An inviting but unmarked gravel path leads you downward toward the river. Descending into the forest canopy, dense foliage closes in around you. With each step the light grows dimmer, the sultry air cooler. At the end of the gravel a muddy trail parallels the riverbank. It vanishes in both directions into the dark forest. Standing here now, you would never guess that this once was the site of a popular resort that drew thousands of people on a warm summer weekend like this one.
Even the name might surprise you, if you were to consider a name at all. There are no signs identifying Pleasant Valley Park. There isn’t even much of a valley; just an overgrown ravine crossed by a mysterious and apparently purposeless pedestrian causeway. What there is—in abundance—is a wide variety of plant life of all shapes and sizes. On a hot day after a storm, it is more like a steamy and vaguely forbidding jungle than one of Milwaukee’s premier attractions.
That’s what it was for about 80 years beginning in the late 1840s. On the shore of the lake impounded by the North Avenue dam, the resort included a pier, bandshell, restaurant, rentable cottages, extensive landscaping and a grand beer garden. Torn down a century ago, no sign of it remains save a concrete curb along parts of the gravel path. Referring to the resort, a Milwaukee Journal article dated June 8, 1928 quoted a real estate broker as saying, “Few of the younger generation in the city realize that there is a spot in the heart of the city that has such beauty.”
What an intriguing statement that is after nearly 90 years! Who today knows anything about Pleasant Valley Park? And yet many of those who do—including significant numbers of the current younger generation—recognize the beauty that is here, hidden in plain sight. However, in a sign of changing sensibilities and the evolution of urban Milwaukee, instead of a grand resort that beauty is embodied in the natural landscape itself.
The abandoned Pleasant Valley Park was allowed to become an unusual example of urban “rewilding,” a process accelerated by the removal of the North Avenue dam in 1997. It is now an exceptionally robust wildlife preserve in the heart of the city. As such it is a critical component of the Milwaukee River Greenway, the 800 contiguous acres of parklands along the city’s eponymous river that, in my judgment, constitutes the jewel in the crown of our outstanding park system.
The Greenway’s West Bank Trail, which passes through Pleasant Valley, is popular with dog walkers, joggers and mountain bikers, along with birders and other wildlife enthusiasts. Maintaining the integrity of the natural environment while balancing the public’s varying demands and desires is a challenge for park managers everywhere and this stretch of the Greenway has seen its share of contention.
A plan to develop a new trail through Pleasant Valley Park would ease congestion and wear on the deeply rutted and ever-widening West Bank Trail. But some in the community contend that it would also fragment and damage important wildlife habitats in one of the most intact sections of the Greenway.
Clear cutting trees can always be counted on to provoke debate. A broad swath of the Pleasant Valley ravine was cleared earlier this year in an effort to stabilize its badly eroding slope. A photograph from April reveals in stark detail both the scar and the burlap bank bracing. In a recent follow-up photo you can see four months of regrowth. As I stand here now I close my eyes to imagine terraces, fountains and pavilions that once fanned out across the entire scene. Then I open them to witness the urban wilderness that has replaced them. Nature heals.
Allow me to let you in on the secret: at the end of East Concordia Avenue in Riverwest there is an unmarked gravel path. You can walk from there into a place so lovely it’s still called—by those who know it—Pleasant Valley.
All photographs by Eddee Daniel. See more of Daniel’s photos of the Milwaukee River Greenway at Flickr.