The Lost River

Photo by Tom Bamberger On the far southern edge of the city, a river runs wild. Cool water tumbles over giant boulders, lilacs and tall thistles bend in the wind and a bird sings out from a willow along the grassy banks of the meandering stream. It’s barely a half-mile stub and not really a river but a creek, Wilson Park Creek, the main tributary of the Kinnickinnic River. Spring-fed and pure, the water bubbles to the earth’s surface from somewhere beneath the stifling runways of General Mitchell In-ternational Airport, where it’s captured in a trough right out of the…

Photo by Tom Bamberger

On the far southern edge of the city, a river runs wild. Cool water tumbles over giant boulders, lilacs and tall thistles bend in the wind and a bird sings out from a willow along the grassy banks of the meandering stream.

It’s barely a half-mile stub and not really a river but a creek, Wilson Park Creek, the main tributary of the Kinnickinnic River. Spring-fed and pure, the water bubbles to the earth’s surface from somewhere beneath the stifling runways of General Mitchell In-ternational Airport, where it’s captured in a trough right out of the ground and channeled in concrete until it breaks free in this pas-toral field near Sixth Street and Layton Avenue.

You can lose yourself in the natural beauty of the creek zigzagging through the grassland. Then, off in the distance, the rumbling of a truck on a freeway drowns out the sound of rushing water.

Such is the story of the Kinnickinnic River, a waterway of many personalities, at once pastoral and urban, unspoiled and man-made.

At its mouth, at the Port of Milwaukee, the Kinnickinnic is a wide-open parking lot where Great Lakes barges and seagoing “salties” moor in its stagnant, murky waters. Entering the city, the KK narrows into a combination of industrial water lane and rec-reational thoroughfare. Sheet pilings form its rusty banks along grain elevators, cement terminals and boat yards. Groves of silver sailboat masts flash above the water as seagulls circle overhead.

Farther inland, the river flows unimpeded through a short stretch of wooded land before turning hard and impersonal at Sixth Street, a sad stream running over a concrete bed for 10 blocks, abutting tightly packed, modest South Side homes. From there, the KK twists and turns through a series of parks and parkways, still contained by concrete, before finally losing its man-made bed near the city’s western limits.

From the time George Walker created Walker’s Point on the impenetrable Tamarack Swamp, the South Side has always been the stepchild of the city, and its river, the Kinnickinnic, equally lacking in stature. For much of its history, the river has been regarded more as a hindrance or dumping ground than the urban respite it could become.

The Kinnickinnic is not only the smallest but the most urbanized river in the Milwaukee basin. Its watershed contains just 25 miles of perennial streams and seven ponds, with a drainage area of 33 square miles. Despite its size, the watershed is the area’s most densely populated, with 152,000 people living within its reach and 93 percent of the watershed devoted to urban use.

This represents an opportunity for the city, a chance to create a recreational and commercial corridor for many to enjoy. Much of the city’s redevelopment has been driven by reclaiming the Milwaukee River, and now the Menomonee River Valley is becoming a new corridor for growth with the completion of Canal Street, the expansion of the Potawatomi casino and construction of the Harley-Davidson museum.

The Kinnickinnic, meanwhile, has remained the city’s lost river.

But now, as development in the city edges southward through the Third Ward and Walker’s Point, an unlikely coalition of scien-tists, business owners, environmental activists and public policy experts has come together in an effort to rehabilitate the river.

“People perceive the Kinnickinnic River corridor the same way they did the Menomonee Valley 10 years ago,” says Ben Gramling, program manager with Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, which is spearheading the campaign. In tandem with the coalition’s work, the Department of City Development has hired a market research firm to figure out what properties in the KK corridor are most “susceptible” to changes over the next 20 years.

The transformation will not come easily. The Kinnickinnic’s waters are badly fouled, the fish and wildlife habitat spoiled. The long expanses of concrete channel that were installed 40 years ago to manage floods are deteriorating and have limited the public’s access to the river. The KK is in such bad shape that two years ago, the environmental group Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers nomi-nated it as one of America’s most endangered rivers.

The attention to the overlooked waterway could have tremendous promise to further transform the city.

