River is now rooted in history

Parkway's new designation was news to some, but significant nonetheless

One of many pleasant scenes along the Root River Parkway.

One of many pleasant scenes along the Root River Parkway. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Oct. 11, 2011

The throngs of participants in Wehr Nature Center's Cider Sunday last week likely were unaware of the historic river and land that ran through the festivities.

In fact, a number of local historians did not know that the Root River Parkway, a natural land system that stretches from West Allis and Greenfield through Franklin, has quietly gained a listing in the Wisconsin State Register of Historic Places.

"My wife and I enjoy hiking along the trails of the Root River, and I have a personal interest in the natural prairie flowers there," said Jim Luckey, president of the Franklin Historical Society. "But I had no knowledge of the historic designation. I think it's a good thing for the area and something that Franklin and other communities can point to as a positive part of the quality of life here."

Flowing through history

The state register points to the specific portion of the parkway that touches Hales Corners, Greendale, Franklin and Greenfield.

"The parkway and parks are significant as components of the Milwaukee Parkway System, which was largely constructed under Depression-era federal work relief efforts," the designation states. "The Root River Parkway was designed as a component of a large chain of parkways that encircled Milwaukee County, connecting park units, including Whitnall Park, the Boerner Botanical Gardens, and the Whitnall Park Golf Course."

The designation notes that the system's significance, from the 1931 golf course construction to 1960, has been "largely intact and the original design intention is largely intact."

Sizable asset

Daina Penkiunas, Wisconsin's national register coordinator, noted that the parkway is a reflection of the community's interest in planning "an emerald necklace of spaces promoting health and recreation. She noted that system's landscape as well as architectural planning added to the strong nomination.

"This is a very large designation," Penkiunas said. "It is over 1,000 acres and the combination of the river, its parkways and buildings make it a little out of the ordinary.

Franklin Alderman Doug Schmidt who also serves the city's historical society, said the Root River and its adjacent parkway has always been an attraction.

"I grew up here and my friends and I used to go skating on the pond in Whitnall Park," Schmidt said. "It's just a great area to enjoy wildlife, the water and the various trees and plants. And it's all so close to a large city."

Going national?

The prideful designation could be even bigger if the Wisconsin Historical Society successfully nominates the parkway for national designation with the U.S. Park Service.

"We're in the process of putting together the final paperwork for the nomination," Penkiunas said. "It will take a few months at the very earliest to find out if the nomination goes through."

Regardless of whether it's a state or national designation, local preservationists said they were pleased with the historic status.

"This is very significant," said Delene Hanson, a member of the Milwaukee Area Land Conservancy. "The parkway acts as a filter for water pollutants and they are wildlife corridors. This offers another layer of protection.

"It's also important because the Root River runs into Lake Michigan."

Susan Greenfield, executive director of the Root-Pike Watershed Initiative Network based in Racine, said the historical designation further protects the area from development and enhances her organization's regular testing for water pollutants.

"The Root River is a connector to other waterways, and so protecting it is essential," Greenfield said.

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