The past haunts Riverside Park

Did you know the wooded paths in Milwaukee's Riverside Park were once illuminated? Some of the ornate century-old fixtures remain in place amid the trees. Carl Swanson photo

Did you know the wooded paths in Milwaukee’s Riverside Park were once illuminated? Some of the ornate century-old fixtures remain in place amid the trees. Carl Swanson photo

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.

In the summer, plant growth makes the old tunnel difficult to see. The stone work is colorized in this early spring view. Carl Swanson photo

If you want to see what’s left of the old tunnel, now’s the time to do it. Summer plant growth makes the old tunnel difficult to see. The stone work is colorized in this early spring view. Carl Swanson photo

 

Riverside Park once had a tunnel very much like this, and traces of its western portal remain in a hillside to this day. The postcard refers to a "Riverview Park," a name shared by no Milwaukee park, leaving open the possibility this early 1900s photograph was actually a mis-captioned view of Riverside Park. Carl Swanson collection

The tunnel looked very much like this. The postcard refers to a “Riverview Park,” a name shared by no Milwaukee park, leaving open the possibility this early 1900s photograph is actually a mislabeled view of Riverside Park. Carl Swanson collection

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.

The park's two-story pavilion stood on a hilltop with a flight of stairs leading down to the river. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

The park’s two-story pavilion stood on a hilltop with a flight of stairs leading down to the river. Courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society

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?

This postcard from around 1900 shows the Riverside pavilion on a hill overlooking the Milwaukee River. Stairs lead from the pavilion to a wide gravel path along the water's edge. Carl Swanson collection

This postcard from around 1900 shows the Riverside pavilion on a hill overlooking the Milwaukee River. Stairs lead from the pavilion to a wide gravel path along the water’s edge. Carl Swanson collection

Once these stairs connected the riveredge pathway to Riverside Park's pavilion. Carl Swanson photo

Once these stairs connected the riveredge pathway to Riverside Park’s pavilion. Carl Swanson photo

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?

Carl_sig

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9 comments

  1. The sledding hill was located on the Eastern portion of the tract (now occupied by the athletic field). Riverside Place (originally South Park Front) ran across the crest of the hill and terminated at the footbridge. Residential blocks occupied the area to the South, and the hill descended to the North. The curling rink was West of the tracks along the Southern boundary (just West of the current fire ring).

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  2. it would be awesome if them have were rhe created for New hikers and dog walkers and somehow them light fixtures or replicas can be repowered. We have a lot of historic places around here that no longer exists but there is always a plac sitting on that home site that says one stud so and so. I love the history and the discovery as well as the recovery. I am in California and my father is there. And by me doing the reading and research in him taking photos and experience in it. I feel like I am there in person. I have I have been born and raised in Milwaukee Wisconsin and have never known this and it intrigues me. The one thing about Monterey California is any historic place has a plaque a bowl or something that reminds you of once was. River Colony is something that people should definitely know about. It will keep the homeless out and it would clean the place up. all information is more than welcome. River colony should be a book. somebody somewhere has photos of them old houses.

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  3. I was once very familiar with this park, growing up west of the river and attending Riverside HS before the athletic field expansion. It was a nice place to walk during lunch hour. The tunnel gave easy access to the lower area of the park. A few times, I was there at night (late 60s), but can’t say for certain if the lighting was working.

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  4. Light fixtures in the park are cousins of the Milwaukee harp lamp fixtures, and your photos clearly show that these were the early style, which had narrow stained glass panels in the metal frame above the globe. Later fixtures had the glass replaced with a solid metal panel. The early fixtures were cast iron, and later versions were cast aluminum.

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  5. I lived in the 2700 block of N. Bartlett Ave. from 1942 to 1962 (ages 8 to 28). Riverside Park was a major part of my growing up including baseball, softball and the playground equipment in the summer and sledding on Devil’s Hill and walking through the park to the icy Milw. River in the winter. I even remember the tobaggan slide just west of the curling rink west of the tracks along with the Chicago, Northwestern ‘400’ train as it ran right through the middle of the park.

    Mike Barron

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