Cari Taylor-Carlson
Milwaukee Walks

Kilbourn Reservoir Park Offers Wonderful View

A park with a curious history and perhaps the best 360-degree view of the city.

By - Sep 11th, 2021 08:30 am
City vista. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

City vista. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Distance: One mile
Start: At the corner of Bremen St. and Meinecke Ave.
Parking: On the street

Where the walk starts. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

Where the walk starts. Photo by Cari Taylor-Carlson.

There’s a not-to-be-missed view of downtown Milwaukee’s skyline from a point on top of a hill just west of Humboldt Avenue on North Avenue. For many Milwaukeeans this may come as a surprise. You will find this view on top of Kilbourn Reservoir Park which you can access from the imposing steps that lead straight up the hill off North Avenue, or, from a gentle, more manageable trail at the corner of Bremen Street and Meinecke Avenue where this walk starts.

But before walking up the hill to the view, consider the American Legion Star Emblem emblazoned on the side of the hill. If you are like many Milwaukeeans, and I include myself in that group, you have driven past that emblem hundreds of times without questioning what it is and why it’s there.

In the early 1930s, an iron template was buried in the side of the hill in the shape of the American Legion Star Emblem. This replica of the emblem was designed to memorialize the contributions of veterans and American Legion members. Until 1990, 6,000 annual flowers were planted to fill in the details of the emblem, creating a colorful display on the side of the hill. As gardeners know, keeping 6,000 flowers alive and blooming is a challenge, so in 1990, after costs soared, that colorful display was discontinued. The display of the emblem languished until the emblem we see on the side of the hill today was recreated with recycled colored glass and concrete in 2010.

The former reservoir on top of the hill has an interesting history. It was part of the Milwaukee water distribution system for 130 years until it shut down in 2004. The reservoir was built in 1873 to store and distribute drinking water on land donated by Byron Kilbourn, land which he designated to be public park land in perpetuity. This open-air reservoir was 25 feet deep and held 21 million gallons of water. It wasn’t until 1979 that the city added a concrete roof to protect the water. Prior to the addition, chlorine was weighed and pumped into the water to purify contaminants that fell from the sky.

The water for the reservoir came from the pumping station located in what’s now the North Point Historic District. That water was drawn from Lake Michigan from a tunnel that extended 2,100 feet into the lake and has since been modified.

After the reservoir was removed, the 35-acre Kilbourn Reservoir Park was created and 88,000 cubic yards of soil were trucked in to replicate the shape of the former reservoir. Grasses, plants, shrubs, and trees were planted and ornamental lights and benches were added. Thanks to Byron Kilbourn, the hill has been preserved as an exceptional landmark with an extraordinary view.

When you walk on the paved path on top of the hill, you are walking on the actual perimeter of the reservoir as you trace its unique seven-sided shape.

Our walk starts at the corner of Bremen Street and Meinecke Avenue. Take the paved path past the basketball court and past the playground until you see a small boarded up brick building. This is not the Kilbourn Reservoir Pumping Station, a brick building which still stands on North Ave. It created pressure for the reservoir and pumped water from the reservoir into the local distribution system. The reservoir was shut down in 2004.

Keep following the paved path and it will eventually take you back to where you started. Along the way notice the large grassy area in the center, some recently planted trees, prairie plantings including the colorful purple coneflower on the hillside, and of course that view.

Take a picnic, take a camera, and take some time to sit on a bench that faces Milwaukee’s downtown skyline. Come for the sunrise or stay for the sunset. You could be looking at the best 360-degree view in town.

Along the Walk

Cari Taylor-Carlson is the author of Milwaukee Walks: 20 Choice Walks in a Classy City.

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5 thoughts on “Milwaukee Walks: Kilbourn Reservoir Park Offers Wonderful View”

  1. kmurphy724 says:

    Easily the best views of the city. St Mary’s to the baseball stadium.

  2. xtineMKE says:

    Nice article on Kilbourn Park (or, as I like to think of it, “my back yard”). I think your info about the building near the swings you refer to as the pumping station is wrong. That building is at the south entrance to the 2300 North Booth alley (626 East North Avenue). The one you picture might have been the park restroom. There’s another Cream City brick building in the outfield of the ball diamond that was moved from the top of the reservoir when the tennis courts were taken out and the new landscaping done. I think that was part of the water system as well. The Kilbourn Park Pumping Station was open to the public during the 2019 Doors Open Milwaukee weekend. The pumps were still there at that time.

  3. xtineMKE says:

    I enjoyed the story on Kilbourn Park (or, as I call it, ‘my backyard’) but the building you identify near the play area is not the Pumping Station. That building is at the south entrance of the 2300 block of North Booth alley at 626 East North Avenue.
    The building you mention, I think, is a long-closed park bathroom. The pumping station was last open to the general public during the 2019 Doors Open weekend and the pumps were still inside. There is another, smaller Cream City brick building that was moved from the top of the reservoir to the outfield of the baseball diamond when the tennis courts were taken out and the new pathways, benches, landscaping, etc. was done. I believe that was part of the water system as well.

  4. NieWiederKrieg says:

    One frightening thought… If Rebecca Crayfish is elected Governor of the State of Wisconsin, she might seize Kilbourn Reservoir Park from the City of Milwaukee and sell it to real estate developers.

    Think it’s not possible?

    Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker tried to sell our Milwaukee County Parks to real estate developers.

    Governor Scott Walker appointed a real estate developer, Cathy Stepp, as head of the Wisconsin DNR.

    Governor Rebecca Crayfish will appoint Scott Walker to be the head of the Wisconsin DNR.

  5. xtineMKE says:

    Here’s a welcome update! The building (misidentified and pictured) in the article as the former Pumping Station is being repaired and rehabbed. The restrooms are being fixed so the park can become a site for future traveling beer gardens. Great addition to the Riverwest neighborhood.

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