Then and Now: Rails to Trails

Written by Mike Larson
    Monday, 25 July 2016
Then and Now: Rails to Trails

On a regular basis I get to tell people the story of the Urban Ecology Center, and I love watching the way their eyes light up as I describe the transition that Riverside Park has gone through from beauty to decadence and back again in its 120 year history. So many groups have worked hard to make this transition possible, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.

Occasionally, nuggets from the history of our park rise to the surface, and in this case a visitor shared with us an old photo of his mother from the 1930s that he thought might be of interest. Apparently, the young woman in this photo was a student at Riverside High School, hanging out on the train tracks that ran by the school with some friends. Thanks to the Rails to Trails program, those tracks are long gone and have been replaced with the beautiful Oak Leaf Trail and the center’s community gardens. The bridge in the background looked like it might be Locust Street, so I went down to the bike path one day to investigate and figure out if I could gauge were the picture was taken. So much has changed in the last century that it was difficult at first to find the shot. Then a clue from the past jumped out at me!

woman railway   womanrailwaypresentok

Look closely at the cantilever style telephone pole to the left of the tracks in the old photograph. The pole is obscured by leaves in our photograph of De’Edra, our high school outdoor leader in the photo from 2016, but as De’Edra shows you in the accompanying picture, it’s still there. Look how different the scene looks today! These two high school students are separated by almost ninety years of history, culture, technology and experiences- and yet both are intrinsically linked by place. treewomen


I feel that as we continue the amazing work we’re doing here in Riverside Park and at our other two branches, it is important that we keep grounded in the idea that we’re part of something much bigger. When you borrow a bike, volunteer to clean trash along the trail, or grow vegetables in our community gardens, you are playing a small part in the ongoing narrative of this place- just like De’Edra and this other young woman are. Thanks for being a party of history! 

Mike Larson

Mike Larson

Mike is a happily married man living with his family in Milwaukee. As a young child he spent days playing along the banks of the Rock River, fostering a love for nature which eventually led him to study biology and pursue a career with the Urban Ecology Center. He enjoys connecting people with nature through his role as the Community Programs Manager. He hopes that the work he does can help make it possible for his two sons and other kids in Milwaukee to grow up with similar experiences to those he had as a child.

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