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Riverside Pumping Station

The Riverside Pumping Station, on the city’s east side between the Milwaukee River and Humboldt and North Avenues, was placed in service in 1924. It was built to alleviate a severe water shortage
after World War I when the Milwaukee Water Works had only one major pumping station, the North Point Station at the foot of North Avenue on the Lake Michigan shore.

Water enters the station through a nine-foot diameter reinforced concrete tunnel from the junction structure at the Linnwood Water Treatment Plant. Prior to the completion of the Linnwood plant in 1938, the Riverside Station pumped water directly from Lake Michigan after it was treated with chlorine gas. Now, the water is treated and filtered at the Linnwood Water Treatment Plant and is pumped into the distribution pipesimage of steam pump
under city streets. 

The Era of Steam Power
The three original Allis-Chalmers pumps were steam powered and had a capacity of 69 million gallons per day (MGD). These pumps evolved from two-cylinder compound engines to triple expansion engines. The later versions were five stories tall, easily accommodated by the 59,000-square-foot building. The engines were called "triple expansion" because they contained three cylinders, each larger than the previous. Steam at high pressure expanded in the smallest cylinder and pushed the piston down. The steam moved to the larger middle cylinder that expanded it further and in the third and largest cylinder, it expanded for the last time before returning to the boiler for reheating. All of this was performed in silence because the steam did not exhaust to the air as it did in locomotive steam engines.

Those who saw the triple expansion engines marveled to witness 100 tons of machinery at work while hearing only the clinking of valves. 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. At the North Point Station below the North Point Water Tower, the operation had a staff of about 60 to perform all of these activities. 

See the steam pumps in action -- Watch a segment of a 1968 Allis-Chalmers Co. color 16mm film of the Riverside Pumps (No audio was recorded)

A World Record
Pumping Engine Unit One broke the world record for efficiency operation for a vertical triple expansion Corliss engine when it was given its acceptance test in 1924. The previous record had been held by a water pumping engine in Cleveland.

The End of Steam Power
The era of pumping water using steam-powered equipment ended on Aug. 23, 1968 when the fires in boilers #5 and #6 were banked and extinguished. The conversion to electric pumping eliminated the cost of operating and maintaining boilers and steam pumping engines, and eliminated air pollution caused by the coal-burning boilers.

MWW retired accountant Jim Meyer provides his recollection of the great steam pumps: "I started in (the Milwaukee) Water (Works) in 1967 and had a tour of Riverside before the steam pumps were decommissioned. They were certainly impressive, and ran so quietly, like a fine watch. The many bearings needed frequent oiling, and the oilers knew, I was told, if a bearing needed attention. They could hear any out-of-the-ordinary noise and would also  touch a bearing surface to see if it was too warm.

"In 1968, it seemed MWW would need every available pump for future demands. Otherwise, one steam pump could been left in place, just as a history exhibit, even if all boilers were removed. Who could have known then that Milwaukee would lose all its tanneries, all but one major brewery, plus the push for  water conservation, so that now you're pumping half the capacity of Riverside Station.

"So the pumps were dismantled, after an effort was made to donate them. Smithsonian would take one, but MWW would have to pay for delivery!"

Riverside Pumping StationThe Riverside Station Today
The Riverside Station has seven pumps with a combined capacity of 173 MGD. Our daily system pumpage varies but averages 94.3 MGD.

In 2010, new generators were installed as part of a system-wide program to provide backup power throughout the utility's treatment and distribution system. We test run the system once a month to ensure proper operation, and the manufacturer’s representative runs it at full power every three months to verify performance. There has not been a situation in which the station lost all power. The system uses diesel fuel because this is the standardized best fuel for running the engines that only provide backup power for water pumps. In the case of an extended power outage we would be able to continue to supply drinking water to our customers in Milwaukee, Ozaukee and Waukesha Counties using backup power.

History excerpted from “A Century of Milwaukee Water,” by Elmer W. Becker, and files of Jim Meyer, retired accountant

Riverwest's Hidden Landmark, by Carl A. Swanson (Photo credit Carl A Swanson)


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