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Guide to the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Water and Waste Water Utility Records, 1877-1992 La Crosse Series 015

Guide to the La Crosse, Wisconsin, Water and Waste Water Utility Records, 1877-1992

La Crosse Series 015

Summary Information

Records of the Water and Waste Water Utilities. The Water Department materials (1877-1992) include newspaper clippings, water main tap records, water rate volumes (1885-1906), miscellaneous correspondence, photographs, and ground water studies. The Waste Water materials (1937-1978) contain information on the treatment facility, such as chemical analysis, engine and equipment data, and plant operational reports.
Collection Title
La Crosse, Wisconsin, Water and Waste Water Utility Records
Date of Materials
La Crosse (Wis.). Water and Waste Water Utility.
Call Number
La Crosse Series 015
9.3 cubic feet
Physical Description
5 archives boxes, 10 volumes, 513 microfiche cards
Language of Materials
La Crosse Public Library Archives

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], La Crosse, Wisconsin, Water and Waste Water Utility Records, La Crosse Series 015, La Crosse Public Library Archives, La Crosse, WI

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Historical Note

History of the Water Utility

A filtered intake pipe placed in the Mississippi River was the only source of municipal water until 1913 when the well system began. Before that time, the water was drawn mainly to aid in battling fires. Large cisterns were also hidden under downtown city sidewalks to be used in fighting conflagrations. Most homes either gathered rainwater or had their own well for domestic purposes. Large industries usually operated several pumps, and in 1877 the saw mills, under contract with the city, began to pump water into city laid pipes from Zeisler's Brewery to Badger St., Badger to State, Pearl to Division, Division to Mississippi, Front to Fifth, Fifth to Eighth, Eighth to Eleventh, and on Sixth, Eighth and Tenth streets. This was the beginning of the water utility.

In 1880 the planning and construction of a municipally owned and operated pump house on King Street began. According to a report to the Council by James Manchester, Superintendent of the Water Works, the total cost of operation and construction was $81,257.11, and 273 taps were made by May 1881. The average amount of water pumped per day was 353,180 gallons. Residential taps from the water mains were becoming commonplace. Demand for water increased, and in 1884 new wells were sunk near the water works. These wells were connected to the intake pipe in the river.

The sanitation and quality of the water was constantly under public scrutiny. In Sept. 1894, a special Council committee suggested that a hydraulic engineer would be required to "find ways and means whereby an abundant and permanent supply of healthful water can be guaranteed." Mayor F.A. Copeland experimented by driving wells near Myrick Park during his administration 1891-1893. He was a strong supporter of the well system.

Political battles between well system supporters and filtering system advocates were fought on and off until the state railway commission intervened by ordering the city "to establish a sufficient and wholesome supply of water" in 1911. Newspaper clippings describe the bitter discussions that took place until the Oct. 27, 1911, Council meeting at which the well system was finally authorized.

A new water plant near Myrick Park began operations on Dec. 18, 1913, which pumped well water through the pipes. The building cost $53,128. Steam boilers kept the pumps in operation. Reservoirs were constructed at a cost of $90,952. The high reservoir (still in use!) is located on Grandad Bluff; the low at Myrick Park. In 1914 the five wells, which averaged a depth of 120 feet, were capable of producing 15,000,000 gallons of water per day. The capacity of each well pump was not less than 1400 gallons per minute.

By 1928, 20 wells sunk into the marsh supplied water to residents and industries in La Crosse. The water was not chemically treated, and 82.8 miles of water mains existed. All water consumption was metered by this time.

The next big controversy affecting the water supply was the question of chlorination. A state health report ordered the city to begin chloride treatment in 1938, but it wasn't until 1949-1950 that something was done about it. Chlorination was urged by city health officer Dr. Garland Weidner. The U.S. public health service condemned La Crosse water for use in interstate commerce. Reluctantly, the city began to use chlorination as a "standby" measure. By mid 1950, chlorination equipment was permanently in place and used to treat the wells and water supply.

