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Residents push to restore wonder at South Milwaukee pond

The state Department of Natural Resources has ordered Milwaukee County to complete some long-neglected dam maintenance and hire an engineer to evaluate the dam on Oak Creek by June 2014. The dam is made of dolomite stone blocks.

The state Department of Natural Resources has ordered Milwaukee County to complete some long-neglected dam maintenance and hire an engineer to evaluate the dam on Oak Creek by June 2014. The dam is made of dolomite stone blocks. Photo By Mark Hoffman

Dec. 5, 2012

South Milwaukee - What is the price for regaining some of the good old days?

Mary Nelson and a couple thousand supporters are asking Milwaukee County to spend several hundred thousand dollars or more on restoring one page of South Milwaukee's past.

The county should dredge several feet of accumulated muck from an old mill pond on Oak Creek to restore recreational opportunities for youth, particularly ice skating, said Nelson, a former alderman. Two long mounds of dirt rise high above the water like sandbars and cover one-fourth of the pond's surface along Oak Creek Parkway near Grant Park.

Nelson envisions a return to the 1960s and '70s, a time when her six children were growing up in South Milwaukee and skating on the pond formed by a historic county-owned dam. They warmed their toes at a fireplace inside the shelter house on the south bank of the pond.

The pond and dam, and winter activities, go back decades earlier in the city's history. A dam was built about one mile upstream of Lake Michigan around 1840 for a grist mill and it was rebuilt in the 1860s. The structure was reconstructed in the 1930s for recreation and aesthetics, state dam records show.

"South Milwaukee's people want to see the children skating, the smoke coming out of the fireplace chimney, hear the music and see the boys playing a game of hockey on a Saturday morning," Nelson said.

More than 1,875 residents want to rekindle the flames of the old fireplace. They have signed Nelson's petitions urging the county to remove the muck.

On a recent walk at the pond, Nelson recalled other memories. There were kids on skates forming a long line and holding hands to play a game of crack the whip. Other kids were skating out of sight, behind a wooded island at the upstream end of the pond, with a boyfriend or girlfriend and the expectation of a first kiss.

Milwaukee County Supervisor Patricia Jursik dares to interrupt this Currier & Ives moment to talk about the cost of re-creating such scenes, which she describes as "nostalgia."

Cost of dredging the pond and disposing of the sediment starts at $830,400 and climbs as high as $1.5 million, according to preliminary estimates from the county's Department of Administrative Services and released by Jursik. She represents the 8th supervisory district, encompassing St. Francis, South Milwaukee, Cudahy and a portion of Oak Creek.

State and federal grants could help pay part of the dredging costs, she said.

Jursik acknowledged the mill pond is filling to the brim with soil washed downstream in the creek. The soil has eroded from pond banks and creek banks farther upstream, and from construction sites in the creek watershed. The pond has not been dredged since 1990.

For that reason, Jursik said, she has pushed county officials to spend as much as $267,600 in 2014 to stabilize stream banks and curb erosion. The project is included in a draft 2013-2017 capital improvement plan.

"It doesn't make sense to dredge the pond until this work is done," she said. "It would be a waste of money to remove all of that sediment if the pond filled in again in a few years." Scooping out the muck is not included in the five-year plan at this time.

Jursik is not convinced children today would come to skate even if the pond were dredged of barriers.

"I get Sheridan Park pond open for skating, but the kids there are few and far between," Jursik said.

In South Milwaukee, it is not only the mill pond that has lost the luster of memories. The dam is several stones short of a solid wall and the warming house, too, needs repair.

Dam repairs ordered

The state Department of Natural Resources last week ordered Milwaukee County to complete some long-neglected dam maintenance and hire an engineer to evaluate the structure by June 2014.

The dam is made of dolomite stone blocks and it stands 18 feet tall in a ravine at Mill Road, according to DNR water management engineer Tanya Lourigan in Milwaukee. Water from the shallow pond spills over the top of the 35-foot-wide stone wall.

On Oct. 26 and Nov. 19, Lourigan inspected the dam and earthen embankments on each end.

An engineering analysis of the wall is needed since stones are missing on each end of the dam where it meets the embankment, Lourigan said in a Nov. 27 report to the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture.

Among the maintenance to be completed by June 2014: remove all trees and brush, including stumps, from the embankments and fill in holes; and repair an inoperable sluice gate needed to raise or lower water levels on the pond. A valve controlling the gate must be tested annually in the future to ensure it will work in an emergency, such as creek flooding, or for dam repairs, Lourigan says in the report.

She rated the condition of the dam as "conditionally fair" because of the extensive tree growth on the embankments, deterioration of the masonry wall and inoperable valve.

In addition to the 1,875-plus people who have signed petitions, Nelson's call for dredging the pond has the support of the South Milwaukee Women's Club and the Friends of the Mill Pond & Oak Creek Watercourse.

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