By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 05, 2024 at 9:01 AM

Urban Spelunking is brought to you by Nicolet Law

While social media can be a nest of vipers sometimes, at other times, it’s a place where passionate people can document interesting facets of life and landscape that might otherwise garner little attention.

Consider Robert Steeber’s now year-old MKE Fire Hydrants Instagram account.

Keeping a close eye on this specific object in the urban landscape has allowed Steeber to maintain not only an interesting and unique social media presence, but also to stay on top of what’s happening with fire hydrants IRL, both in terms of their history but also their future.

“As you might know, from 1928 to 1974, City of Milwaukee engineers designed their own series of fire hydrants,” he says. “When the M-series ended, nearly every hydrant in the city was Milwaukee-designed.

Steeber learned that it was not common for U.S. cities to design and commission the manufacture of their fire hydrants, making Milwaukee somewhat unique.

“It’s even more uncommon to find such a varied and long-lasting series,” he adds.

MFD used to also build its own fire trucks, too.

But while many Milwaukeeans will find these old hydrant designs familiar, things are changing on the ground, Steeber says.

“I’ve been paying special attention to these hydrants over the last year, and in doing so I’ve noticed a surprising trend,” he says. “Due to the age of some of the hydrants, new construction and traffic accidents, many are being replaced at a rapid rate.”

Hydrants, he says, "(in) some areas – like The Brewery District – have been completely replaced by off-the-shelf models you could find in other cities. Some of the hydrants that I’ve documented have already been destroyed and replaced since the start of the project.”

Since he began posting photos of hydrants on Instagram a year ago, Steeber says these hydrants have been removed:

An 1872-95 Filer & Stowell hydrant at Phillips and Wells; 1928-50  M1 hydrants at Phillips and Wells; Milwaukee and Michigan; Milwaukee and Wisconsin; and Phillips and Clybourn; a 1931 M1 hydrant at Plankinton and Michigan; a 1951-55) M2 hydrant at Phillips and Wells; a 1969 M4 hydrant at Water and St. Paul; and a 1972 M5 hydrant at 7th and State.

“These are just the ones I have personally seen, and only Downtown,” he notes. “On Google Street View, I’ve noticed countless hydrants that have been replaced in just the last few years before my project began.”

Another loss, Steeber notes, is the recent demolition of the Filer & Stowell factory buildings on Becher Street that were recently demolished to make way for an apartment complex in Bay View.

“This is where many of the Milwaukee hydrants were produced through 1968,” he points out, along with the fireboat hydrants, “of which there are only a few of left downtown.

“This hidden history, while largely undocumented and rapidly disappearing, is an important part of the city’s story.”

Wonder why there's green paint on some hydrants? Find out here.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.