Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Waukesha Water War Revisited

For the last couple of years, the City of Waukesha is attempting to find new sources of fresh drinking water to comply with the federal standards of radium since its existing wells contain high levels of the potential cancer-causing element. The plan is to pipe water from Lake Michigan. In order to do so, it needs permission under the Great Lakes Compact where each of the eight states bordering the lakes have to approve Waukesha's plans since it straddles outside the Lake Michigan drainage basin. Before radium entered the Waukesha water system, shortly after the Civil War, the city entered the famous era of its young existence, the Springs Era (1868-1914), known nationally for its clean spring water that had miraculous effects.

The Springs Era of Waukesha started with an Irish immigrant who reluctantly travelled with his wife to the city to attend the funeral of his mother-in-law, Bridget Clarke, in August 1868. Colonel Richard Dunbar, who suffered from incurable diabetes, travelled one hot summer day with his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Clarke, to some real estate she recently purchased. Noticing some springs on her property, he took a tumbler and drank a couple rounds of spring water. Suddenly, he felt "a most grateful and refreshing sensation" as the water travelled throughout his body and declared "the most delicious, the most grateful beverage that entered my mouth in years." Did the water have any effect on his diabetes?

After he drank from the spring and surprisingly refreshed, Dunbar walked without discomfort to a nearby oak tree and thirty minutes later, drank another six tumblers of water. He sense that there was some sort of magic element in the spring water and perhaps help cured his diabetes. Dunbar returned to the East Coast and his diabetes relapsed so he returned to Waukesha to drink more of the water. Finally, he decided to move his family to the city in order to be close to the springs.

Initially, people were skeptical about Dunbar's claim that the spring water actually cured his diabetes. However, the Waukesha Freeman worked eagerly "to transform Dunbar's discovery into an event of mythic proportions." (David McDaniel, Spring City and the Water War of 1892).For the next twenty years, hundreds and then thousands of people, including the former President Abraham Lincoln's wife Mary, visited the springs and filled jugs of spring water. In addition, the city experienced a boom in population, the rise in new hotels and industries and turned this once quiet village west of Milwaukee into a thriving resort town. Then in 1891, a Chicago entrepreneur named James E. McElroy travelled to Waukesha and tried to win approval from the Village Board to lay pipes towards the site of the upcoming 1893 World's Columbian Exposition.

McElroy arrived at Waukesha in July of 1891 as supposedly the "manager" of the Hygeia Mineral Springs Company that would be in charge of the project. The Waukesha Village Board granted approval to lay pipes from one of its springs to the site of the Expo. When news reached the Village, the citizens became outrage and the Board reconsidered his pipeline. With the first unsuccessful attempt, he then proceeded to buy Hygeia Spring and its hotel in September 1891 for $30,000. In another hearing about the project that took place on February 3, 1892, citizens flocked the meeting room with fierce opposition. Knowing that he will not get permission from the Board, McElroy's team secretly arrived by train late on May 7 and suddenly they were greeted by the locals. Fire bells began to toll and hundreds of citizens grabbed any weapons they could and threaten the workers, which abruptly boarded a train back to Chicago. Finally, despite many setbacks, James McElroy was able to sell spring water from Waukesha County at the World's Fair by trucking it from a pipeline that ended on land that he purchased in Big Bend.

The Springs Era ended around the time World War I broke out. Local Historian John Schoenknecht, author of the book, "The Great Waukesha Springs Era: 1868-1918," believed that fecal bacteria contaminated the springs but some of them are still flowing today with water but none are used for drinking. For the majority of the twentieth century, Waukesha received its drinking water from three large wells but they began to contain larger and larger amounts of radium that potentially causes cancer. In 2006, then Mayor Larry Nelson negotiated an extension of its December 2009 deadline to find new sources of water until 2018. I hope that Waukesha can begin a new era in obtaining fresh drinking water. If they do receive permission, the significance may not be as dramatic like the Springs Era but will be a good step forward to reduce the risk of cancer to its citizens. The residents of Waukesha deserve quality drinking water, a part of their heritage.

