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Reservoir Through History

Since its construction in 1873 the Kilbourn Park Reservoir has provided a lot of color to the neighborhood. After all, it went uncovered for a good 100 years, which to some seemed an open invitation for swimming. Measuring 310 feet east to west and 515 feet north to south, it can hold twenty-one and a half million gallons and has a surface area of three and one-half acres. It’s also located at the highest spot in the city and surrounded by foliage, providing great cover. It seems that the first intruders in the reservoir were fish, discovered when complaints arose regarding the quality of the water in 1876. Consumers east of the river said the taste was bad. This led to a shutdown between Aug. 7 and 14, 1877, when the water was drained and the bottom swept clean. There was found a small amount of sediment and some “vegetable growth,” but the water supposedly tasted fine, the fish simply being a by-product of the initial infusion of water from the river. In 1904, however, the fish issue arose once again. Small fish were frequently showing up in residents’ homes, having come in through service pipes. The reservoir was once again drained to remedy the problem. In 1907 an ornamental iron fence was installed around the perimeter to keep people and animals from falling in. The park had by then become an extremely popular place, attracting thousands of people with open-air concerts, which continued for more than half a century. Things went downhill in 1968, however, when poor attendance and violence inflicted on orchestra and audience members called for an end to the event. To add to the turmoil of the park in this era, objections arose in 1969 regarding the fact the reservoir was yet uncovered, due to a late summer plague of aquatic insects that took over the system. It was drained once again, and finally covered in the late 1970s. That still left more than 100 years for local residents to have their fun in the park, either in the reservoir or just around it. A good example of park activities is illustrated in a Milwaukee Sentinel article dated Aug. 4, 1889, in which the Kilbourn Park watchman was quoted as saying he had recently caught a man swimming, but upon taking him to the police station realized he had just busted the sixth district alderman. The watchman continued, “I am also required to keep an eye on the park, and I must tell you, I am surprised by the couples every warm night. The park swarms with people every warm night; with German people living in the neighborhood mostly. Well, the young German folks like to make love in such poetic places and, of course, I must see it all.”