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Improvements on the Oak Leaf Trail

Written by Kim Forbeck
    Friday, 11 May 2018
Improvements on the Oak Leaf Trail

The Oak Leaf Trail is my regular bike commute route from home to work and back. The morning commute is an especially quiet and beautiful experience from the morning a whitetail deer ran alongside me for 50 meters to watching the continuous show of wild geraniums in the spring through scarlet colored sumac in the fall. 

A former Chicago-Northwest Railway line, I sometimes imagine what it would have been like to witness those locomotives flying past. In the 1930s, the “400” trains that rumbled along this route were the fastest long-distance passenger trains in the world! The 400 train was named for the route distance of 400 miles between St. Paul, MN and Chicago, IL which it could cover in 400 minutes.

The Oak Leaf Trail follows the east bluff of the Milwaukee River for a bit and then cuts across the Eastside to the lakefront. The original tracks were laid at street grade. In 1905, as the Eastside developed and grew busier, for safety the tracks were lowered 20 feet to the canyon we have today from Riverside Park to the lakefront. The last train traveled this stretch in 1963.

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Wild Columbine growing out of the old trail wall

If you ever ride the trail to the south of the Riverside branch of the Urban Ecology Center, you may notice the perpetual puddles and freeze-thaw popping of the asphalt. An average of 1,600 people per day utilize this stretch of the Oak Leaf Trail. That’s a lot of people! After several years of planning, work is being done to mitigate these problems. The Urban Ecology Center raised funds during the Rotary Centennial Arboretum project to help build a ramp on the north side of North Ave to connect the loop within the Arboretum from the Oak Leaf Trail to East Bank Trail from North to Locust. The rest of the improvements are being funded through Milwaukee County Parks to improve this wonderful asset.

oak leaf trailok

The Oak Leaf Trail next to the Urban Ecology Center

Tree work and creation of the ramp has begun. There will be a temporary patch to allow the trail to reopen until spring. In spring, the trail will be temporarily closed again while the crushing, grading and paving of the trail takes place from Belleview to Prospect (That’s 3,700 feet!). The trail will be raised slightly and widened by 2’. The spring paving work is expected to take about 2 weeks, but is also very weather dependent. The goal completion date is June 15th.  

Update, May 11, 2018: The repaving of the Oak Leaf Trail will begin Monday, May 14. The trail will be widened 2 ft. to a total width of 12 ft, raised between 2-4” with crushed gravel and asphalt, and include a crushed gravel shoulder of about 1 ft. on each side of the trail. After this, the trail will be graded, and the sides will be topped with soil and seeded. This work also includes the new ramp to North Ave, which allows for a consistent loop on the Oak Leaf to East Bank Trail, all within the Rotary Centennial Arboretum land.

The trail will be closed from Monday May 14 until June 15. The detour will come up the ramp next to our Riverside Park building, just like last autumn. Please, abide by the signage - the trail will be unsafe to travel on during construction. Thanks for your patience and cooperation! When this new stretch of trail is complete, it will be amazing!

Check out the detour map and the Milwaukee County Parks web page for updates on trail closings. 

Kim Forbeck

Kim Forbeck

Kim Forbeck is the Senior Land Steward at the Urban Ecology Center.

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