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

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