Swimming The Milwaukee River: Should You Jump In?

Aug 6, 2018

Not so many years ago, no one would dream of kayaking or canoeing the Milwaukee River. Now those activities are common. So, how would you feel about jumping into the Milwaukee River for a swim?

That’s what will be happening during the 2018 Cream City Classic. On Aug. 11, the one-and-a-half-mile swim race will take place just upstream from where the Milwaukee River meets Lake Michigan.

While this race is being dubbed “Milwaukee’s first open river swim,” the Milwaukee River was once a popular swim spot.

Rohn's Swimming School with tethered beginning swimmers.
Credit HISTORIC PHOTO COLLECTION / MILWAUKEE PUBLIC LIBRARY

According to a Milwaukee Sentinel article from 1908, the river was home to the oldest swim school in the country – Rohn’s. And, swim races were once commonplace on the river, at least in the 1920s.

So how does the quality of the water in the Milwaukee River now compare to what is was like back then?

That’s the question Shorewood resident Sandie Pendleton submitted to Beats Me.

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Water Quality

All three of Milwaukee’s rivers – the Menomonee, Kinnickinnic and Milwaukee – have long histories of pollution from industries that routinely dumped toxic chemicals as well as from polluted runoff from farmfields and cities.

Although the rivers today are much cleaner than decades past, Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverekeeper says much work remains.

“The Clean Water Act said that our rivers would be fishable and swimmable, drinkable … and we’re still not there yet,” she explains. “I think that it’s important to continue to highlight this resource that we have and that we should be able to just jump in the river in our backyards and cool off when it’s 90 degrees.”

Testing out the course, ahead of the swim race.
Credit Susan Bence

When it comes to the upcoming race, Nenn says if the weather cooperates – that means no major run-off generating rainstorm – the portion of the river where the race is taking place will meet federal swimmable standards.

"If it does rain, a significant rain, within two or three days of the event, we will probably reschedule it," she says.

The Cream City Classic’s starting line is at the public pier at N. Jackson St. and E. Erie St. in the Third Ward. Organizers selected this particular location because of the river’s proximity to Lake Michigan. “[It’s where] the most mixing with the lake and the river [takes place], so that also improves water quality,” Nenn explains.

Test Swim

On a recent July day (and on a day the river passed a water quality test), WUWM environmental reporter Susan Bence and question asker Sandie Pendleton met up with Conner Andrews.

The swim coach / water enthusiast is helping plan the race. “I was inspired to do this with all that’s going on with the environment, it’s important for me to use my platform as a swim coach and swimmer to do some good,” Andrews says.

Swim coach Conner Andrews and question asker Sandie Pendleton.
Credit Susan Bence

Part of Andrews’ preparation for the event includes swimming the route in advance. Pendleton is excited about the possibility of swimming in the river, he carries his swim gear with him … just in case.

Andrews: “Oh you’re going to swim with me?”

Pendleton: “Sure!”

And, that’s all the encouragement he needs, Pendleton jumps in the river. “First impression, the river feels really nice, good temperature, nice clarity,” he shares.

As the two swimmers head upstream, Cheryl Nenn maneuvers a boat to hover between them.

She says the river could present challenges. “You have these cross currents. So it’s certainly not an ocean swim, but it can pretty challenging even when the water's flat, because there’s a lot of things happening below the surface.”

Conner Andrews agrees. “There is current … so that is a little bit of a challenge, but I’m doing just fine. Nothing tastes funky or anything … ”

After the swim, he is thinking about his strategy for when race day arrives. “It’s really safety, that’s my top priority for me, myself, and everybody else. Because this is really for a good cause than it is a race, [but] I am going to enjoy it as a race as much as I can too.”

A paddle boarder surprised to see a swimmer in the river.
Credit Susan Bence

Tarzan's Swim In The Milwaukee River

Question asker / swimmer Sandie Pendleton actually reached out to Beats Me with two questions: One having to deal with water quality and the other … is, well, a bit more quirky.

Is it true that Olympic gold medal winner Johnny Weismuller once raced in the Milwaukee River?

Johnny Weismuller might be best known for playing Tarzan in films in the 1930s and 1940s. He also won five Olympic gold medals for swimming in the 1920s.

Johnny Weissmuller swimming.
Credit International Swimming Hall of Fame

And, Weismuller did, in fact, race in the Milwaukee River.

International Swimming Hall of Fame historian Bruce Wigo says a race took place in the summer of 1922. “[It was] the Central AAU Championships - Regional Division [and was] held in the upper Milwaukee River,” he explains.

Wigo adds, “He set out to break the national record in the 150-yard-backstroke … The newspaper said conditions just weren’t right to break the record. [He missed] it by 16 seconds, [which] was quite a bit – so conditions probably weren't good.”

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