A bridge by any other name …

A photograph showing the north end of the Pleasant Valley box culvert.
The site of a famous Milwaukee River beer garden at the turn of the last century, the only structure in Pleasant Valley Park today resembles a pedestrian bridge, but it actually has a much different function. Carl Swanson photo.

Pleasant Valley Park, located on the west bank of the Milwaukee River south of Kern Park, contains a mystery. The only manmade structure in the undeveloped and heavily overgrown county park is a 250-foot-long pedestrian bridge emerging from a sloping hill, crossing a valley, and ending at the opposite wall of the ravine. No developed trails lead to it, although walkers have worn meandering paths to and from the structure. 

It’s solidly built and impressively large – and it also seemingly serves no purpose. Why is it there?

I was recently contacted by WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio’s Bubbler Talk program, which was seeking the answer to a listener’s question, “Why is there a large bridge in the middle of the woods by the river in Riverwest that goes nowhere? Is it a remnant of Blatz Park?”

Blatz Park, originally called Pleasant Valley when it opened in 1870, was a popular beer garden at the turn of the last century. It featured a restaurant pavilion, live music, and extensive and beautifully maintained grounds. It was served by shallow-draft steamboats operating from a dock near the North Avenue bridge. A roundtrip was 15 cents and included stops at Wonderland Amusement Park in Shorewood and the beer garden in Pleasant Valley.

The park closed after World War I, a victim of changing tastes in entertainment and the rise of the private automobile. A swimming school briefly took its place until it, too, closed. In the 1920s, the land was sold to Milwaukee County by the Blatz family to facilitate the construction of a planned roadway along the river. The road was never built, and the land was handed over to the Milwaukee County Parks System.

Read about Pleasant Valley’s beer garden days.

Apart from a few concrete footings near the river, nothing remains of Blatz Park today and the mysterious structure is of far newer construction.

A photograph showing a side view of the concrete box culvert in Pleasant Valley Park, Milwaukee
Why was this bridge deep in the woods south of Kern Park? The answer is simple. It’s not a bridge at all. Carl Swanson photo

That gets us back to the original question. What the heck is this thing in the woods? Its thick, square cross-section suggests an enclosed aqueduct – a bridge for carrying water across a valley.

At first, I thought it might be a water main. After all, the structure is just north of the Riverside Pumping Station, which distributes fresh water from the treatment plant on the lake throughout this section of the city.

Read about the historic Riverside Pumping Station.

As I tried to get usable photos of this bridge/aqueduct/box culvert/alien artifact/whatever – no easy task given the thick woods – I noticed the covers of nearby manholes were lettered “sewer”.

I contacted the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and asked if the bridge belonged to them. Keith Kalinger, Senior Project Manager, replied, “It’s actually a 60-inch sanitary sewer that transports flow south to the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility. The current aqueduct was constructed in 1999 to replace an existing one whose plans date from 1918.”

He added, “It’s not even our only aqueduct. There is another one in Estabrook Park along the walking trail that starts near Capitol Drive.”

A photo showing the cast-in concrete arch detail in the Pleasant Valley sewer culvert.
Built in 1999, the box culvert was designed with tapered concrete legs that flow into cast-in arch shapes – graceful touches for a sewer line in a seldom-visited part of Pleasant Valley Park. Carl Swanson photo

Rather than a bridge to nowhere, the aqueduct is a sensible response to challenging topography. It’s more cost-effective to run the line across an elevated structure than bury the pipe deep enough to go under the ravine in Pleasant Valley Park. Applied Technologies, the designer of the 1999 project, and Lunda Construction, its builder, gave some thought to its appearance. Tapered supporting legs flow into arches cast into the concrete surface. They also added stainless steel safety railings along the top to create an inviting walkway. The whole thing cost a half-million dollars in 1999. Pretty snazzy sewer!

We don’t often think of sewers. If they come to our notice at all it’s because something horrible is happening. Hidden and largely ignored, they are absolutely vital to the city’s wellbeing. Consider this glimpse of life before sewers from Orlando Wright, the city’s Commissioner of Health, who reported in 1879:

Sometimes, in a dry season, the sewage of Milwaukee nearly equals the quantity of water flowing in the rivers. At least 100 tons of human and animal excreta, to say nothing of other putrescible organic matters, are emptied into these sluggish streams every day. Their waters are dark with filth, and yet the question is asked whether they are unhealthy. If a thick solution of ordure is unhealthy, the Milwaukee and Menomonee rivers are certainly so.

First Annual Report of the Commission of Health of Milwaukee, January 1879

The sewer mains running along both banks of the Milwaukee River, intercepting wastewater and diverting it for treatment, were built in response to these intolerable conditions and are a major reason the river today is in a far cleaner and healthier state than it was in Milwaukee’s formative years.

Thanks to Kathryn M. Schmitt, MMSD contract compliance administrator, for her assistance with this article.

A panoramic view of the aqueduct from October 2000 shows tidy landscaping and small trees.
The Pleasant Valley aqueduct, as it appeared in October 2000 shortly after its completion. Photo courtesy MMSD

Interested in learning more about Milwaukee’s fascinating (and occasionally odd) history? Check out my book. (Paid link)


2 comments

  1. “the aqueduct is a sensible response to challenging typography…” Although the structure’s design may appear to depict serial upside-down U’s, it appears that the author (as many of us have at times) fallen victim to the horror of lexicographic faux pas. Methinks that for this, topography might be a more appropriate word choice.

    Liked by 1 person

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