“Look at the Milwaukee River. It inspires economic -development,” says Cheryl Nenn, project director and river keeper with Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers. “The Kinnickinnic’s been forgotten.”

 

Milwaukee Historian John Gurda has written about the Kinnickinnic and lived near the river as a boy. He has fond memories from the 1950s, before the cement was poured to control the river’s flow. Gurda remembers catching crayfish with his great-uncle, hanging from a rope swing along the stream and breaking through the ice in winter and freezing the legs of his jeans. He remembers clear water cascading into the river from one of its tributaries, Wilson Park Creek, at the site where St. Luke’s hospital now stands.

Named after an Indian word that refers to a ceremonial smoking mixture of tobacco and willow bark, the Kinnickinnic was once pristine, fed by seven tributaries to the south and west. It was the presence of the Kinnickinnic, Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers that caused this city to be founded, Gurda notes in his book The Making of Milwaukee. The rivers’ confluence formed a natural inner harbor that provided protection from the turbulent waters of Lake Michigan and attracted European settlers in the 1830s fol-lowing the forced relocation of the Potawatomi.

“Milwaukee had two resources that its rivals lacked: the largest bay and the deepest river on the western shore of Lake Michigan, Chicago not excepted,” writes Gurda.

Railroad lines eventually traversed the port, and three-masted schooners navigated the waters, delivering coal to Milwaukee and loading iron ore bound for the East and wheat for Europe.

As heavy traffic congested the port, the Board of Harbor Commissioners approved a remedy – a massive dredging project in the 1930s for the construction of the Kinnickinnic Mooring Basin, a broad and deep channel at the river’s mouth large enough for 50 to 60 ships.

During World War II, a ship-building center operated along the KK near First Street. “By war’s end, eight tugboats, four naval corvettes and cargo ships had begun their careers on the muddy Kinnickinnic,” notes Gurda.

With its growth, the port nourished factories that produced everything from plumbing fixtures to furnaces to farm equipment, earning Milwaukee the reputation as “machine shop of the world.” Once termed “the blue-collar river” by horticulturalist Charles Whitnall, the Kinnickinnic is still home to many major manufacturers.

But a series of changes in the nation’s economy and transportation systems gradually reduced the port’s importance. A hundred years ago, Milwaukee drew 6,000 vessels of all classes to its harbor each year. By 1981, it saw barely 10 commercial vessels a month.

Despite the decline, the Milwaukee River remained the city’s major water passage, flowing through the heart of Downtown. And for years, the Menomonee River Valley continued to be a vital manufacturing center.

The Kinnickinnic, meanwhile, went largely ignored.

 

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a city’s potential. Biologist Rebecca Klaper came to Milwaukee from Georgia three years ago to take a job with the Great Lakes Water Institute, a research arm of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The ecologist soon became enamored with the city’s rivers and signed on as a point person with the KK rehabilitation project.

From outside her office on the mooring basin near the east end of Greenfield Avenue, Klaper gazes into the water below. Its con-ductivity is near zero, she says, contaminated by a sludge-filled soup of storm water and sewer overflows, pesticides and herbicides from parklands and private lawns and motor oil and gasoline from streets and parking lots.

Shipping corridor, sewage drainway, concrete outwash – the KK river poses a unique challenge, says Klaper.

“It’s lost its function as a river,” she says. “It’s kind of a diversion rather than something that brings people together. Unless there’s public interest, there’s not going to be a push to do anything about it.”

From the Water Institute, you can see remnants of the Kinnickinnic’s gritty, working-class past. Tall cranes hoist scrap metal onto barges from an iron yard. Dump trucks rumble back and forth among black bituminous mountains, the same site used for more than a century to store coal.

To the south lies the site of the former Milwaukee Solvay Coke & Gas Co. From 1902 until it closed in 1983, Milwaukee Solvay produced metallurgical coke for the production of steel. Today, the land is a 46-acre industrial brownfield surrounded by chain-link fencing and contaminated with asbestos, heavy metals and hazardous chemicals.

Still, with the economic renewal along Milwaukee’s other rivers, land like the Solvay site has become coveted real estate. In March, the Kinnickinnic Development Group of Waukegan, Illinois, purchased the site, with plans to clean it and apply for a zoning change for recreational, residential or retail use.

