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The Milwaukee River Greenway: A Wealth of Nature in the Heart of the City

August 1, 2021  |  Topics: featured artist, Spotlight


By Eddee Daniel

“I learned to love the Milwaukee River Greenway long before it was identified as such—and before it became the popular destination it is today.”

So begins my introduction to the newly published book that is essentially a love letter to my favorite urban wilderness. And not only my own at that: The book is a highly collaborative tribute, a collection of stories, reflections, and photographs by a wide variety of “Community Voices” all of whom find magic, restoration, peace, and beauty in the Greenway in the heart of Milwaukee. They are “leaders from several important stakeholder organizations and people just passing by on a trail. They are bound only by a common love of the river, of nature, and our community….

“The images and stories in this book testify to the natural beauty that can be found near at hand and the value that our community places on this extraordinary space. Travel with us down the river with our many contributors and listen to their voices as they extol its virtues, lament its travails, honor its resilience, and express gratitude for the hope it engenders.”

Front cover design
Front cover design.
Freelance naturalist Sierra Taliaferro contributed a story entitled "Moments of Gratitude."
Freelance naturalist Sierra Taliaferro (here with a toad she rescued from the trail) contributed a story entitled “Moments of Gratitude.”

In this blog post I hope to share with you just a taste of the book and the Greenway it reveals in all of its glory. If you simply want to know how to purchase one, click here, or scroll on down to the end for more information.

Milwaukee historian John Gurda has written a brilliant foreword that begins with this: “The wonder hasn’t worn off. Every time I visit the Milwaukee River Greenway—on foot, by bike, or in a canoe—I’m amazed that this sprawling urban wilderness exists. Any community would be overjoyed to have nearly 900 acres of public green space and fifteen miles of equally public river frontage within its corporate limits. The remarkable fact about this particular wilderness is that it begins just one-and-a-half miles from Milwaukee City Hall. Accessible to all and protected in perpetuity, the Greenway is one of our community’s greatest natural treasures.”

Rafters negotiate the Estabrook Falls
Rafters negotiate the Estabrook Falls.

Like the river, the overall structure of the book is linear, each of four parts following one upon the other. First, a brief historical context is provided to give the reader a deeper understanding and greater enjoyment of the Greenway. As an example, walking through the Rotary Centennial Arboretum amid hillsides full of spectacular wildflowers is a delight in itself. But knowing that an enormous factory once stood on the very same spot, belching smoke and churning out war matériel for a long-ago conflict, makes it all the more wondrous. Much of Part 1 was co-authored by Vince Bushell, a Riverwest resident who brings a depth of personal experience to the history of the Greenway’s development.

There are a number of historical comparisons made visually throughout the book using images from the Milwaukee County Historical Society alongside contemporary ones, such as the two that follow showing the historic North Avenue Dam and an aerial view of the pedestrian bridge that has replaced it. The drone photographs are by freelance photographer Steve Bell.

Historic view of North Avenue Dam.
Historic view of North Avenue Dam. Photo courtesy Milwaukee County Historical Society.
Former dam site with pedestrian bridge over remaining dam abutments.
Former dam site with pedestrian bridge over remaining dam abutments. Photo by Steve Bell.

Part 2 of the book tours eleven named parks that comprise the Greenway, traveling with the river from north to south. Each park has a unique character as well as its own special history, from the thoroughly developed—with pools, parkways, pavilions, playing fields, and acres of lawn—to wildlife refuges with no amenities at all. Be prepared for surprises and mysteries, such as the “Tunnel to Nowhere,” which is revealed in a story by Milwaukee author Carl Swanson.

The "Tunnel to Nowhere" in Cambridge Woods.
The “Tunnel to Nowhere” in Cambridge Woods.
A group of schoolchildren on an outing in Riverside Park led by the Urban Ecology Center.
A group of schoolchildren on an outing in Riverside Park led by the Urban Ecology Center.

