May 14, 2024

Two Rivers returns to the water

Member Utilities

This article was first published by MEUW Live Lines, Volume 73, Issue 5.

Two Rivers, a city named for its idyllic location at the union of the formerly named Mishicott and Neshoto rivers, has seen a wave of change since the municipality took ownership of its local utility.

March 1 marked the 122nd anniversary of the day the city took local control of Two Rivers Water Works, Electric Light and Power Company.

Long before French Canadian and German settlers came to the area in the 1840s to construct factories, create commercial fishing operations and build a sawmill, these bodies of water were drawing visitors to their shores. The area was originally dubbed “Neshotah,” which means “twin rivers,” by members of the Ojibwe, Ottawa, Menominee, Potawatomi and Ho-Chunk tribes who visited the area seasonally.

Since then, the name has changed. As have the titles of the rivers, now known as East and West Twin, respectively. Both meet in the city less than a mile from where they flow into Lake Michigan.

Over the decades, industrious endeavors became a leading driver of the local economy. These were aided by the locally owned utility. Two Rivers Water Works, Electric Light and Power Company, now known as Two Rivers Utilities, first came to creation in 1901 when a group of citizens organized the company. It was certified as a corporation Feb. 13 of that year.

H.P. Hamilton and Water Mann, both prominent industrialists and civic leaders who helped form Two Rivers as a thriving community, were the ones to sign the articles of incorporation. It was not a municipal entity, but rather a company controlled by just four people. J.P. Miller, a Chicago businessman, owned almost all the stock with 497 of the 500 shares. Locals Hamilton, Mann and E.R. Mueller took the remaining three with one each. It was worth $5,000 then, roughly $184,000 in 2024 currency.

A water and light commission was formed, enlisting the membership of local entrepreneur J.E. Hamilton, the founder of Hamiliton Manufacturing Company. Local brewer Charles E. Mueller was vice president and City Clerk Joseph L. Klein served as commission secretary. The group hired Alva Hudson, the former chief engineer of the local chair factory, as the utility’s first superintendent.

The city purchased the company in March 1902.

At its inception, the utility served 52 electric meters and 44 water meters. A total of 37 carbon streetlights illuminated the southern section of Two Rivers. Profits in the first year were nearly $177 out of a gross revenue of $10,130. It would be another seven years before the electricity was used to power the Zulu Knitting Mills rather than to simply provide light.

The public water supply started with two shallow wells on the lake shore, long since covered by Memorial Drive. But they lasted until 1924, when a 24-inch intake line was constructed over 6,126 feet into Lake Michigan. Though initial plans called for pumping the water directly, chlorination was eventually used to eliminate bacteria. Years later, a filtration plant was built to address a cloudy consistency in the winter and a fishy taste in the summer months. The plant could produce 4 million gallons of water a day after an upgrade in 1954 and still serves the city.

Though they drew from nearby waterways for the local water supply and operation of businesses, City Manager Greg Buckley said the focus turned away from the lake and rivers and instead turned inward to highway and rail transportation as industry grew the city of workers and inventors.

Now as city tourism revenue booms and development focuses more on residential amenities than the industrial scape of factories and mills, they hope to turn to the water once again.

“We’ve been turning our face back to the water,” Buckley said. “In the past, because of necessity, people developed the city away from that resource; we turned our back to the water. As sites have been cleared and redeveloped, it really hit us just how beautiful it all is as we embrace nearby natural sources. We have the best beach in Wisconsin.”

One of the ways they have done that is planning for a $17 million apartment building to be constructed on the former downtown site of Eggers Industries. The building is slated to have 71 units and has been dubbed The Confluence, noting its proximity to the water.

Like many cities within Wisconsin, housing supply in Two Rivers does not meet demand. The creation of a subdivision near the Rawley Point trail, which extends six miles to Point Beach State Forest from Two Rivers, is in its second phase. Housing construction within Sandy Bay Highlands conservation subdivision has been divided into three phases. Six acres was designated as conservation space Picnic Hill Park. There were six new homes built in the remaining area in 2023 while up to another 15 homesites in the third phase should be opened this year. There is room for 29 additional homes when the final phase is complete.

Another project to increase housing availability is West River Lofts, a 54-unit affordable family housing development, which is nearing completion. The $14 million project will be taking the place of vacant land near the former Eggers West plant along the West Twin River.

As the city turns away from an industrial-heavy community, improvements to outdoor spaces have been completed. Last year, a new playground was constructed at Neshotah Park, one of many improvements outlined in the city’s new master plan.

In 2023, the Schmitt Brothers Stage was built in Central Park, honoring the four brothers who became international champions in 1951 as a barbershop quartet and went on to sing for another 35 years. Nearly 340 family descendants showed up to celebrate the new space.