While the waterfront might be attractive from the veranda of a five-story condominium, there’s no beauty in the composition of its water.

Since 1987, the Milwaukee estuary – including the lower Kinnickinnic – has been designated one of 43 “areas of concern” on the Great Lakes by the United States and Canada. Under international guidelines, it has restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption and drinking water consumption.

Klaper has no illusions about restoring the river to a pristine condition. “It’s more like we want to get to a point where people can just enjoy it,” she says.

 

Brian read is the founder of Southwind Marine, a boat storage center on a slender strip of riverfront between Kinnickinnic Avenue and First Street. In four years, his business has grown from three employees to 50 as more and more recreational boaters ply Milwaukee’s waters, many of them from Chicago.

Yet Read sees little interest in improving Milwaukee’s navigable waters from city officials or the community. As Kenosha devel-ops its harbor and Racine cleans its beaches, Milwaukee’s lakefront and rivers are taken for granted or overlooked altogether, he says. Meanwhile, boaters pay the price, traveling through waters fouled by untreated sewage and floating debris.

A cruise upriver with Read dramatizes his point. With a baseball cap on his head, the ruminative skipper navigates his 20-foot double-ended motor lifeboat through the mooring basin to the mouth of the KK River, dodging a discarded car tire, tree branches and a thick pool of muck.

“I don’t want to put my hands in the water,” he says. “There’s dead animals, bottles, cans. And there’s nobody saying, ‘We’re going to stop this.’__”

Read glides his boat upstream, approaching the Kinnickinnic Avenue bridge. Tapering to 40 or 50 feet across, this short stretch of the KK is the soul of the river’s maritime community. On its port side, a waitress serves beer on the deck of Barnacle Bud’s restau-rant, as close as you can get to Margaritaville in Milwaukee. To the starboard, a half-dozen commercial fishing boats line the north bank, their decks badly in need of paint. Farther upstream, a welder works in the yard of Edward E. Gillen Co., a shaper of Milwaukee’s waterfront for more than a century, building some of the city’s original timber dock walls and much of today’s RiverWalk.

A lifetime boater, Read is devoted to Milwaukee’s maritime culture. He’s a member of the South Shore Yacht Club and the newly formed Kinnickinnic River Business Improvement District, raising funds for KK enhancements. In his spare time, he is painstakingly restoring a 122-foot boat – commissioned in 1939 as a tender for the U.S. Lighthouse Service – into a luxury ship that will someday sail the Great Lakes to the St. Lawrence Seaway.

Read has his own idea for cleaning up the KK’s mess: Install metal grates into the river bottom in shallow waters to catch trash washing downstream. The skimmers could be raised or lowered according to water depth, he says, and the city’s sanitation department could collect the debris.

“Would I volunteer? I don’t know. Nobody’s even asked us,” says Read. “But that would be kind of fun. And it wouldn’t cost much.”

Moving west from the First Avenue bridge, the water turns shallow, just six or eight feet in the middle and ankle deep at the banks. At a 90-degree bend in the channel, a flock of geese paddles around the wrecked hull of a sunken pleasure craft mired in mud.

At the river’s bend is Pier Milwaukee Yacht Storage, operated by Chris -Svoboda, president and general manager. Like Read, the maritime life is in Svoboda’s blood. When he was growing up, the boat yard – then called Snug Harbor – was -partly owned by his late father, Leif Weborg, a commercial fisherman whose boat, the Linda E, docked along the KK River before it was sunk by a barge on Lake Michigan in 1998.

Fair-haired and pensive, Svoboda has owned a sailboat since he was 17. He took over his father’s business in 2002 after working for years in the airline industry. Since then, he’s gotten involved with the Kinnickinnic River BID and Friends of Milwaukee’s Riv-ers.

His biggest concern is the removal of toxic sediments just upriver from his boat slips. Historically, the Army Corps of Engineers dredged the river routinely from the harbor to Becher Street, the end of the line for upstream traffic. But as commercial navigation de-clined in the 1940s, dredging was limited to the area downstream from Kinnickinnic Avenue, while upriver, industrial pollutants were left to settle in the riverbed.

