Milwaukee River Flushing Station

Also known as: McKinley Flushing Station, Alterra at the Lake
1701 Lincoln Memorial Drive, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Single story, Victorian utility building


Overview Looking Southwest

Photo taken by J.R. Manning




The Milwaukee River Flushing Station is a significant example of a pioneering pollution control device. In service over one hundred years after its construction, the flushing station still performs its original purpose. It is a rare extant example of a Victorian era utility building.

Milwaukee River Flushing Station 

Written by J.R. Manning

Milwaukee is built upon the confluence of three rivers, the Milwaukee, Kinnickinnick and Menomonee Rivers, where the combined rivers flow into Lake Michigan. In the late 1800s, the growing city found itself with a problem. Raw sewage was just dumped into the rivers, allowing the river flow to carry the sewage to the lake. As the city grew, the natural flow of the Milwaukee River was not enough to carry away what the government referred to, in a most delicate way, the "river nuisance." The Milwaukee River was little more than a stagnant, open sewer. While the ultimate solution to the problem was a sewage treatment system, an immediate solution was called for.

The solution was a macro version of the household method of taking care of sewage and waste, which was to flush the river with fresh water. To accomplish the feat, Edwin Reynolds (1831-1909), an engineer working for the E.P. Allis & Company (forerunner of the Allis-Chalmers Corporation) came up with a plan. He suggested a way to flush the river with fresh water from Lake Michigan, by digging a tunnel from the lakefront to the river by using a huge pump. In 1887, a contract was let and the tunnel construction began.

Reynolds designed a screw pump that was scoffed at by other engineers. At the time of its construction and installation, it was the largest pump of its kind in the world. It was powered by a coal-fired steam engine. The pump featured a blade-type screw pump, 14 feet in diameter, that moved 41,764 cubic feet of water per minute. The pump moved 500 million gallons of water per day and in each 24 hour period, the pump essentially replaced all of the water in the river from the North Avenue Dam to the mouth or the river.

The tunnel was dug 12 feet in diameter for a distance just shy of 1/2 mile. It runs underneath East Kane Place from the inlet at the pump house to a spot in the river, just below the North Avenue Dam. The soil from the tunnel was used to expand the beach on the lakefront and build a pier for the coal ships that would bring fuel to the station.

A Cream City Brick building was built to house the pump and steam engine at the same time. It was designed in a Victorian style building, featuring arched windows, a steeply pitched gray slate roof with stamped steel cresting. A cooling cupola that also used the same style and slate roof. The building is significant today as a rare example of a Victorian-era utility building.

A tall smoke stack was a major feature on the lakefront while the steam engine was in place. In 1912, the 350 horsepower steam engine was replaced with a 450 horsepower electric motor and the smokestack came down. That motor was still in use as late as 1987.

In 1988, the building was restored following strict restoration guidelines. The brick and masonry was cleaned while the roof, doors, windows and framing were all replaced.

In October 1992, the Milwaukee River Flushing Pump was designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

When the steam engine was removed, very little of the building was utilized because the electric motor that drives the pump is miniscule compared to the steam engine. Today, the unused portion of the building is leased to a local coffee company that runs a hip-and-trendy cafe in the space. You can visit the site, have a cup of coffee, and take in the history of one of the first pollution control devices put into use.

Update Log 

  • March 29, 2013: New photos from J.R. Manning
  • October 5, 2010: Essay added by J.R. Manning
  • October 5, 2010: Added by J.R. Manning