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Kilbourn Reservoir History

The Kilbourn Reservoir was an integral part of Milwaukee's water distribution system for over 125 years. The reservoir was built in 1873 on land donated to the city by founding father Byron Kilbourn. The purpose of the reservoir was to store and distribute drinking water and to provide fire protection.

The structure was a seven-sided irregular shape 25 feet deep and, when full, held 21 million gallons of water. (By comparison, the Hawley Tank near W. State Street and N. Hawley Road has a capacity of 2 million gallons. In 2006, the Water Works pumped an average 122 million gallons per day). The water was originally open to the air with about three-and-one-half acres of surface area. In 1979, a concrete roof was built over the reservoir to cover and protect the drinking water supply.

Historic accounts note that Milwaukee residents flocked to the hill and park-like setting created by the reservoir. From 1905 to 1968, Kilbourn Park was a popular place for evening concerts during summer months.

The structural integrity of the reservoir declined during its century of use. To minimize leakage and structural stress, the reservoir was eventually used at only half of its capacity. In 1998, the Water Works began conducting studies regarding the replacement of the water storage facility.

The Water Works determined the capacity of the Kilbourn Reservoir was no longer needed to operate the distribution system efficiently. Some major alterations were made to take the reservoir out of service. By 2004, the various pumps, bypasses, and feeder main alterations were complete, allowing for decommissioning the reservoir.

In the interim, the Historic Preservation Commission designated the site as historic. This designation was a significant in discussions with neighbors about the master plan for the site, which called for removal of the reservoir structure, and rebuilding of the familiar hill, with park amenities. Removal of the reservoir structure was undertaken in 2006 and 2007.

Aerial photograph of the Kilbourn Reservoir; looking west.  The reservoir was covered in 1979.
Aerial photograph of the Kilbourn Reservoir; looking west.  The reservoir was covered in 1979.

“An American Legion emblem fashioned from 50,000 flowers ornaments the park-like slope of a city waterworks reservoir in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This air photograph was submitted by Joseph Bolda, Commander of the General William G. Haan Post.” For his photograph, Bolda won first prize for August in the Monthly’s Prize Photograph Contest. --American Legion Monthly magazine, August 1932

Below, Photographer was facing northeast. Note pump house at top left. From Milwaukee Water Works archives (Undated)

View at the top of the Kilbourn Reservoir. From Milwaukee Water Works archives (Undated)

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