Honey Creek is a tributary of the Menominee River that flows through Milwaukee and West Allis. In 1964 construction began to divert the creek into a tunnel (a process which has recently garnered criticism) to lower maintenance costs associated with the bridges spanning the creek. The diverted creek winds its way underground from McCarty Park, through the neighborhood to the north of National, under Wisconsin State Fair Park, and it reappears above ground just north of Interstate 94. The total distance of underground tunnel is about 2.5 miles.
Where the creek runs under Wisconsin State Fair Park, it’s 15 feet below the Milwaukee Mile. This section is built of 9’ by 13’ corrugated steel. When it was first built, the engineers decided to use corrugated steel to improve the speed the water moves, encouraging flow. However, that plan hasn’t worked as well as intended, and as a result some repairs have had to been made to ensure the tunnel’s original purpose is continually served.
This massive tunnel has plenty of opportunity for side explorations. Since this waterway was channeled in around 1940, a lot of smaller creeks and culverts have been diverted into it. These smaller creeks and culverts were also built into tunnels during the 1960s. Some of the tunnel sections are very old, built from the original culvert which dates back to the 1940s, while others are very new, as recent as this year (2015).
When I first discovered Honey Creek, I was probably around 12 years old. The church I attended played softball at McCarty park and during the games I would wander the park with my friends. The lagoon and creek were good places to cause trouble so naturally, we gravitated to them. The inlet is covered by a huge metal grate to keep out debris so the underground river became a thing of wonder. At age 12, I never would have thought that I’d see the world from the other side of that grate.
When first entering the tunnel, I was met with a series of brand new concrete sections tied together by metal bolts drilled into the walls. This awesome engineering tactic was employed to quickly get the tunnel rebuilt in light of the new freeway being built above ground. The section immediately following is, in my opinion, the coolest part of the whole tunnel – the corrugated steel sections. There are about 8 sections of 4 side-by-side, 9ft by 13ft corrugated steel culverts running from the north end of the Milwaukee Mile to the south side of Greenfield Avenue. These sections are immensely interesting, with chamber rooms connecting each section. The chamber rooms have manholes which allow for some natural light to flow in, making for great photography. These rooms also host the outfalls of smaller tunnels that feed Honey Creek.
The next section contains two 10 by 15 foot side-by-side tunnels which head straight for quite a few blocks. Each side of the tunnel is accessible from the other by archways built into the barrier between them – though each tunnel is unique. These are fed by a large, ~18 foot round section that meanders a little bit and provides a place for other tunnels to empty themselves into the creek.
The final mile is a straight shot – two side by side 10 by 15 foot square tunnels. For the whole last mile, daylight can be seen flooding in through the grate at the infall. The view is quite glorious, really, and unlike anything I have experienced in another tunnel. For some reason, the light at the end of this tunnel surrounds you. I turn off my flashlight and try to walk by the light of the sun when I get here – if only to relish in the experience more.
The infall provides a nice chance to relax. Sit down on the archway between the two tunnels, peek into the last two side tunnels that help feed the creek, take some photographs of the trash and debris that has found it’s way through the grate. When I get to this spot, I wonder why I ever thought I wouldn’t get to see things from this side.
View the whole album here (watch for updates – I’ll be going back soon).