The North Point Pumping Station
By Jim Meyer, Milwaukee Water Works Accountant, 1967-2003
The original North Point Pumping Station, on the lakeshore at the foot of East North Avenue, was placed into operation on September 14, 1874. From 1874 to 1924 it was the only pumping station that pumped water from Lake Michigan into the water system. This water was not treated or filtered.
The early pumping stations also had standpipes near the station and generally were enclosed with stonework. The tall standpipe, open at the top, absorbed the surges of water from the pulsations of the steam pump plungers. Only one of these is still standing today though it is no longer used. It is the beautiful North Point Water Tower located on the bluff above North Point Pumping Station. Built in 1873, the 125-foot-high and four-foot diameter standpipe was enclosed in ornamental limestone and gingerbread wooden peaks.
By 1877 the expanding city west of 18th Street was experiencing low water pressure due to higher land elevations in those areas. A booster pumping station was built at North 18th and West Juneau Avenue in 1878 and replaced by a larger station at 10th Street and North Avenue in 1887. This station was in service until Riverside Pumping Station replaced it in 1924. Water mains generally west of 18th Street were isolated from the rest of the system and formed what was called a high service area.
While the pumps at North Point performed flawlessly all those years, if a disaster had shut down the station, Milwaukee would have been without water for some time. So when the next expansion became necessary, it was done by constructing an entirely new pumping station at the Milwaukee River just north of Locust Street. Supplied by a tunnel from the Linnwood Intake, the Riverside Station went into service in 1924 and is still being used, though its steam pumps have been replaced by electric pumps
This was in the Age of Steam, when steam engines powered everything from locomotives to entire factories. Steam pumping engines were beautiful to see in operation. The later versions were five stories tall and were called "triple expansion" engines because they contained three cylinders, each one larger than the other. Steam at high pressure expanded in the smallest cylinder and pushed the piston down. The steam then passed on to the larger middle cylinder and did its work, and finally moved to the third and largest cylinder where it expanded for the last time before returning to the boiler for reheating.
All this was done in silence because the steam did not exhaust to the air like locomotives did, and to see 100 tons of machinery performing its work while hearing only the clinking of valves was an impressive experience indeed. Steam pumping engines required oilers and machinists to keep them running, plus more people to operate and maintain boilers, coal handling and ash removing equipment. This was a round-the-clock operation and North Point Station had a staff of about 60 to do all this work.
By 1960, North Point Station was becoming too costly to operate and the entire station was taken down and replaced by a new building and pumps. Read about the project in the December 1963 issue of Water & Sewage Works Magazine. Similarly, the steam pumps at Riverside were replaced by electric pumps in 1968, though the building was saved.
While not needed for many years, the North Point Water Tower was always considered too pretty to demolish, and now has Historic Landmark status by the City of Milwaukee and by the American Water Works Association.