Some of the 27 wells in the marsh were abandoned at this time because of high iron content. A north side well was constructed in 1942 at Sill and George St. Other wells followed south of the marsh. The wells in the marsh were eventually all abandoned and capped.

Advocates for adding fluoride to the water supply to help fight tooth decay began urging this as early as 1946, but the fight continued until 1988 when residents voted to add fluoride to the water. Many previous attempts had failed.

History of the Waste Water Utility

In 1934 La Crosse decided to begin plans to build a sewage treatment plant because of pressure from conservation and sportsmen's clubs and the public outcry in general. Up to this time, the raw sewage was emptied into the Black and Mississippi Rivers through outlet pipes at Hagar and Cass Streets. Oxygen levels in the Mississippi had dropped because untreated sewage required oxygen, as does the marine life. Beaches were often closed because of contamination. Water quality in the Mississippi and other rivers was very low. The city considered sites at Isle la Plume, Green Island and west of the Causeway in the marsh for the plant.

The city applied for Public Works Administration funds to assist in the project and the Isle la Plume location was selected, despite complaints about possible odor from the neighbors. The cost of the bids in 1936, which included the two intercepting sewer contracts, totaled $514,066.70. The city paid 55% and the PWA paid the remainder. The facility was designed to handle a maximum of 12 million gallons per day or a maximum population of 60,000.

Intercepting sewers had to be constructed to join the Hagar Street outlet to the outlet at Cass Street. This sewage was then pumped to the treatment facility on Isle la Plume. The raw sewage was first shredded and run through the grit tank. The grit that settled to the bottom was then raked through a washing stream and then discharged as filling material.

After removal of the grit, the sewage flowed to two clarifier tanks. The settleable solids and floating grease was removed. The sludge and grease were pumped into the heated primary digester tank. The clarified liquid was then discharged into the river. Sludge was then drawn into the secondary digester. The methane gas produced was saved and used for powering engines and heating purposes in the plant. The sludge was then taken to one of five sludge beds which combined totaled about one acre. After drying, the sludge was spread over Isle la Plume's sandy soil to create a park.

As much of the plant as possible was contained indoors, while the digesters were embanked with dirt and grass eventually grew to conceal the concrete exterior. The facility became operational in August of 1937. The grand opening took place July 9-10, 1938. Several gifts were made to the plant: a flagpole, benches, drinking fountain, sundial, trees, shrubbery, flowers and flower urns were donated by businesses and individuals. Reuben Trane presented the facility with a lily pond, walkway and bench. Fish were also donated for the pond. Houska Park was eventually a result of this beautification with the addition of a fireplace, horseshoe courts, softball diamond and footbridge. In commemoration of its 50th anniversary, the Elks Club donated $600 for decorative pylons at the entrance to Isle la Plume in 1945.

A storm sewer construction project was undertaken in 1939 with labor from the WPA. Tunnels were dug 28 feet below the surface and pre-cast concrete pipe was laid. This was the beginning of a project to build storm sewers on the entire south side. This took several decades and thousands of dollars to complete.

In March 1940, the Council directed a special committee to confer with the Onalaska council on the feasibility of connecting the Onalaska sanitary sewer with that of La Crosse rather than building their own treatment plant. That same year a 20 year agreement was reached. La Crosse would assist Onalaska in pursuing a WPA project to lay the intercepting sewer pipes from Onalaska to the Moore Street pumping station. Onalaska was to pay no more than $25 per 1000 gallons of sewage.

By 1946, the plant was handling 2,000,000,000 gallons of raw sewage per year. Three pumping stations on the north side were required to get the sewage to the treatment plant. The plant superintendent Carl Wahlstrom was also in charge of the city’s streets and maintenance.

The volume of copper and chromium in the sewage was a big concern for the treatment facility because too much copper or chromium stopped the digesting action of the bacteria in the system. This meant the methane gas used to run the plant was not produced. Several large industries were releasing sewage with high copper amounts in 1947. Agreements were worked out eventually and some wastes were transported to the landfill by the companies.