The revamping of the public space is referred to as Central Park West 365, with the campaign proudly claiming, “Downtown…Year Round.” With a brand-new performing arts center on one side and a splash pad on the other, the community banded together to gather donations of roughly two-thirds of the $1.85 million project. This included the creation of an ice-skating ribbon around the space just last year, which was funded through the Two Rivers Rotary Club and a private donor.

“The utilities were integral in the project,” Buckley said. “We are all very, very proud of it.”

Some work is less noticeable, but just as important. Electric Utility Director Brian Dellemann said they have been working to create more reliable and efficient energy. Like converting more than 1,100 streetlights from high pressure sodium to LEDs. Or switching to a more efficient bill paying system or more technology-based ways for customers to have more information readily available about their accounts and their energy use. A member owner of joint action agency WPPI Energy, Two Rivers Utilities staff spent a year adopting software that does just that.

“It’s been an adjustment in a smaller community dealing with change,” Dellemann said. “People have seen the cost savings and we’ve seen them show a lot of appreciation for that.”

While the methods may evolve over time, the people within Two Rivers Utilities rarely change. Since its inception over a century ago, the utility has been led by just eight managers. It began with Hudson. Dellemann started 28 years ago and has now been at the reigns since 2021. He said he has plans to remain for some time.

“We do take a lot of pride in growing our own employees,” Dellemann said. “There’s been a great longevity.”

The department has 10 employees total; six lineworkers, a meter technician, an electrician inspector, Dellemann and an office manager. Not only do they take pride in the length of their workers’ service, Dellemann said, they take care to ensure they receive continual training.

“We’re very safety-minded,” Dellemann said. “And we support education; it’s a big piece of our small utility. We have taken part in regional training for years. There’s lots of thinking forward with stability in mind.”

It shows in the utility’s accolades. They first received an RP3 award in 2006 and have continued to receive the honor every three years up to this year. The national award recognizes public power utilities that demonstrate reliability, safety, workforce development and system improvement. The utility also continues to receive the Municipal Electric Utilities of Wisconsin Safety Award and was again designated as a Smart Energy Provider in 2023. The SEP designation recognizes public utilities for a commitment to energy efficiency, distributed energy resources, research and development and environmental initiatives which support the goal of providing safe, reliable and affordable electricity.

“Everyone works very well together,” said Tom Boldt, energy services manager. “You can tell that all of the people here genuinely care.”

Which you can see in the outage responses, Dellemann said, when they happen. Buckley said they’re uncommon, and that the fast response times are not likely to be seen elsewhere. Customers appreciate the dedication, Boldt said, if the people dropping by with baked goods to thank the lineworkers are any indication.

They also do work to restore power in areas far from Two Rivers. Dellemann said it was a unique experience in December 2017, when he and another lineworker flew down to the Virgin Islands to help after hurricanes swept through the area. The work lasted until January 2018. In total, 16 workers from Wisconsin headed down there and helped navigate the terrain to restore power for local residents, a different routine than the service they usually provide for the 6,200 customer meters they oversee in their community.

Those customers include industrial park businesses. An uncommon sight at Woodland Industrial Park is the business which has a 50-kilowatt wind turbine installed. The business refurbishes turbines. Dellemann said they are proud to have a standout feature as visitors enter the park.

A new business may soon add another energy-based fixture to the industrial park, though it would not be connected to the municipal utility. Nebraska energy company Tenaska presented to city council members in early February about a proposed battery storage facility. The Proposed Battery Energy Storage System, BESS, may be built in 2025 and operational in 2026. The proposed BESS would be an added $250 million in value to the city with enclosers that could hold up to 150 MWh for four hours.

While they turn to the water and embrace the current era of working from home with recreational opportunities abound, they still want to highlight the rich past of the area. From the trails to the museums championing the city as the home of the ice cream sundae, its rural farm heritage, fishing village or the industries like Eggers Veneer, Kahlenberg Engines, Hamilton Wood Type & Printing and Crescent Woolen Mills and Metal Ware, visitors can learn a lot more about the abundant resources of the city.

Visitors can also learn about another piece of Two Rivers’ unique history — shipwrecks. Part of the new developments for this year include planning to create a trailhead and visitor information center by redeveloping the historic water department high lift building. The work would add space for those interested in learning more through the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary co-managed by NOAA. Part of that sanctuary includes the sinking of the Christmas Tree ship in 1912, when a vessel carrying pines went down. Another notable shipwreck in the state of Wisconsin happened near Two Rivers in October 1887, when the Vernon went down near Rawley Point and 48 people died.

“There’s really such a rich history here,” Buckley said. “And as we turn back to the water, we hope to embrace that. We know that with the heritage here, the good schools, outdoor options and the friendly people, Two Rivers is a great place to be.”