Muir Knoll Cistern

Photo by Willilam Cronon.

One of the less well-known buildings on campus is probably the Water Science and Engineering Laboratory, located between Helen C. White Library and the Lake Mendota shore, far away from the main UW engineering campus. Originally called the Hydraulics Laboratory, it was constructed in 1905 to support the hydraulic engineering research of Professor Daniel Mead, and houses a variety pumps, pipes, valves, and gauges.

In the early days, before alternative sources were available, the research conducted here needed a large volume of water operating under a reasonably high and steady head of pressure, and so a special cistern was built on the edge of Muir Knoll. Connected to the Hydraulics Laboratory by a sixteen-inch pipe, it held 220,000 gallons of Lake Mendota water that flowed back down to the lab with the pressure gained from the fifty-foot drop. The reservoir was 16 feet deep and 50 feet wide, and was covered with a reinforced concrete deck ringed by a low parapet, designed to create a student seating area.

When pumping technology improved enough in the 1950s to produce the constant and carefully controlled pressures needed for hydraulics research, this old cistern was abandoned.

The cistern was removed in 2010 during construction of the Gard Storytellers Circle. All you’ll find in its place is a grassy lawn area.

Read a short history of the Hydraulics Lab…