Pat Sparling tunnel.jpg
A Closer Look

Riverside Park

Nearly 100 Years of Recreation!

Story and Interview by Teresa Nguyen

August, 2020

Riverside Park is my passion. When I was young, the park was a block and a half away from our home. We either rode our bikes or walked over there.

~ Mary Frei

Beep beep! The car rolls slowly and steadily down and around the curve toward the tunnel. The coast is clear and your heart skips a beat in the momentary darkness. Suddenly, the road leads to a fairy-tale-like place of beauty in the heart of our community.

It is safe to say that most long-time Janesville residents call Riverside Park their very favorite. With its 87 acres of old wood trees and scenic views of the Rock River, which is wider here than through the rest of the city, it is a breathtaking, natural wonder for Janesville and Rock County. 

As one begins to enter the park, descending deeper into the cooler air of the river valley and through the canopy of old wood trees, there is an unmistakable sense of “old world” here - of the centuries of Native American history, long before our community’s settlement. We sense the history of our city’s people who gathered around the river’s shoreline for events, picnics and evening strolls. One can feel it in the soul and hear it in the breeze rustling the tall oak, maple and cottonwood leaves.
The leaders of our community recognized this place of natural beauty, a gem in need of preservation during a time when settlement and progress often destroyed the natural world around us. They saw value in this majestic, wooded area, filled with opportunity for human recreation. And they recognized the importance of coexisting with the animal wildlife here in their habitat of southern Wisconsin.

It sometimes seems as though time stands still in this place. But a lot has changed, thanks to both the City of Janesville and especially the Friends of Riverside Park.

This story takes us on a walk through the park’s historical timeline. Much of it was written by Friends of Riverside Park members, Dave Cress and Mary Frei. They painstakingly work on this rich history, editing details each year.
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Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
This is also a journey not only through dates and events, but through our memories, the wonderful nostalgia so many have for this gorgeous park. Enjoy reminiscing, as the story flows like the river’s current around the bend and through the decades. Let it guide us in remembering those favorite times and experiences, which may last a lifetime.

1800 - 1850

Pre 1832 - This meandering section of the beautiful Rock River, with scenic overlooks on a rocky bluff, was an important Native American camp site. It was located on the west bank of a bend in the river, just north of Janesville’s downtown. The various tribes of the area included the Menominee, Ojibwe (Chippewa), Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago). They had been here for centuries, dating back almost 10,000 years. Many native artifacts, arrowheads and spearheads have been found in the park area. 
 
Pat Sparling Riverside 2.jpg
Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
As the white settlers encroached on their land, The Black Hawk War soon followed. As a consequence of defeat, the United States forced the local, Native American tribes west and north onto reservations.

1835 - Janesville’s earliest first settlers staked a claim to land in what is now known as downtown Janesville, from the Monterey Rock up to the Center Avenue area. They usually made their way up the Rock River to what was known as “The Big Rock” (Monterey Rock). 

Mr. John Inman, George Follmer, Joshua Holmes, and William Holmes, Jr. built a crude log cabin on the south bank of the Rock River, where it runs east and west, not far from the Center Avenue bridge.
Mr. Henry F. Janes arrived soon after and staked a claim on the east bank of the Rock River, near the present-day intersection of Main and Milwaukee St.
Mr. Janes became the first postmaster and the town was named “Janesville”.
1850 – 1950

1853 - Janesville was officially incorporated as a city. The population had grown to 3,000.

1886 - A semicircular arch bridge and tunnel, technically a railroad viaduct, was constructed of large stone blocks by the Janesville & Evansville Railway Company and was deeded on completion to the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. This put Janesville on the main line between Chicago and Madison. This became part of the south entrance into Riverside Park.

1919 - An amusement park, just adjacent to Riverside Park, gave the resident families a fun place to gather and play.
 
1922 - A purchase of these 233 acres gave Henry Traxler, Janesville’s first City Manager, and Joe Lustig, City Engineer, the opportunity to develop Riverside into the premier park of Southern Wisconsin. It was the start of what would become a favorite community destination of natural beauty and recreation for many decades to come. 

Along the river in the park was an inviting sandy spot for swimming and water recreation.
1924 - There was such a strong public clamor for a golf course, that in 1924 the city provided land along the Rock River in Riverside Park.
 
