The Yahara River, originally called the Catfish River, connects the Yahara Lakes. The Catfish existed in an undisturbed, indigenous ecosystem, flowing through marsh, swamp, and forested bottomland in a natural meandering route from Lake Mendota to Lake Monona. Madison's earliest European-American settlers frequently used dumped garbage on the banks and straightened the Yahara River by 1905.
When the river was straightened, it was renamed the Yahara River. Since the turn of the century, Madison's citizens and civic organizations have recognized the Yahara River Parkway as a unique City asset - a natural cross-isthmus link between Lakes Mendota and Monona - and as an opportunity to establish a continuous open space corridor accessible to all. The words of a 1903 report of the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association remain compelling today: "One of the unique features of Madison and one possessing great possibilities for the beautifying of the City is the Yahara River. This river and its banks should be reclaimed for the people of this City [in order to] secure to the public, for all time, free and uninterrupted use and enjoyment of this river and its banks."
True to these words, the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association introduced the Yahara River Parkway as a concept in 1903. The initial planning and development for Madison's first great public park, Tenney Park, was completed in 1911 using the plans of Ossian Cole Simonds also. The establishment of Tenney Park changed the association's direction and started the golden age of park formation here in Madison
Simonds' plan envisioned continuous, uninterrupted, and accessible public paths on each side of the river. These landscaping plans for both Tenney Park and the Parkway highlighted native, Midwestern plant species, a novel concept at the time.
The creation of the Parkway was built almost entirely with private subscriptions, of the 482 subscribers, half gave $10 or less. Along with land being donated by prominent citizens, 56 teamsters agreed to donate two loads of crushed stones for fill. In the spirit of civic pride, the railroad companies raised/built new bridges and in 1904, Norwegian Consul Halle Steensland offered $10,000 to build a stone bridge over the Yahara River at East Washington Avenue.
The Parkway plan of 1903 was developed by Ossian Cole Simonds, one of the leading practitioners of the Prairie "Spirit" in landscape design. He relied primarily on native plants and local landscape features, and arranged them in a recreated naturalistic manner.
The Tenney Park and Yahara River Parkway were designated Madison Landmarks in 1995. Tenney Park and the Yahara River Parkway triggered an era of incredible park philanthropy in Madison. In the 19th century, Orton Park was the only developed parkland in the City. In 1894, a private group was founded to address the need for increased parklands: the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association (MPPDA). In the first years of its existence, the group focused its activities on the development of "pleasure drives," landscaped roads through the countryside that were used mostly by the one-fourth of the population with sufficient means to own horses or the occasional horse-less carriage. Tenney Park and the Yahara River Parkway were the first parks developed by the Association that were intended to provide a place of recreation and beauty for the other majority of the population. The success of these efforts encouraged the MPPDA to develop additional parks, including Brittingham, Vilas, Olin, Hoyt, Glenway Golf Course, Law Park, and Nakoma park. In 1938, the MPPDA dissolved and handed over all of its lands to the City and also handed over a legacy of commitment to parks and open space that continues to this day.
The YRP Committee's concept plan retains Simonds' vision for the Yahara River Parkway while adding modifications required by increases in automobile and bicycle use since Simonds' day. While Simonds envisioned two pedestrian paths - one on each side of the river - the YRP Committee recommends a low-impact pedestrian path on one side of the river and a bike/pedestrian path on the other side. In addition, the YRP Committee recommends a Parkway feature that was probably not necessary ninety years ago but is crucial today: pedestrian underpasses where the Parkway intersects East Johnson Street and East Washington Avenue, arterial streets that carry tens of thousands of vehicles per day across the Yahara River.
In the introduction of Tenney Park and the Yahara River Parkway by Lance M. Neckar ASLA, the report states that it will create a framework for planning, future maintenance, and planting and construction in the park and along the parkway in a manner that will preserve and enhance their historic integrity. The report details the historical significance and general principles of the preservation and adaptive reuse of the parkway and Tenney Park. Lance states that "Tenney Park and the Yahara River Parkway are distinguished by the combined significance of their design in the 'prairie spirit' and their importance in the progressive period as nationally-recognized works of civic improvement.
This dual significance also represents the nexus between civic improvement and landscape architecture in the late nineteenth century and the progressive period prior to the First World War." Lance articulates three general principles to guide the renewal of the park-owned lands: Curvilinear Connective Paths, Native Plant Masses, and Replanting Guides. The specific principles relating to the Yahara River Parkway are: 1) Modal (vehicle and bike-pedestrian) and grade separation for paths, 2) prairie spirit plantings defining water edge and continuity, and 3) plantings for personal safety. His ground rule for park land improvements replicates the Committee recommendations for the development of a path system, restoration of pathways under bridges, adaptive redesign of spaces for recreational uses, creating an ecological corridor, the aesthetic idea of the 'long view' as a space framed by shrub masses and, most importantly, restoring the original quality of Tenney Park and the Yahara River Parkway design by O.C. Simonds
See report by Lance M. Neckar ASLA-Landscape Research, Tenney Park and the Yahara River Parkway, Madison, Wisconsin, published in 1997).
The bridges over the Yahara River and Tenney Park are a prominent design element in creating the sense of history, character and aesthetic of the river parkway. Special attention has been given to the bridge from the beginning of Madison History. In the May 1904 report of the Madison park and Pleasure Drive Association, our civic leaders clearly stated that the consideration to have an artistic quality instead of an utilitarian bridge structure "...so that it behooves us to demand not merely strength but dignity and civic splendor in their construction. Every City bridge is an opportunity. It cannot be too often stated that nothing pays so well as beauty, and that this constitutes a large part of the capital of Madison."
The East Main Street Bridge appears identical to the Rutledge Street Bridge. Although it was built in 1926, ten years after the Rutledge Street Bridge, it appears to have been built according to the same plan. The bridge is a classically-detailed concrete arch bridge and an excellent local example of an aesthetically designed bridge. The bridge is scheduled to be reconstructed just as the Rutledge Bridge has been recently completed. The bridges are a major part of the landmark designation and careful attention should be paid to future decisions relating to bridges. In November of 1904, Norwegian Consul Halle Steensland offered to pay for the bridge as a present to the City of Madison in commemoration of his 50 years residency in the City.
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