Grant Park – Seven Bridges – The End of Fall
I couldn’t let fall pass without going on walkabout with my camera to capture the colors at least once. When I had half a day to myself a couple of weeks ago, I decided to head out to Seven Bridges, one of the places I like to paint. Just South of College Avenue on Lake Drive, you will find the expansive Grant Park. This 379 acre park is the second largest in the Milwaukee County Park system, and within it you will find the famous Seven Bridges hiking trail.
Horace Fowle was the youngest son of John and Sarah Fowle, who emigrated from England in 1835. Although Horace (b.1837) had several older brothers, he was the only of them born in the US. In 1838, Milwaukee County had its first public sale of lands, for a mere $1.25 per acre (almost $28 in 2013 dollars). At that time there was initially a 500 acre purchase limit.Shortly after arriving in Milwaukee, his father acquired 600 acres of government land in the Oak Creek Township (what is currently the cities of Oak Creek and South Milwaukee). John Fowle immediately built on that land a large log cabin, close to the edge of the bluff on Lake Michigan. This was used as a tavern and became the only lodging along the road for those traveling between Milwaukee and Racine.
I just want to take a moment to consider that before the advent of automobiles, that was a much longer trip by horse drawn carriage. Racine is about 30 miles from Milwaukee as the crow flies, perhaps longer given the condition and nature of the roads in the 1830’s. At a good pace, not terribly encumbered a horse drawn carriage can safely travel around 5 mph on the average, making that a better than 6-hour drive in a time where there were no street lights or paved roads. Amazingly, by 1920, the Milwaukee Journal would report the opening of a filling station in this area to take advantage of the massive amount of automobile tourist traffic in the area, stating that the city was “especially favored above many cities with an unusual number of tourists.” Quite a change in a short amount of time. Traffic at that time came along one of America’s first transcontinental routes for automobiles, the Yellowstone Trail, which existed before major roadways had numbers. As a result of this traffic, the city of South Milwaukee was asked by the Wisconsin Highway Commission to create a campground for automobile tourists, which opened in the summer of 1921 and sat on the location of what is now the Will-O-Way Recreation Center in Grant Park.The cabin Fowle built and the bluff on which it once stood are no longer there, largely due to erosion. (It would be very interesting to see what the shape of that shoreline was back then, and get a sense of how much has been lost in those 178 years. Might give some idea of how much will be lost in the next 200 years.) Eventually John Fowle built a saw mill and a grist mill on the Oak Creek, near the lagoon. The dam for this mill is still standing. He also went into business with his son Horace, and another, Horace Wells, who together made much use of the red clay in the area to make the Cream City Brick that Milwaukee is famous for.
This was also the year that the city of South Milwaukee was incorporated. To give you a sense of the population at the time, the census of 1892 had the population of Oak Creek Township at only 519 people (for comparison, the 2010 census had the city of Oak Creek at 34,451 people and the city of South Milwaukee at 21,156 people, which combined are effectively the same area of land).
In 1907, the Milwaukee County Park Commission was founded, and headed by Charles B. Whitnall (after whom Whitnall Park was named). At the time, Horace Fowle offered to sell a good portion of his land to the county for use as a park. The county was not interested until Patrick Cudahy (after whom the city of Cudahy derives its name) offered to foot the bill for the county. From 1910 to 1924 the County acquired 210 acres including Fowle’s Victorian home and the land now devoted to the 18-hole golf course. Ultimately, 381 acres were sold to the County and set aside to become the largest park in the Milwaukee area (until 1929 when the 606 acre Whitnall Park was created). When it came time to name the park officially in 1911, President Woodrow Wilson was in office, and was the first choice, but Grant was settled on because of controversy over using Wilson’s name.In 1914 the Milwaukee County Park commission hired German arborist and horticulturalist Frederick C. Wulff, who lived in the park with his family in a home that was built for them in 1917 (a building that still exists today, listed as the Wulff Lodge on local maps). In addition to helping to secure grants from the Federal Art Project, which resulted in the carved gargoyle heads on one of the pavilions in Grant Park, Wullf also developed a greenhouse and nursery where thousands of plants were grown and raised to be transplanted to other parks and boulevards throughout Milwaukee.
Some of the funds raised for this project came from the Works Progress Administration, which was created after Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act in 1935. This with work from over 200 workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps allowed the trail to be developed through the construction of retaining walls along the creek bed, Lannon stone stairs and paths, and stone jetties on the lake.placed on the National Trails System, a point of distinction that was anticipated to garner more grants to improve the trails.
The trails have been restored many times to become what we see today. What has changed most is the coastline along Lake Michigan. Bluff erosion is constant, and as some have learned, is becoming a serious concern for people in this area in recent years.
In the course of researching the history of this park, I was surprised to learn just how colorful the legacy of Grant Park really is. One of the things you will find with even a cursory search for information about this area are the rumors that the park, particularly the Seven Bridges Trail area is haunted. I’ve found easily 20 websites that all have the same description:
"It has be rumored that if you go to Seven Bridges and walk the paths during a full moon between the times of 9:30pm and Midnight (Don't walk alone) you will see different colors of lights dancing around in the woods and if you go farther into the woods you would hear what sounds to be laughter and screams. If you are really quiet you can hear foot steps in the woods coming towards you and with those foot steps you can hear very heavy breathing, if you wait for those foot steps to come to you, you will feel a very uneasy feeling come over you like an evil feeling. It's said that adults and children have been killed there and even suicides from the people that did the killings. (WARNING! the park closes at 10:00pm, so don't park in the park after that time, park on a side street. If you get caught by police you will get ticketed). It's also rumored that if you stand on one of the bridges that a mist or an apparition of a person would happen right in front of you. The apparition could possible be one of the victims."