"Spring City and the Water War of 1892," by David P. McDaniel
"Spring City no More," by Don Behm of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, April 20, 2010

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

"Houston, We Have a Problem"

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial Earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, and suddenly, the United States was behind their Cold War rival in space exploration. In reaction to the embarrassment, the country mandated that every high school student enroll in physics courses to help close the science gap between the United States and the USSR. Also, one year later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to get America into space.

The first space flight program called Project Mercury (1958-1963) and according to NASA, its three primary goals were to orbit a manned spacecraft around Earth, to investigate man's ability to function in space, and to recover both man and spacecraft safely. The most famous astronaut was Alan Shepherd who became the first American to orbit the Earth. The program flew six manned missions before the next program took over.

The second space flight program called Project Gemini (1965-1966) and it flew ten manned flights. The goals according to NASA were to subject man and equipment to space flight up to two weeks in duration; to rendezvous and dock with orbiting vehicles and to maneuver the docked combination by using the target vehicle's propulsion system; to perfect methods of entering the atmosphere and landing at a preselected point on land. Its goals were also met, with the exception of a land landing, which was cancelled in 1964. Also, many of the astronauts who flew during this mission went on to NASA's famous Apollo program including Wisconsin's very own James Lovell who was part of the Gemini VII and XII missions.

With the success of both the Mercury and Gemini programs, the United States believed that it could achieve the unthinkable, to be the first country to land on the Moon and return home safely. President John F. Kennedy made it the nation's priority of landing on the Moon before the end of the 1960s concluded in his speech before a Joint Session of Congress on May 25, 1961.   You can see how it received bipartisan support. 

The Apollo program began shortly after Kennedy's speech and the early missions leading up to the Moon landing focused primarily on studying the its outer-surface. Also, it was a test to see if the astronauts were able to handle the confines of outer space for extended periods of time. Then, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11, commanded by Neal Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collings, launched and four days later Armstrong became the first American to land on the Moon, finally beating the Russians. Here is the link of CBS News' live coverage of the moon landing anchored by Walter Cronkite.  The video is very remarkable for that time and you can tell how Walter was enjoying every moment of the landing.

For some humans, the number 13 is portrayed as a bad luck number especially the occasional Friday the 13th. The number even provided a bad curse for the Apollo 13 crewmembers (James Lovell, Jack Siwgert who replaced Ken Mattingly after being exposed to the German measles, and Fred Haise), as they would try to be the third spacecraft to land on the moon. The mission started on Saturday, April 11, 1970 with a beautiful afternoon launch at Cape Canaveral in Florida at 2:13 (EST). Things went well for the astronauts and after a prime time show to the nation on Monday, April 13, Jack Swigert did a routine procedure that unfortunately caused a massive explosion of the oxygen tank in the Service Module that had a ripple affect into the Command Module Odyssey. This link is a breaking news bulletin by ABC News and now the nation turned to their TV sets for the next couple of days to see if NASA could somehow pull out of this disaster.

Anxiety began to set in with both the crewmembers and Mission Control in Houston. Obviously, the mission turned from landing on the Moon to bringing back the astronauts home alive, a daunting task. Since the Service Module was inoperable, and the Command Module (CM) crippled with limited power, the only thing that the crew had left to survive was the Lunar Module Aquarius (specifically design to land on the moon and nothing else). They used it as a lifeboat and for the next couple of days, did numerous course trajectory corrections around the Moon and able to aim it back at Earth. Finally, on the last day of the mission, Friday, April 17, the astronauts transferred to the CM and jettisoned the Aquarius. The whole World watched to see if the crippled Command Module would hold up the intense heat through re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Then, after several minutes of blackout, longer than normal, a miracle happened, the crew landed in the South Pacific at 1:08PM. Thanks to the talented Mission Control led by Gene Kranz and the NASA agency, they were able to bring back the crew alive when many doubted that could have been possible.

The Apollo 13 mission was called a “successful failure” because even though they did not land on the Moon but were able to return home safely after that near fatal disaster. For NASA, this mission became the most memorable one in its history and even turned into a movie starring Tom Hanks as James Lovell. It is appropriate to honor these heroic men and all of our astronauts who risk their lives for humankind. Finally, next time when you drive down Lovell Street in downtown Milwaukee, just remember who it was named after and made not just Wisconsin proud but the whole World, too.