Chapter 13

Waukesha Worries (excerpt)

JUST BEFORE MIDNIGHT on May 7, 1892, the town fire bell rang out in Waukesha, Wisconsin. But the citizens knew that this time the alarm wasn’t heralding a fire. They grabbed shotguns, pistols, and clubs and headed for the railroad tracks. Rumors had been swirling that a secret train loaded with workmen would arrive from Chicago to steal some of Waukesha’s internationally acclaimed spring water. The thieves’ plan—under cover of darkness— was to lay a pipeline from Waukesha’s Hygeia Spring to some unknown destination outside town. From there, the water would ultimately be delivered to the Windy City to be served to thirsty sightseers at the upcoming world’s fair.1

Chicago’s water was notoriously bad at the time. One Chicago mayor was even accused of stashing Waukesha water at city hall to avoid the local tap water.2 By contrast, dozens of gurgling Waukesha springs had become premier tourist destinations for moneyed travelers from throughout North America. Some springs were even said to have healing powers, including Hygeia, which was owned by Chicago entrepreneur James McElroy—the man behind the secret train. With cachet like that, Waukesha water was the ideal world’s fair beverage, and Mr. McElroy was desperate to serve it to fairgoers.

Initially Mr. McElroy had formally asked Waukesha for permission to send spring water south, but he met stiff resistance. Locals worried that piping water to Illinois would curtail Waukesha’s prized tourist traffic. If people could get Waukesha water in Chicago, why would they travel to “Spring City”? It was only after being spurned that Mr. McElroy resorted to the midnight train full of workmen. But rumors arrived long before the locomotive departed Chicago, and when that unscheduled train reached the outskirts of town, the fire bell sounded, and the community was roused from slumber.

Upon arrival, the surprised workmen were met by hundreds of armed, angry Waukesha citizens who yelled, “Throw them into the river!” After a tense, extended showdown, the work train headed back to Chicago as dry as it had arrived.3 Waukesha had valiantly defended its famous springs in a standoff that received wide publicity. The Milwaukee Record ran an editorial cartoon showing an enormous hog named “Chicago” wallowing in Mr. McElroy’s spring, surrounded by armed, stern-faced residents—including one with a revolver trained directly at the pig’s head (fig. 13.1).4 That kind of media coverage only bolstered Waukesha’s national water reputation, cementing its place as a tourist destination for many years to come.

MY, HOW THE WATER fortunes have fallen in old Spring City. Most of Waukesha’s historic springs have been obliterated or abandoned, covered by gas stations, apartment buildings and parking lots. The last local bottler from the springs era closed shop in 1997.5 Waukesha (pronounced WAU-ka-shaw)6 has since become a Milwaukee suburb of seventy thousand people, and its water has become famous for entirely different reasons. Water levels have plummeted by more than five hundred feet in municipal wells, and the more deep groundwater the city pumps, the more salts and contaminants emerge. The chief concern is radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element that—after years of exposure—is believed to cause cancer. It exists in Waukesha’s wells at twice the federal limit.7