A remedial plan is now under way to dredge 170,000 cubic yards of sediment containing about 1,200 pounds of PCBs – 90 percent of the embedded toxins – and creating a navigational channel 20 to 24 feet deep.

The DNR has applied for funding under the federal Great Lakes Legacy Act. If authorized, the estimated $12 million dredging project would take place next year, with sediments deposited in the city’s “confined disposal facility” near the car ferry.

“To bring the river back to what it should be… that’s what compels me,” says Svoboda, standing on a wooden pier above the river.

 

Ben Gramling works out of a windowless office at the Sixteenth Street Community Health Center, stuck at a computer and telephone most of the day and hunched over maps of the Kinnickinnic River. Although he helped hatch the river project three years ago, the pace has been slow and the satisfaction spare.

It did get a shot in the arm last April, when Gramling and members of Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers won a $10,000 award for their Earth Day clean-up of the KK. One of 10 do-gooder projects recognized by the charities of Paul Newman, Gramling and four others were pictured in USA Weekend magazine.

The clean-up netted tons of trash, as more than 200 volunteers donned plastic gloves and hip boots and waded into the river. Con-spicuously absent were any elected officials. By day’s end, the group had filled two industrial-size dumpsters. Among the more un-usual finds: a carton of shingles, a railroad car coupling, a DVD case of pornography and a dead pit bull.

It was the second year for the Earth Day clean-up along the same stretch of river, a quiet green space bordering Baran Park.

Just two blocks from a Lincoln Avenue retail strip, the Kinnickinnic looks surprisingly rustic. It widens to 100 feet and the dock walls disappear, replaced by grasses, willows and white rocks studding the bank. On the east bank sits the empty husk of the defunct Vilter Manufacturing Corp. The low-slung brick building would make a prime site for an imaginative developer interested in retro-fitting it for condos or retail space.

South of Lincoln, the woods thicken. There are no buildings, only trees, a steady current and broods of paddling mallards. And litter. Tons of litter. Car tires, shopping carts, a roll of insulation, basketballs, syringes, condoms, whisky bottles, milk crates and plastic food cartons from Wendy’s, McDonald’s and every other outpost of fast-food America.

This fall, volunteers plan another clean-up, clearing out all of the litter between Lincoln and Chase avenues.

As a lead organization in the -Kinnickinnic rehab – with a clientele mainly of low-income, South Side Latinos – the Sixteenth Street Health Center was motivated by its work on the economic and environmental revival of the Menomonee Valley.

“We were one of the early champions of the Menomonee Valley,” says Gramling. “We gained considerable expertise.”

In launching the Kinnickinnic project, Gramling found himself working with a disparate group of agencies, some at odds with each other: UWM’s Water Institute, the Department of Natural -Resources, Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, the National Park Service and the City of Milwaukee.

Cooperation prevailed, and the coalition so far has raised $150,000 in grants and put together an action plan calling for simple steps, such as boosting police presence, and more challenging measures like removing the miles of concrete riverbanks. Says Gram-ling: “We’ve had to suspend the notion of disbelief.”

Next year, another phase in the plan takes flight as construction starts on the $2.6 million Kinnickinnic River Trail. Funded by federal and city dollars, the 2.2-mile trail will loosely follow the river’s course, beginning with bike lanes from the Third Ward and into Walker’s Point, where it will link to an abandoned railroad right of way before bordering the water from Lincoln to Chase to Sixth Street.

The son of a municipal court judge, Gramling views the KK project as a matter of “environmental justice” for low- and middle-income citizens who may lack the time or means to make change. Two years ago, organizers surveyed residents about the importance of the KK River. Yes, was their response, a cleaner river would be nice. But living in some of the city’s densest neighborhoods, they had higher priorities: crime, housing, parking and garbage collection.

Still, Gramling thinks returning the Kinnickinnic to a more natural condition would make it less of a barrier and more of a desti-nation, drawing neighbors together and boosting the community’s vitality.

“We see these clean-ups as a way to get our foot in the door to addressing longer-term problems along the KK,” he says. “They educate people who are just driving by, people who are surprised there’s even a river there.”

