only about one mile of the project along the west banks of the Milwaukee River was completed before the project was abandoned. The Milwaukee and Rock River Canal Company went bankrupt and ceased operation in 1866, the same year spring floods washed out the original dam; its timbers damaged or destroyed five bridges on the Milwaukee River on their way downstream to Lake Michigan. In 1884, the City of Milwaukee filled in the canal and built Commerce Street on the site.

A new dam was built in 1891 to control flooding and regulate water between the upper and lower portions of the river. The 2.5-mile-long 82-acre impoundment created behind the dam was a prime place of leisure and recreation for many Milwaukeeans. Swimming schools, beaches, passenger ferries, boat liveries, rowing schools and commercial icehouses thrived above the dam. Ships and barges continued to use the lower river to meet the transportation needs of the machine shops, breweries, tanneries, paper mills, factories and other industries located along the river.

Unfortunately, in addition to recreation and commerce, the river was a convenient dumping ground. Industries and residents used the river as a sewer, and stormwater runoff from developing urban areas and agricultural lands upstream further eroded water quality. Water pollution closed the beaches in the 1930s and city residents complained of a foul odor from the river. Sediments built up behind dams and other obstructions trapped pollutants like heavy metals, organic chemicals and nutrients in the silty layers.

For the most part, Milwaukeeans turned their back on the river during the post-WWII years. New families moved out of the older neighborhoods along the river seeking new housing on the city fringe and in the suburbs. Public parks and private developments bordering the river fell into disuse and disrepair.

Railroads and trucks replaced freighters, and in 1959 the last commercial vessel navigated the Milwaukee River upstream of Buffalo Street. Many factories and warehouses along the lower river closed, leaving behind abandoned and blighted buildings. Downtown Milwaukee, once the heart of evening entertainment, had become a ghost town after offices closed for the day. Ornate movie theaters were torn down and replaced with parking lots.

River interests regrouped

Cleaning up the river has provided outstanding examples of regional cooperation, citizen and community involvement. As in so many Wisconsin rivers and streams, wastewater and piped wastes from industries were once considered the major impediment to water quality. Beginning in the 1970s, major investments upgraded private and public wastewater treatment plants. Soon after, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent containing and treating combined sewer overflows in the Milwaukee area. Those efforts continue.

Nevertheless, environmental quality and river uses along the Milwaukee River were still limited. Recognizing these conditions, the Department of Natural Resources completed a comprehensive plan that recommended improvements throughout the Milwaukee River Basin. Thanks in part to this planning effort, a Milwaukee River Revitalization Council and a watershed plan developed to focus on the river's cultural, environmental, recreational and economic benefits. The River Revitalization Foundation raised community support to acquire land to form a recreational trail and corridor along the lower riverbanks. Now, cement that might formerly have been used to channel and straighten the river is being poured for riverwalks, new homes and businesses proud to carry a riverside address.

Thousands of students from area high schools participate in the Testing the Waters program to monitor and learn about water quality in the river. Landowners in rural areas are working with the state on cost-sharing programs to help reduce runoff pollution from their farms. Each year, business groups and nonprofit organizations join together for river cleanups. Cities, villages and towns are developing riverwalks, parks, and are sponsoring festivals and activities celebrating the vitality of the Milwaukee River.

Much of the river's physical recovery can be linked to projects that removed seven obsolete dams on the main stem and tributary waters starting in 1990. These removals included the Young America in Washington County, the Woolen Mills dam in the city of West Bend, Chair Factory dam in the Village of Grafton, the DNR's New Fane dam in the Kettle Moraine State Forest, the Waubeka dam outside of Fredonia, the Schweitzer dam outside of Jackson, as well as the largest dam on the river, North Avenue Dam in Milwaukee.

As noted in the River Alliance's account of river recovery, "At the former Chair Factory dam site in Grafton, removal uncovered beautiful dells as this portion of the Milwaukee River cuts through the Niagara Escarpment. At both New Fane and Young America dam sites, removal restored habitat for the threatened longear sunfish. In West Bend, removal of the Woolen Mills dam...[subsequently] created a 60-acre park that has become the crown jewel of that city."

Removing the North Avenue Dam and impoundment was viewed as a linchpin for riverside recovery. In late 1990, the dam gates were opened, lowering water levels to accommodate replacing of a water main and repairing a bridge. Then-Mayor John Norquist agreed to leave the dam gates open while DNR staff led a technical advisory group consisting of city, county, village of Shorewood, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. The technical team studied alternatives and recommended partial removal of the dam to lower and narrow the river flow to natural conditions. Once exposed muds dried out and consolidated, the riverbanks were seeded with natural vegetation to keep sediments in place as the river returned to a natural state.

To help the Milwaukee River heal itself, the North Avenue Dam was removed. © William Wawrzyn
To help the Milwaukee River heal itself,
the North Avenue Dam was removed.
© William Wawrzyn

The 2.5 miles of river from the Estabrook Dam to the North Avenue Dam narrowed considerably as the free-flowing river resumed a more natural course. The drawdown also exposed more than 150 years of accumulated garbage. During the summers of 1991 and 1992, Youth Conservation Corps members and numerous volunteers removed and recycled more than 2,000 tires and about 600 yards of other debris including auto parts, shopping carts and appliances. Water quality and habitat was improving. Fish subsequently moved in from populations upstream and downstream of the former dam.

Downstream, the City began building the first segment of a downtown riverwalk system and started holding annual festivals like River Splash to celebrate the river. The enthusiasm spawned equal interest in revitalizing neighborhoods and housing downtown. Further study recommended removing the dam in its entirety. Permits were secured and the dam was taken out in 1997.

The fishery responded very quickly, noted Will Wawrzyn, one of the DNR biologists who spent more than seven years working on the project. Fish species using the river increased five-fold in just a few years. The waters that used to hold common carp and white sucker now have healthy populations of smallmouth bass. Walleye and lake sturgeon restoration projects are underway and a state-threatened species, the greater redhorse, is common here. Where the river flow remains strong and steady, trout and salmon have migrated approximately 30 river miles upstream as far as the Village of Grafton on the Milwaukee River and to the City of Cedarburg on Cedar Creek. Today, you can walk along the former impoundment and see herons and osprey, red fox and river otters on restored wetlands along the floodplain.

City parks along the river are benefiting from a renewed interest from neighborhood coalitions through groups like the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park. The center holds canoe trips, river exploration and remains a community center for scientific explorations in the heart of the city. The city, county and state are working on a streambank restoration project to stop erosion, establish hiking trails, and create canoe and kayak access. A canoe trip along the Milwaukee River from North Avenue to downtown presents a beautiful urban perspective. Luxury apartments and condominiums have replaced old warehouses. During the warmer months, outdoor tables in restaurants and pubs that located on the river are at a premium, and pontoon and paddle boat rentals are available.

The city has nearly completed the downtown phase of the riverwalk, and future development will focus on the north and south ends, possibly extending from the North Avenue bridge to the Third Ward and Lake Michigan harbor. A pedestrian bridge now spans the former dam site connecting new developments along Commerce St. and existing Riverwest neighborhood with that of the historic Brady St. neighborhood.

Rich in history, the Milwaukee River is finally receiving respect and recognition as a treasured natural resource flowing through the heart of an invigorated downtown.

Kathleen Wolski is DNR's public affairs manager for southeastern Wisconsin. William Wawrzyn is a DNR fisheries biologist for the Southeast Region.