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Kilbourn/Reservoir Park: A Brief History

by Donna Schlieman In May of 1998 I submitted a document to Milwaukee’s Historic reservation commission nominating Kilbourn/Reservoir Park as an historic site. It is known by its appearance to the public — it sets up 40 feet in the air and is covered with earth, grass, and trees. North Avenue curves sharply around the reservoir to the south, and Kilbourn Park lies south of the curve. The park ends at the bluff overlooking Commerce Street, which is undergoing development as part of the Beerline B tax-incremental district and where high-end condos are being built. Reservoir Area Map Kilbourn/Reservoir Park meets three of the criteria for historic designation. First is its identification with a person who significantly contributed to the culture and development of the city of Milwaukee. Bryon Kilbourn was one of the three founders of our city and Milwaukee’s third mayor. He donated 4.64 acres of land to the city for a college, but the land was changed to park use when a college was not built on the site. The second criteria it meets is its unique physical character and location. Its spectacular views cannot be found anywhere else in the city. Generations of Milwaukee’s residents have grown up with Kilbourn/Reservoir Park as a familiar site. The third criteria it meets is its exemplification as a cultural, social site. In Milwaukee’s early history up to four homes were placed on a lot. The city was crowded, smoky, and dirty. Parks were a necessity for helping people escape to green space. The city first discussed a need for a public water works to aid in fire protection in the 1850’s. Because the city was in debt and the Civil War had begun, the city held off on building a public water works facility. In 1868 city leaders hired a consultant from Chicago who suggested taking water from Lake Michigan. The public debt was restructured in 1871, and the State and City approved a board of Water Commissioners. The reservoir was built in April 1872 at a cost of $117,000. It was filled with water from the river in 1873. In the fall of the following year, a pumping station brought water in from Lake Michigan. This was the first public water works in the Great Lakes region. In 1941 the American Legion planted flowers in the shape of a star on the hill’s east side, a landmark many in the area remember seeing as they drove along North Avenue. After the Reservoir was capped, tennis courts and a running track were available at the top of the hill for public use. This was discontinued in the 1990s, and the Reservoir is now used to maintain water pressure. The Milwaukee Common Council on a vote of 18 to zero in July 1999 approved Kilbourn/Reservoir Park as a Historic Site. While Riverwest residents are working with Water Works personnel to help shape the park’s future, it is protected by historic designation to retain its shape and height. Stay tuned to see what will happen next… Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 1 – February 2002