 

A channel of concrete slices through the residential neighborhood between Sixth and 16th streets, a stark contrast to the green space along Baran Park. This 10-block stretch is the most unnatural of the river, straining the very definition of the word.

Skinny two-story houses balance along the rim of the cement cleave, just yards from the water, connected to the opposite bank by street overpasses and pedestrian bridges. Green moss grows on the concrete, and a dismal ribbon of brackish water a foot or two deep flows toward the lake.

“I hate that thing,” says Sue Hastings, sitting barefoot on the front steps of her Harrison Avenue home keeping a watchful eye on her young granddaughter. Toddlers and kids on bikes occupy the sidewalks on both sides of the narrow street.

“It’s water, and that’s where kids want to play,” she says. “We call it a disaster area. That creek is deadly, I tell you.”

The concrete river banks can get slippery year-round, says Hastings. More than once, she’s seen a neighbor toss a rope or garden hose into the channel to pull out a marooned child. In July 1994, three children were swept away after trying to retrieve an inflatable swim-ming pool they’d been playing with. One of the children, a 9-year-old girl, drowned in the rain-swollen river.

Hasting’s neighbor, Tino Carrillo, has owned a home along the concrete riverbank for six years. A picnic table sits in his backyard under a shade tree, the cement a few feet away. The water has risen to the lip of the concrete behind his property, he says, and some of his neighbors have had water in their basements.

Still, Carrillo doesn’t give the river much thought. “It’s just there,” he shrugs, a -buffer from potential erosion of his yard. “I think the concrete is fine. It’s like a support.”

Historically, this section of the KK has seen the most extensive flooding. In the first flood on record, March 18, 1912, rain and melting snow caused the river to overflow its bank, spilling over windowsills and washing away backyard sheds and chicken coops. No lives were lost, but patrolmen rescued a mother and two girls from their inundated home.
Such floods eventually helped trigger a Common Council resolution to build a concrete tunnel that would have enclosed the stretch from Sixth to 16th. The plan drew the wrath of none other than Charles Whitnall, the father of Milwaukee’s park system. The Kinnickinnic, he wrote in 1931, had become “a no-man’s land,” an open garbage dump that sent refuse downstream, exacerbated by the stench of industrial waste also emptied into the stream.

But burying the river was unthinkable. “Would it not seem wicked to construct a sewer in place of the parkway?” -Whitnall asked the aldermen. Opponents of the tunnel won out, and the plan was -defeated.

But flooding persisted. Rain and snowmelt on March 30, 1960, sent floodwaters over the KK’s brink as far west as 43rd Street and along Wilson Park Creek as far south as the airport. Basement walls collapsed and residents were evacuated. In August of that same year, the river surged again following heavy rains, sending brown water into houses farther downstream.

This time the city took action. The sewerage district devised a plan to widen the KK and line the riverbed with concrete. Starting at Sixth Street, it created an unbending east-west canal to 16th. Continuing upstream, it paved the watercourse through Pulaski Park, the Kinnickinnic River Parkway and Jackson Park to 43rd Street.

The 2.7 miles of “improvements,” as they were called, were finished in 1965. To complete the project, much of Wilson Park and Lyons Park creeks were eventually channelized.

But the “improvements” caused unintended problems. When thunderstorms struck, rainwater rushed into the channels at a rapid rate, turning the river into a torrent. Tree limbs and debris amassed in the roiling waters, crashing into bridges and endangering homes.

Once seen as progress, concrete channeling is now regarded as a detriment as engineers have gotten better at managing water, says Dave Fowler, senior project manager for MMSD. The district, in fact, is removing one mile of concrete in Underwood Creek between Mayfair Road and the Menomonee River in a flood-management project on the Milwaukee County grounds.

Two years ago, at the request of the sewerage district, the Army Corps of Engineers agreed to study the feasibility of removing the Kinnickinnic concrete in order to restore fish and wildlife habitats. But the Corps’ resources were drawn to more pressing matters, including the war in Iraq and hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

Eventually, the concrete in the Kinnickinnic will wear out and need to be repaired, replaced or removed. But the project is now on the back burner. “We have proposed future plans,” says Fowler, “but nothing’s on the books now.”

