Once a natural ravine sloped down from Oakland Avenue to the Milwaukee River. In the 1890s, Frederick Law Olmstead’s famous landscape design firm used the ravine as the centerpiece of the future Riverside Park. The ravine is gone, but many aspects of the original park’s design remain – if you know where to look.
A carriageway was built from Oakland Avenue along the base of the wooded ravine, passing under the Chicago & North Western Ry. tracks (today’s Oak Leaf Trail) via a large tunnel made of massive limestone blocks. From there the road climbed to the top of the bluff and turned north to exit the park at Locust Street.
In the 1970s the ravine between Oakland and the C&NW mainline was filled in and became Riverside High School’s athletic fields. The tunnel was also filled in, although if you look carefully you can still find its stone arch facing the river.
Long ago, the park’s wooded paths were illuminated at night and some of the ornate light fixtures remain in place amid the trees. Was the park board stung into action by this article from the July 31, 1915 edition of the Milwaukee Sentinel?
To a stranger in Milwaukee friends said: “You really ought to go out to Riverside Park some night when there is a band concert on. There are lots of canoes in the water, and I tell you it’s pretty.”
Now the stranger had seen some passably well trimmed craft, so he at once concluded that the sight offered in a large Milwaukee park would be one of great and unusual brilliance.
He boarded a streetcar Friday night for Riverside Park. Then followed an exciting hunt for the river, in the course of which he landed in a parking place for automobiles, a wire fence and climbed 51 stairs. At length he caught the sound of water lapping against the shore. Through the trees he saw the faint sheen of red, white and blue lights on the water, and whispered in ecstasy, “Japanese lanterns!” As he emerged from the undergrowth, however, he found the beautifully colored lights came from the reflection of an electric sign across the river.
It was all there – the soft, enchanting swish of the water against the keel, the low exclamations and pensive sighs, and an excellent band concert, but, ye shades of darkness, where was the light?
Light, as we’ve seen, was soon provided. The new fixtures lit the paths to the pavilion, which once stood on the edge of a steep bluff, at the top of a long flight of stairs leading down to a river-edge path along the Milwaukee River. The stairs are still there, but there’s no trace of the pavilion. Happily, this part of the river was popular with postcard publishers, and glimpses of the Riverside pavilion can be seen in several different postcard views from the early 1900s.
There are still questions I’d like to have answered. Whitney Gould’s “Spaces” column in the Feb. 2, 2003 edition of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel refers to a waterfall and a sledding hill. Where were they located? For that matter, where was the curling club, which operated in the park, somewhere, from 1923 to 1970?