Riverside Park: a dream, a long decline, and a bright future

Milwaukee's Riverside Park was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering landscape designer who was also responsible for Lake and Washington parks in Milwaukee, Central Park in Manhattan, and much more. Only traces of Olmsted's plan remain.

Milwaukee’s Riverside Park was designed in the 1890s by Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering landscape designer who was also responsible for Lake and Washington parks in Milwaukee, Central Park in Manhattan, and much more. Only traces of Olmsted’s plan remain.

Frederick Law Olmsted (the designer of, among other things, Manhattan’s Central Park), also left a lasting mark on Milwaukee. In the 1890s his landscape architectural firm designed three Milwaukee County Parks; Lake Park, River Park (called Riverside after 1900), and West Park (renamed Washington Park).

The plan called for Lake and River parks to be united by an elegant boulevard, today’s East Newberry Boulevard. While Lake Park and Washington Park ultimately came fairly close to Olmsted’s vision, development of River Park was never fully completed, although some key features were built, and can be seen today – if you know where to look.

Riverside Park looked very different in those days. As parks go, it was small, just 25 acres, and was dominated by a tree-lined natural ravine sloping from the western end of Newberry Boulevard down to the Milwaukee River. Olmsted’s plan (or at least the plan drawn up by his firm, Olmsted himself was then in poor health) took full advantage of the landscape and called for a winding drive to be built along the ravine to access the riverbank.

There was substantial obstacle in the form of the Chicago & North Western Railway’s main line to its lakefront station, which cut the property in half, but local authorities worked with the railway to create a tunnel underpass beneath the tracks.

This detail of a 1923 map shows Riverside Park and the ravine drive that once connected Newberry Boulevard with the Milwaukee River. Today, everything to the right of the former railroad right-of-way is now Riverside High School's athletic fields.

This detail of a 1923 map shows Riverside Park and the ravine drive that once connected Newberry Boulevard with the Milwaukee River. Today, everything to the right of the former railroad right-of-way is now Riverside High School’s athletic fields.

Most of the park’s planned carriage roads and pathways were never built. In the 1970s the ravine between Newberry Boulevard and the C&NW mainline was flattened for Riverside High School’s athletic fields. The tunnel was also filled in, although its cut stone portal can still be seen on the west side of the former railroad embankment facing the river. It’s a striking reminder that Riverside Park was once far more developed and elegant than it is today.

The original 1890s park design called for construction of a tunnel under what was then a busy railroad right-of-way. In the 1970s, the eastern section of the park, which had been a natural ravine, was filled and leveled for Riverside High School's athletic field. The western tunnel portal can still be seen.

The original 1890s park design called for construction of a tunnel under what was then a busy railroad right-of-way. In the 1970s, the eastern section of the park, which had been a natural ravine, was filled and leveled for Riverside High School’s athletic field. The western tunnel portal can still be seen.

riverside_park_milwaukee

The outline of the tunnel shows in color.

But let’s end on a brighter note. Lake Park’s beauty was partly Olmsted’s doing and partly the result of an energetic and politically well-connected local leader. Christian Wahl was head of the city’s first park commission and he also was instrumental in hiring Olmsted. Wahl lived close to Lake Park, and took a hands-on approach in overseeing that park’s development. Riverside Park, it seems, was something of an afterthought.

Today Riverside is benefitting from the efforts of an energetic benefactor of its own. The Urban Ecology Center was created in 1991 and has steadily worked to make Riverside a more beautiful and more useful part of the park system. Recently it opened the 40-acre Milwaukee Rotary Centennial Arboretum on the east bank of the Milwaukee River between Locust and North Avenue. Olmsted’s vision never quite took hold here, but 120 years later the beauty of this part of the river is drawing fresh appreciation from a new generation of visionaries.

Special thanks to my son John for his assistance in this article. I told him there was supposed to be traces of an old tunnel “somewhere around there,” and darned if he didn’t go out and find it for me. Exploration is easier when you have a good guide!

The Milwaukee Rotary Arboretum is under construction along the Milwaukee River on the southern edge of Riverside Park.

The Milwaukee Rotary Arboretum is under construction along the Milwaukee River on the southern edge of Riverside Park.

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3 comments

  1. Carl, I am so enjoying these posts of yours. Now I wish I still lived there so I could also see the portal. Maybe someday!

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  2. I have taken to exploring the East Bank ( and the West Bank) since moving to the area 4 years ago. I had read that there was a tunnel in Riverside park but I didn’t think there would be anything left of it–I even looked around in the ravine but didn’t see the portal. Now when I go down there I’ll know where to look. Thanks Carl, your articles have really helped me to understand the ruins I find along the river trails. Keep up the good work.

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