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What’s got you scratching your head about Milwaukee and the region? Bubbler Talk is a series that puts your curiosity front and center.

Ravine Road wove motorists through Milwaukee's Lake Park for over a century. When will it reopen?

Adrienne LaRosa wonders when Lake Park's Ravine Road will open again.
Susan Bence
Bubbler Talk question asker Adrienne LaRosa stands on Ravine Road, next to a sign that reads "No outlet, trail closed."

The scene is Lake Park perched above Lake Michigan on Milwaukee’s east side. What you hear is the more-than century old pedestrian bridge being reconstructed.

Paul Montalto with Milwaukee County checks in on the Ravine Bridge reconstruction project regularly.
Susan Bence
Paul Montalto with Milwaukee County checks in on the Ravine Bridge reconstruction project regularly.

"All the railing was removed and is being replaced, the deck you walk on was replaced," says Paul Montalto. As Milwaukee County's managing engineer for field operations, Montalto stops by every day to check the crew’s progress.

"I think the uniqueness is it was originally constructed in the early 1900s and it was one of the first reinforced concrete bridges in Wisconsin," he says.

But it’s not the bridge Bubbler Talk listener Adrienne LaRosa asked about, she wonders when the Ravine Road that weaves beneath it, winding through the lush wooded landscape, is going to open again.

"This lovely winding road. As I drive past it I see all this equipment sitting there and a big fence and nobody seems to be doing anything with it and so I wondered if we will ever see it open again," LaRosa says.
Adrienne LaRosa

The road has been closed since 2014.

Isadore Sorce trained for Golden Glove boxing competitions by running up and down Ravine Road in the early 1940s.
courtesy of Adrienne LaRosa
Isadore Sorce trained for Golden Glove boxing competitions by running up and down Ravine Road in the early 1940s.

LaRosa did not only grow up nearby, the road holds an even deeper significance for her family.

Her great uncle Isadore Sorce, lovingly remembered as Uncle Izzy, was a Golden Glove’s champion. That's a highly regarded amateur boxing tournament. LaRosa says Ravine Road was part of her great uncle’s training regime.

"He would jog up and down that road and so I got to know it because of him, so it kind of has family ties to me too," she says.

Now an unwelcoming chainlink fence with a sign reading "no outlet, trail closed" blocks the road.

According to Milwaukee County Parks, the pedestrian bridge above will reopen sometime this fall, but the future of the road beneath has yet to be decided.

Bubbler Talk: What have you always wanted to know about the Milwaukee area that you'd like WUWM to explore?

To get some concrete intel, we travel to Alaska — not literally — by cell phone. That’s where I reach Colleen Reilly who is on holiday. Reilly is a member of the Lake Park Friends group and was president when the ravine bridge’s future was on shaky ground.

Lake Park Bridge above the Ravine Road is currently being restored.
Susan Bence
Lake Park Bridge above the Ravine Road is currently being restored.

"The county had originally planned to demolish the bridge," Reilly says. As an extra precaution, the road beneath was blocked. "The county was concerned pieces of concrete would fall from the bridge."

That was eight years ago.

Reilly says the friends group mobilized first around the proposed bridge demo. "That didn’t fit well with a lot of folks who are really passionate about historic preservation," she says.

The group raised money to bring on a consultant to review reports that stated the bridge was unstable. To make a very long story short, the old bridge was found to be structurally sound.

"There were components that certainly needed to be reinforced but the main structural component, which is the arch, was in very good shape as well as the the thrust box, which is the big massive blocks you see when you are actually on Ravine Road," Reilly says.

Lake Park Friends worked with Milwaukee County to come up with the funds to refurbish the bridge, in addition the group raised $300,000 for its longterm maintenance.

Happy ending right? But what about the road beneath it?

There’s a bit of irony to that story. Reilly says nobody debated its use, until it was shut down in 2014. "Even though there were fencing and barriers up, people started to walk around those and walked down the road and realized they really enjoyed that path," she says.

Reilly says debate sprang up within the friends group. "Some love the idea of a walking path, others want to drive it," she says.

Susan Bence
Lake Park Ravine Road underneath Lake Park Bridge before restoration began.

But as an organization grounded in historic preservation, Lake Park Friends dug into the roads original intent. That’s where Paul Daniel Marriott, professor of landscape architecture at The Pennsylvania State University comes in.

Early image of Ravine Road Bridge with "traffic" below.
courtesy of Lake Park Friends
Early image of Ravine Road Bridge with "traffic" below.

Marriott knows a lot about distinguished landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Lake Park, and other famous greenspaces, including New York’s Central Park.

"People tend to think of parks as greenspaces, trees, lawns. Whats important to remember, especially with the Olmsted legacy is how you move through the park, how you experience the park," he says.

That includes Lake Park’s Ravine Road.

"It’s not just a road in the park. It was a road that was carefully designed and choreographed to showcase the landscape feature, the topography which is quite dramatic," Marriott says.

Marriott calls the road a beautiful example of engineering and landscape architecture, originally designed for pleasure. "Driving in carriages or early automobiles that were designed for touring. The experience of moving through the landscape, seeing it go by, the dramatic ravine and the beautiful bridge above — you get all of these different perspectives of the park," he says.

View of Lake Park pavilion and bridge
Courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society
View of Lake Park pavilion and bridge, October 7, 1909.

Marriott believes it likely takes another push from the likes of Lake Park Friends to bring Ravine Road back to life.

"It could be open for vehicles only certain hours. There’s lots of ways to approach this. I think that’s what the friends group has done very effectively with Lake Park, is having a larger vision," he says.

No matter what, Marriott says the road and its original footprint must remain. "That’s part of the Olmsted legacy. So the width of the road, the surface of the road, how it related to the landscape, that needs to be maintained," he says.

Adrienne LaRosa says that would be her Uncle Izzy’s wish too.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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