On a summer afternoon, three boys duck under a bridge near 15th and Harrison. When it storms, they say, they sometimes take plastic sleds and ride the current downstream in “the ditch.”

Their description is perfectly apt.

 

The concrete continues west of 16th Street, containing the river as it weaves through Pulaski Park to the serpentine Kinnickinnic River Parkway. Oak trees and Queen Anne’s Lace flank the water while stubborn box-elder offshoots poke through cracks in the cement riverbed, as though trying to recreate a natural river bank.

Louis Switalski has lived along KK Parkway for 51 years. From a modest home at the corner of 31st and Manitoba streets, he and his wife and daughter watched a natural, meandering waterway flanked by lilacs and willows give way to a dour concrete canal that today flows behind – and beneath – the vast St. Luke’s Medical Center.

Switalski’s property is 100 yards from the convergence of the Kinnickinnic River and Wilson Park Creek, the tributary that begins near the airport and empties here into the KK from under a 12-story parking garage behind the hospital. Before the waterways were channelized, the Switalskis’ basement was flooded twice in 1960. “I had a boat, and it floated right out of my garage,” says the retired welding instructor.

Widowed in 1989, the 78-year-old Switalski now lives alone, spending much of his time grooming his tidy yard. He says he pre-ferred the days when the river ran wild, despite the risk of flooding. Birds of all kinds populated the habitat and boulders lined the banks. A wooden footbridge spanned the river. And in winters, his daughter skated on the frozen water.

“It was beautiful here in the ’50s,” he says, standing on a wide concrete walkway that has since replaced the footbridge. “You could drink right out of the river.”

Today the stream is just cloudy water dribbling over concrete. Occasionally, Switalski spies oil floating on the water’s surface from gas stations and auto repair lots in his neighborhood, and he calls authorities to complain. “I’m a half-assed environmentalist,” he says. He doubts if his complaints make much difference.

“There’s nothing that can live in there,” he says, shaking his head and pointing a finger at the algae-coated concrete. “You don’t see a fish or even a crab. Nothing.”

 

Just west of here is Jackson Park – the South Side’s greenest jewel – yet concrete still holds the Kinnickinnic’s waters. Flowing behind ball fields, tennis courts and picnic sites, the river is mostly hidden from view and ignored.

But beyond the park’s western border, the river takes on yet another personality. Although the city once considered burying or at least paving this section of river to prevent sewer backups, the plans were never carried out. Today the -Kinnickinnic River Parkway west of 43rd Street is the most pristine of the river’s eight-mile course.

Marty Froelich is a South Side school teacher. He often walks along the parkway near his home with his 10-month-old daughter. On a sunny spring morning, -Olivia can barely stand upright as she toddles from picnic table to tree and into daddy’s reach.

When Froelich’s wife was pregnant, she would walk the river path every day for exercise. “I’ve even seen people fishing,” Froelich says. “It’s like a separate part of Milwaukee.”

A mile upstream, the Kinnickinnic will turn again to pavement, splitting into two waterways, one veering west and the other south along 60th Street, narrowing into a tributary, a trench before dipping into a dead-end alley and disappearing ignominiously into a dank shaft of concrete.

But in the section from 43rd to 60th streets, the river sweeps left and then right, streaming 20 feet across, the soft earthen bank eroded in places but the water clear and effervescent, soothing and inspiring to passersby.

The Kinnickinnic has always been the lost river of Milwaukee, a drainage ditch or dirty dumping ground, easy to overlook or pave. But for the first time in the city’s history, a combination of forces are joining together to realize the ecological and economic potential of a once unsullied stream that symbolized willow bark and tobacco. In the eyes of the river’s advocates, the Kinnickinnic could become Milwaukee’s next redevelopment milestone rather than an eyesore and a barrier to local residents.

“People act as guardians to the rivers as they gain access,” says Cheryl Nenn of Friends of Milwaukee’s Rivers. “And that’s one of the things we try to do – just connect people to these rivers. I think we’re turning a corner.”

Kurt Chandler is a Milwaukee Magazine senior editor.


 

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