New sewage pumping stations were built in 1948 at George and Hagar Streets, Farnum and State Road. By 1949 the facility was considered too small for the demand placed on it. The load had increased 50% from the plant's opening in 1937 to 1948. Greater residential and industrial development, coupled with the increased use of water for air conditioning in industrial situations, was blamed.

The Donahue Engineering firm of Sheboygan was hired in 1950 to study the treatment facility and suggested $561,000 worth of improvements and expansion to the existing plant. Construction began in Sept. 1951 and included a new pump, generator, additional space for more grit removal, a new maintenance building, additional clarifier and two new digesters. The sewer offices were moved from the shared quarters of the pump house building on King St. to the treatment facility. The new construction was completed in early 1954. Eight lift stations were located throughout the city at this time.

The city attorney in 1957 ruled that under the sanitary sewer district #1 contract in effect at that time, the city must extend added sanitary sewer services to the Town of Shelby. By 1977 the waste water facility was treating the sewage of La Crosse, Onalaska and the towns of Campbell, Onalaska, Shelby and Medary.

In 1966 the city was ordered by the Wisconsin Board of Health & State Committee on Water Pollution to chemically treat the effluent to reduce disease-bearing bacteria with chlorine. The city was also ordered to prepare a plan for separating storm and sanitary sewers. It was also discovered that businesses along the Causeway were polluting the La Crosse and Mississippi Rivers by allowing sewage to go directly into the marsh without going through a septic tank. It was said that many firms were illegally discharging septic tanks into the city storm sewer. The Wisconsin Board of Health then demanded sanitary sewers be installed on the Causeway immediately as a result. Year round chlorination began in 1972.

In 1970, low bids of $3.49 million were accepted for an addition to the disposal plant. The improvements included secondary treatment to reduce river pollution and provided space for tertiary (third stage) treatment. The improvements provided for treating 22 million gallons daily with a pumping capacity of 48 million gallons. The project included six aeration tanks, a new laboratory, control units, pumps, chlorination chamber and two clarifiers.

A planned expansion at the G. Heileman Brewing Co. in 1979 speeded up planned improvements to the treatment facility. Heileman's was the largest industrial contributor to the waste water plant, accounting for 60-70% of the total sewage treated. Rather than place the burden on the city's waste water facility, Heileman decided to incorporate its own treatment plant into the expansion plans. It was considered to be the first of its kind in the nation, substantially reducing the brewery's effluent. It is located at Second and Market streets and was completed in the spring of 1981. As a result, no further improvements were scheduled to the municipal treatment facility.

Since 1984, the city has worked with certain industries stressing the need for pre-treatment of effluent to help reduce the toxins and heavy metals in the sewage coming to the facility. In 1989 the city won a national award for its pre-treatment program. At that time, four companies were pre-treating their waste water: G. Heileman, Trane, Continental Can, and Aratex-Means.

In June 1990, a sewer utility fee was approved by the Common Council, although the idea had been discussed for at least a decade. Residents and commercial users began paying a separate fee based on the quantity used. Discussions regarding water and sewer service and charges have often taken place between La Crosse and neighboring townships. The city council has on more than one occasion used water and sewer service and connections as a weapon in annexation battles with the county and area townships.

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Scope and Contents

Records of the Water and Waste Water Utilities. The Water Department materials (1877-1992) include newspaper clippings, water main tap records, water rate volumes (1885-1906), miscellaneous correspondence, photographs, and ground water studies.

The Waste Water materials (1937-1978) contain information on the treatment facility, such as chemical analysis, engine and equipment data, and plant operational reports.

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Arranged in two series:

Series 1: Water Department

Series 2: Waste Water Department

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

La Crosse Public Library Archives 1994-1997

800 Main St.
La Crosse, Wisconsin, 54601
(608) 789-7136

Access to Materials

Materials in this collection are available for patron use.

