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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Gather at the Well

Bay View’s Pryor Avenue provides fresh groundwater

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For 127 years, Bay View neighbors, and the occasional visitor, have gathered together, bottles and jugs in hand, at the Pryor Avenue Iron Well for its continuous flow of fresh groundwater. The public well, located in a residential neighborhood just a block away from the lake, is the only one of its kind left in Milwaukee, a lone sentinel standing on Pryor Avenue between South Superior Street and South Wentworth Avenue.

The village of Bay View, then a Milwaukee Iron Co. town, began drilling the well as a public works project in October 1882. The well tapped into the underground water table to provide artesian-pressured water to a planned network of satellite wells and fire hydrants. Progress was slow due to the thick moraine, but the well was completed the following January at a final depth of 1,500 feet. The original wellhead was nothing more than an exposed pipe with spigots for public use. According to the Milwaukee Water Works, the city of Milwaukee utility that maintains the well, the water is “higher in iron and sulfates than city water,” giving the water a distinct taste—and the well’s nickname: the Iron Well.

Over the years, various additions have been made to the town watering hole. During the 1920s, the well was given a 5-foot concrete monolith that directed the groundwater out of two pipes, one on each side, from which water constantly flows. During the 1980s, the underground water table supplying the pressure was drawn down, creating the need for a pump to bring water to the tap. More recently, the Bay View Gardening and Yard Society decorated the historic structure—deemed so by the Milwaukee Historic Preservation Commission in 1987—with benches and potted plants.

During the city’s cryptosporidium outbreak in 1993, the Iron Well saw a surge in popularity as an alternative to the water drawn from Lake Michigan. The water from the well is untreated, but it is periodically tested by the Milwaukee Health Department. Free and open to the public, the fresh, ice-cold water drawn from the Pryor Avenue Iron Well continues to quench the thirst of those who gather around it.