Riverside Park

A river made for recreation

Canoes crowd the Milwaukee River at Gordon Park

Canoes crowd the Milwaukee River at Gordon Park on a fine summer day in the early 1900s. Judging by the spectators lining the railing of the Folsom (now Locust) bridge, an aquatic contest is about to take place. Carl Swanson collection

The North Avenue dam, built in 1843, divided the Milwaukee River into an industrialized lower river through downtown to the harbor and a relatively untouched upper river, which became a center for recreation for the growing city. Here, from the late 1800s to World War I, you could take a steamboat from North Avenue up the river to visit a beer garden or an amusement park. For the more energetic, there were businesses at both ends of the North Avenue bridge renting canoes and row boats by the hour or by the day.

And there were boat clubs. A newspaper article from 1912 listed 20 boat clubs on the upper river with a membership of around 300. The clubs had names like White Squadron, Pleasant Valley, La Fa Lot, Sun Set, and Shady Nook. If the article had been written a few years earlier, it would have included the Daphne Boat Club.

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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.

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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.

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