For this week’s Bubbler Talk, we visit the Pryor Avenue Iron Well in Bay View. Listener Lisa asked: What can you tell me about the Bay View Spring on Pryor Avenue? Why and how did it start? It's still running; do people still drink from it?
Built in 1882, the Pryor Avenue Iron Well is the only one that remains in the entire city of Milwaukee. In Bay View alone, there used to be six wells throughout the neighborhood for residents to use.
Ron Winkler, a Bay View Historical Society member and the historian landmark chair, says the well was declared a landmark by the historical societyin June of 2013, and before that had been declared a City of Milwaukee landmark in 1987.
“This well, as were the other ones, were essentially just pipes that had spigots on them where people could come and draw water and take it back to their homes. And those were very important because that was the only source of water,” Winkler explains.
He notes that the well we see today is slightly different than the original. According to Winkler, the first well was 1,500 feet deep, and then in 1988 a new well was dug only 118 feet deep. In addition to well maintenance, a new structure was added to cover up the simple spigots.
“Around 1920 when all of Bay View was hooked up to the city of Milwaukee’s water system, this well was not needed as much. But what they did was to construct a monolith which we see in front of us today, and it was still used as a bubbler and it was used as a source of drinking water," says Winkler. "This is a historic remnant today.”
Sometime in the 1930s or '40s, the pressure dropped so an electrical pump was installed to bring water to the surface, which Winkler says is still used today.
In 2013, the Bay View Neighborhood Association, the city’s Neighborhood Improvement Development Corporation and residents funded the monolith restoration project. The cap on top of the structure is the orginal from the 1920 installation.
Winkler points out that the bricks surrounding the well were salvaged from Clement Avenue, before the street was covered with asphalt in 1980.
While the well is owned by the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Water Works maintains the site of the well, the water that comes out is not city water, and therefore is not treated. Ozaukee County has been contracted to regularly take and send samples out to be tested in laboratories.
In 2015, Milwaukee Water Works did release a public health notice about elevated levels of strontium found in the water - a naturally occurring element in the earth, which includes the bedrock of natural underground aquifers.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the most recent test results from March of 2016 show no detection of coliform or fecal matter and the water contained normal levels of nitrate.
However, many people come to the well because they think it is healthier than city water - and tastes better, too.
“You do see people coming here all hours of the day or night and one of the interesting time when there were longer lines here was in the 1990s when we had the cryptosporidium outbreak in Milwaukee,” notes Winkler.
Joseph from Milwaukee says he has been drinking the water since 1970 when he came across it on his walk to work as a lifeguard at South Shore beach and has loved it ever since. "I haven't drank city water for years," he says. Joseph also adds that if you are not a fan of the iron taste in the water, the trick is to refrigerate it for a day before consuming.
He also encourages others to drink the water: "Take two flowers in a vase and pour water from the well in one and city water in the other and be able to tell the difference. The well water would make that flower just blossom... well, that's my unscientific estimate of what [you] would see."
For over 130 years, the Pryor Avenue Iron Well has remained a community hub. The city, the Bay View Neighborhood Association and its residents have taken care of it together to keep a piece a Milwaukee’s history alive and the water flowing.
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