Part 3 ties it all back together by exploring the extensive trail system that runs from one end of the Greenway to the other, looping from shore to shore and establishing connections throughout the Greenway as well as to other parts of the community. Did you know that you can hike along the river’s edge for over seven linear miles without ever crossing a road? Or kayak down the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail (aka the river) and feel as though you’ve left the city entirely. In how many cities is this even a possibility?

A moment of solitude on the East Bank Trail, which extends from one end of the Greenway to the other.
A moment of solitude on the East Bank Trail, which extends from one end of the Greenway to the other.
Kayaking the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail in the heart of the Greenway where the city vanishes.
Kayaking the Milwaukee Urban Water Trail in the heart of the Greenway where the city vanishes.

Finally, Part 4 brings us, as the title indicates, “full circle.” Thanks to the restoration efforts by many individuals, agencies, and organizations, we see wildlife—birds and beasts, fishes and frogs—once again making this place their home—and we are reminded that we the people share that home. For although much time and energy is spent making the Greenway enjoyable for humans, we are visitors here. Parks are for people, but the river and the forested bluffs, wetlands, and grasslands are also habitats. In a bit of serendipity that couldn’t have been planned, sturgeons were caught (and released) in the Greenway for the first time since the North Avenue Dam prevented them from migrating upstream. That story was provided by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel journalist Paul Smith.

Bald eagle flying over Lincoln Park. Photo by Danielle Kornitz.
Butler's garter snake.
Butler’s garter snake. Photo by Matt Flower.

The closing chapter celebrates another, very intentional kind of return: a historic canoe journey down the Milwaukee River by a group of Menominee Water Protectors, who traveled from the Menominee reservation up north in order to do it. Organizer and Community Voice Mark Denning believes it to be the first such journey by Native people since the river was dammed in 1843.

Menominee Water Protectors Jwin Zillier and Dawn Wilbur enjoy their canoe journey on the Milwaukee RIver.
Menominee Water Protectors Jwin Zillier and Dawn Wilbur enjoy their canoe journey on the Milwaukee RIver. Photo by Danielle Kornitz.

To conclude, as John Gurda does in his foreword, “The Milwaukee River Greenway is a wonder that endures, and we are lucky, oh so lucky, to have it in our midst.”

The Greenway in white at Hubbard Park.
The Greenway in white at Hubbard Park.

The Milwaukee River Greenway: A Wealth of Nature in the Heart of the City can be purchased in several ways. It is currently available in three area bookstores: Boswell Books, The Little Read Book, and Woodland Pattern.

You can order one online from the printer at BookBaby.com—but if you do make sure to use the coupon code Greenway 45 to reduce the price by 45%!

You can also get one from River Revitalization Foundation or directly from me. If you do this part of the proceeds will go to support RRF’s continuing efforts to protect the Greenway. Feel free to contact me at eddeedaniel@awealthofnature.org to arrange it.

Kiss and release! A fisherman kisses his salmon before releasing it.
Kiss and release! A fisherman kisses his salmon before releasing it.

Links to press coverage:

Channel 58 CBS News:

‘People in the city need to touch nature’; New book celebrates Milwaukee’s urban wilderness.

Spectrum News 1:

‘Hidden gem, found in plain sight’; Author highlights Milwaukee River Greenway.

WUWM 89.7:

Eddee Daniel explores Milwaukee River Greenway in new book.

National Association for Olmsted Parks:

Milwaukee River Greenway Builds Upon Olmsted’s Legacies.

The Morning Blend WTMJ4:

Celebrating the Milwaukee River Greenway!

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

The Milwaukee River Greenway … has become the wilderness in our own backyard, by John Gurda.

You can see more photos of the Milwaukee River Greenway in my Flickr album.

The Milwaukee River Greenway: A Wealth of Nature in the Heart of the City was published by River Revitalization Foundation. Eddee Daniel serves as Artist in Residence for RRF, which is also a partner organization to A Wealth of Nature. All images by Eddee Daniel except as noted. The featured photo at the top is the title page of the book.