Acquisitions Information

(Accession no. 1993.021) Water Dept. materials donated by Bruce Knudson, Water Utility Director, Dec. 1993

(Accession no. 1993.022) Waste Water materials donated by Mark Johnson, Waste Water Treatment Facility, Dec. 1993

(Accession no. 1996.004) Water rate volumes were located in the City Clerk's basement area of City Hall; came to the Archives as part of the Mayor's Special Committee on Historic Records, Dec. 1996

The tap records were filmed by the Water Utility in 1992; the Archives purchased a positive set of microfiche in 1994 to enhance the Water and Waste Water Utility record series.

Processing Information

Processed by Anita Taylor Doering and Carrie Ann Seib, May - June 1994; additions processed by ATD, April 1997

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Related Materials

Related Materials

(Clipping file)
 La Crosse--Water Supply
(Clipping file)
 La Crosse--Water Supply--Chlorine
(Clipping file)
 La Crosse--Water Supply--Flouride
(Clipping file)
 La Crosse--Sewage & Sewage Disposal
(La Crosse Series 016)
 La Crosse, Wisconsin, Office of the Director of Public Works Records

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Controlled Access Headings


  • Municipal government--Wisconsin--La Crosse
  • Public records--Wisconsin--La Crosse
  • Public utilities--Wisconsin--La Crosse
  • Water treatment plants--Waste disposal--Wisconsin--La Crosse
  • Water-supply--Wisconsin--La Crosse

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OCLC Number


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Collection Inventory

 (Series 1) Water Department 

Scope and Contents

The records of the Water Department include historical information, newspaper clippings (1905-1988), miscellaneous correspondence (1910-1964), and miscellaneous well logs. Some well logs include chemical analysis of the water (1943-1980) for some wells. Other subseries are photographs which are undated, but seem to date mainly from the 1940s-1950s, and water reports (1905, 1923, 1932) were presented to the Council and summarized water department activities to that point and suggested improvements. Ground water studies examine ground water contamination of wells. Most clean-up efforts are contracted out. These are organized in the collection by date of study.

The final two subseries of the Water Department records are the water main tap records (1877-1992) which are permits to tap into the water main on microfiche and water rate volumes (1885-1906). These materials are arranged in sequential tap number order. The index must be consulted to refer from an address to the tap number. The water rate volumes often include other interesting information about the property beside the owner, address and amount due. Other categories were for dwellings, number of rooms, horses, cows, stables, sprinklers, baths, hoses for cars, etc.

Box Folder

Historical background 

1 1

Clippings, 1905-1988 

1 2

Correspondence, 1910-1964 

1 3

Miscellaneous well logs, 1943-1980 

1 4


1 5

Reports, 1905-1932 

1 6
Box Folder Box Folder

Ground water studies, 1953-1973 

2 1 1 7-10
Box Folder

Fish lab site, 1973 

2 2

Well 21-L, 1987-1988 

2 3-4

Wells 16, 17, 18; Trane Company/American Standard, 1988-1991 

Box Folder

Draft volumes 1 and 2 

2 5-7


3 1

Volumes 1-3 

3 2-4

Final report phase 3 

3 5

Water main tap records, 1877-1992 


Water rate volumes, 1885-1906 


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 (Series 2) Waste Water Department 

Scope and Contents

The Waste Water Department materials include general background and operational information, copper and chromium analysis (1938-1968), engine & equipment data (1937-1938), facility contracts (1952 improvements and additions), general employee information that does not include any personnel or personal information (1956-1978), and plant operational reports of discharge (1937-1959).

Box Folder

General information and photographs 

4 1

Copper and chrome analysis, 1938-1968 

4 2-3

Engine and equipment data, 1937-1938 

4 4

Facility contracts (improvements and additions), 1952 

4 5

General employee information, 1956-1978 

4 6
Box Folder Box

Plant operational reports, 1937-1959 

4 7-11 5

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