Did You Know There's An Ancient Coral Reef in Wauwatosa?

May 27, 2016

This week's Bubbler Talk question comes from Spencer Hoyt, who asked WUWM: Why is the 425 million year old Schoonmaker Reef so important to metro Milwaukee?

Geologists Joanne Kluessendorf and Don Mikulic have spent years digging up the story about Schoonmaker Reef.
Credit Susan Bence

The coral reef existed when North America was covered with water hundreds of millions of years ago, and then it fossilized.

You’ll find what’s left of Schoonmaker Reef just north of State Street in Wauwatosa, spanning six city blocks from  62nd to 68th Streets. Much of it is overgrown with brush and plants.

WUWM's Susan Bence met up at the reef with the most knowledgeable people around - Joanne Kluessendorf and Don Mikulic.

Joanne Kluessendorf is director of the Weis Earth Science Museum in Menasha, Wisconsin. It is the state's official mineralogical museum.

"The reason it's special is because it was the first fossil reef ever defined as such anywhere in North America, in 1862."

University of Illinois geologist Don Mikulic first visited the reef in 1965 when he was a teenager searching for fossils.

“The reason it’s special is because it was the first fossil reef ever defined as such anywhere in North America, in 1862. The geologists came here and saw it in the rocks, which is amazing,” Kluessendorf says.

Also amazing? The geologists say the reef’s highest point was 70 feet tall, but had developers not quarried it – starting in the 1800s – it might not have been discovered.

Active Schoonmaker quarry circa 1934.
Credit Don Mikulic

“When you look at natural outcrops, they’re weathered and usually small and dirty and vegetated. But when you had a quarry actually exposing the rock, and exposing the relationship of rocks along a stone wall, that was why they were able to make these conceptions,” Kluessendorf says.

Office of F. H. Day, M.D. Physician and Surgeon, and fossil officiando.
Credit Don Mikulic

“So you needed to produce a product that people wanted to buy so they quarried the stone,” Mikulic explains. “And the second thing is you needed somebody to look for fossils and stuff, and that turned out to be Fisk Holbrook Day."

Fisk Holbrook Day was a doctor and head of the Milwaukee County Institutions, but also a fossil enthusiast. Whenever he could, he’d roam the reef.

“And apparently some of the quarry workers would pay him in fossils instead of money,” Mikulic says.

Day eventually shipped a hefty portion of his fossil collection – more than 8,000 pounds worth - to Harvard University.

Among his treasures from the reef? “He had two 7.5 foot long cephalopods, which are long cone-shape animals,” Mikulic says.

Picture a squid stuck to a giant ice cream cone.

Day's most valued fossil specimen - trilobite Bumanstus dayi.
Credit Don Mikulic

"And he had a big coral head. He has it in his notes that it was 20 feet in diameter when he found it,” Mikulic adds.

Experts have identified 200 different marine species in the reef, most by Day himself.

Geologists Mikulic and Kluessendorf were eager to share the reef’s story, so they helped it earn National Historic Landmark status in 1997.

Today, an apartment complex is taking shape along the edge. The developer adjusted the original design, in deference to its historic neighbor.

And, Mikulic is watching over the ancient formation. He says the vision is to protect the reef but still allow the public to get close enough to appreciate its splendor.

Quarry Heights resident Spencer Hoyt holding a circa 1930 remnant piece of equipment when Schoonmaker Reef was quarried.
Credit Susan Bence

“There’s fence that runs all the way back to 62nd street and that’s going to be the parking area and the trail will come along here and then will just wind around this big area,” Mikulic says.

By the way, it turns out Spencer Hoyt, the guy who got the Bubbler Talk ball rolling with his Schoonmaker Reef question, is a Wauwatosa resident and has an agenda.

“The reef falls entirely within the Quarry Heights Neighborhood Association and as a 40-year resident of Tosa and president and founder of Quarry Heights, we have an incredibly vested interest in making sure that this is protected and embraced,” Hoyt says.

He envisions Schoonmaker Reef as an international landmark.

_