Saratoga of the West

There was a time when the residents of Waukesha didn’t have to go looking for water. It was bubbling up from the ground, right under their feet. Within the city limits, there were upwards of 60 natural springs, and in 1868, they became the stuff of legend.

That was the year...

That was the year Colonel Richard Dunbar, a railroad contractor from New York, announced to the world that he had been cured of diabetes by drinking 12 glasses of water in a single day from a Waukesha spring.

Shortly after, he bought the land around the spring, which he dubbed Bethesda, and began selling water to people outside the area. Soon, other springs were being named, bottled and marketed with tales of miraculous waters that could cure liver diseases, kidney diseases, rheumatism, yellow fever, depression, constipation and countless other ailments.

Over the next four decades, Waukesha was known as Spring City, and the Saratoga of the West. The water attracted both the wealthy and the famous, including Sears & Roebuck founder Richard Sears and Abraham Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd Lincoln.

By the early 20th Century, though, the fad had faded, and the flow of tourists stopped. But Waukesha was growing very quickly, and the springs could no longer meet the rapidly expanding city’s needs. Waukesha needed a new source of water. One was quickly found: Deep wells, some extending more than 2,000 feet down, that reached an extensive sandstone aquifer.

For many decades, this solution served the city’s needs, along with the needs of an ever-increasing number of other municipalities throughout southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois. But a layer of shale prevents the aquifer from replenishing as quickly as needed, so the water level keeps going down. Which is why the one-time Saratoga of the West is looking east, toward Lake Michigan, for its water.

Myth vs. Fact

The subject of water resource management is often emotionally charged, and the passions it raises can lead to a blurring of the line between myth and fact. We’d like to address some of the common misperceptions that have arisen since Lake Michigan was identified as the only reasonable long term water supply for Waukesha.


Frequently Answered Questions

Here’s the place to start…
in case you’re wondering.