On every site the wording is verbatim, which of course made me dubious. Occasionally there were mentions of occult behavior, satanism, man-sized mantis creatures, and other such rumors. So I did some research beginning with murders and suicides in Grant Park. I searched through reports of such in South Milwaukee and Cudahy and Oak Creek, and what I found was…well, nothing.
There was simply no truth to the idea that adults or small children were killed on the trail, that the killers committed suicide, or that anyone ever hung themselves from the main bridge (all the other bridges along the trail are really too low to hang oneself).The only things I could find included a suicide in a car in the parking lot in 1981, a witness to a murder who went missing and was later found unconscious from a drug overdose in a car in the lot at the park in 1984, one account of a body washed into the rocks on the beach in 2001, a person strangled and left in the lagoon on the Southwest part of the park, and a body found in the pond on the North end of the park in 2009, yet none of these accounts took place anywhere near the Seven Bridges Trail.
I even asked paranormal researchers in the Milwaukee area for any shred of evidence that anything like this happened, and as of yet have came up dry. I asked several locals if they had ever heard a credible story about such things, and again the answer was no. Hate to disappoint, but these clearly seem to be urban myths.
While I could find no first hand supernatural encounters at the park, other than a few grown adults stumbling in the dark and talking themselves into a fright, I did have one encounter that I can talk about.
One late October evening I was showing my friend Shelly around the city, and we decided that a long walk was in order. I immediately thought of the Seven Bridges trail, and although it was getting late and the light was low, I thought it would be a cool time. It was around 7pm on an overcast fall day. We arrived and took the stairs down to the lower trail, as at the time the bridge from the top trail to the lower area was down.
As we walked along the ravine towards the lake, we heard noises from above us, much like a person yelling, mostly unintelligible, and difficult to locate. This didn’t concern me until we started hearing things crack and tumble through the trees, sharp clacking noises like stone on stone, heavy things rolling through the underbrush. We hastened our pace and I made jokes to disarm the situation. It didn’t concern me too much until a softball sized stone rolled across the path in front of us. I thought that was close, too close to be an accident. On a whim I picked it up and looked up the hill expecting to see some miscreant teenager or a yeti. Making some bigfoot jokes, I put myself between the bluff and my friend and we quickly walked out to the beach. There was another couple there who soon made their way back into the park, and we stood in the cold wind looking at the South shore and the moon through the clouds. After about 15 minutes, we made our way back to my truck with no further incident. To this day, I still don’t know who threw the stone, but I gave it to Shelly and it now sits on her desk as a memento.
Teenage miscreants are not new to this park. This is evidenced by the amount of graffiti, recent and ancient, on the bridges and pavilions and even trees. In fact there were quite a few altercations between the Police and teens and young adults who would sit in the park and cause trouble. It seems, particularly back in the 70’s, it was quite common for teenagers to gather in large numbers and drink and smoke pot. This was largely ignored until the noise they made became an issue, and on some occasions they chased people out of the park.On June 3rd, 1972, 200 teenagers ran amok through the park vandalizing what they could, causing over $4000 in damages (which is about $24,400 in today’s money). That year there were also incidents of gang violence.
As the locals complained, the Police increased their presence hoping to curb this behavior. It seems that this went back and forth between being a park available to the public, and a place where kids got into trouble. At one point in 1973, a government official was even threatened there.
By 1975 the park was considered safe again, but this did not last long. 1977 the Police again cracked down on drinking and drug use in the park, resulting in two police getting stoned by witnesses as they tried to make an arrest in 1978.Vandalism continued in 1979, but eventually things quieted down until another outburst in 1990.
In 1998 a pipe bomb was found, requiring the bomb squad to secure it. This was during a time when pipe bombs were being found in public parks across the US.
There was another rash of vandalism in 2009, triggering another surge in the Police presence at the park. In 2010 someone actually managed to drive a car off the bluff into Lake Michigan in what was presumed to be a suicide attempt.
It seemed that soon after this the park goers finally settled down. Until recently, when 11 men including the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra Chorus Director was arrested in an undercover sex-sting for lewd and lascivious behavior.
Now it seems the thing to worry about is having your car broken into, or so the posted signs would have you believe. I can’t think of a time when I’ve been to the park and there were not highschool aged kids there. In fact that’s usually the disappointing thing about being there on the weekends, obnoxious teenagers, and uncouth, noisy people with unruly kids and pets. I’ve rarely seen so many people so unaware of what is around them, and so incapable of appreciating silence.
“Only speak if you can improve upon silence.” – Zen Saying
In spite of its storied past, this is still one of the most beautiful areas in Milwaukee County. It’s rare that you can get away from the city without leaving the city, but once you enter the woods, the street sounds are a distant memory. The ravines are heavily wooded with a variety of trees, including American Beech, Maple, Ash, and Birch trees. Fall, as you can see in these images, is absolutely spectacular. There is an abundance of wildlife as well, from squirrels and migratory birds to deer. I’ve heard rumors of wolves and coyotes from time to time as well. The best time to go is early during a weekday, when most people are at work or in school.