The gift came without funds to develop a course, so a newly formed citizens group financed and built a six-hole layout for around $365, according to “Tis Fine Land, That ”, a history of Riverside Park’s early years.
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Photo by Christopher Rabuck. His quote on the photo was, "I love this shot."
1926 - The course expanded to nine holes and ownership went to the city. Play was affordable at that time. More holes were added and it cost just 10 cents for six holes and 25 cents for 18 holes. As the sport grew in popularity, so did the price. ​

Today’s 18-hole course offers four sets of tees ranging from 6,508 yards to 5,069. The beautiful tree-lined fairways and rolling hills make for an enjoyable game, though some sections require both length and accuracy.

1929 - The city began to develop the upper park area known as the Old Stone Quarry. The public works department installed the set of stone steps in the north end of the park, nicknamed Devil’s Staircase. The stairs lead to a continuation of the Ice Age trail. The original or lower path leads along the river. It is still there today.
Cathy Corrado McCarthy Devils Staircase.
 
Photo by Kathy Corrado McCarthy
1930s - Two beautiful artesian wells with natural limestone pools were constructed. The children’s wading pool, tennis courts, and shuffleboard courts were added, along with the pavilions, bathrooms, and concession stands. 

Workers from the Works Progress Administration project built the south river wall and boat launch. 

1939 to 1949 - The Silver Queen, a large pontoon-type boat that launched from Riverside Park, toured the river. It had a jukebox, a concession stand, and could carry 150 passengers!  People loved to dance on the boat. It would cruise up and down the river from Traxler Park up to the highway 14 bridge
1950 – 2000

Through the 1940s - 1950s, a miniature steam train, the “Riverside and Great Northern Railroad” gave rides along a track that is now the Kiwanis Trail (Ice Age Trail), along the south end of the park. The rides were given from 1940-1953. The train was later taken up to the Wisconsin Dells.

Veterans Field baseball diamond was built. 

1960s - The Jaycees ran a downhill-ski program, giving lessons to many Janesville youth. 
1970s - During this time, miniature sports car races were held in the park.

1990s - New development in other parts of Janesville caused the springs that fed the artesian wells and wading pool to dry up. As a response, the City of Janesville closed these once-popular features of Riverside Park.

A New Organization

2006 - The Friends of Riverside Park, a 501(c)3 organization, was established with a mission to revitalize and promote Janesville’s historical and scenic Riverside Park. 
Two board members, Jim Schmeling and Sandy Hendricks, along with lifetime member, Mary Frei, grew up next to Riverside Park. They wanted to help preserve the park, so joined together in organizing.
 
They were, and still are, a passionate group, along with all the members, and continue the good work of preserving and beautifying Riverside Park.

Currently, Bill Truman serves as President of the organization, Tasha Calkins Laveen as Vice President, Sandy Hendricks, Treasurer, Judy Deroiser, Secretary, Art Boehning, Dave Cress and Jim Schmeling are all board members.

Each year, except for this year of 2020, people can attend music festivals where the Lion’s Club grills deliciously seasoned chicken, Wildflower Walks, Hay Wagon Rides, Turkey Trots and many other fun community events.
 
Groups have used the parks for their special events, as well. There’s a local birdwatching group, the Audubon Society, who put together nature walks with bird and tree identification.
In the past decade alone, Friends of Riverside Park have poured their heart and soul into preserving the park, putting in over 10,227 hours and $65,000, and counting, toward park improvements! Every donation and membership contributes to making this beautiful, natural area more fun and inviting for our community.
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Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
 

Mary Botsford Frei

Original and Lifetime Member of Friends of Riverside Park

I grew up in my parents’ home, next to Riverside, which had originally been a fishing cabin, but it was developed into a two-story home. Tom and Dorothy “Dot” Botsford raised their six children in that home. I was in the middle of the siblings.


I went to kindergarten at Washington School, then to St. Williams, then Franklin and Parker. I was in that transition class that went to Janesville High School in ’66, then switched to Parker, graduating in 1968. 


Meeting Bob


In high school, I first met my future husband, Bob. He was 3 years older and then graduated. I saw him again in the fall of ’68. He was the president of FFA and my home room was with the Ag teacher. Then I saw him once again on a hay ride. He was surrounded by girls and I was with my first date!

I hadn’t seen Bob in a long time and decided to attend U-Rock for a while.

It was there that I ran into Bob again. I had joined a Catholic singles group and he was the president of that!
He was a farmer boy and I didn’t know anything about it, even though my parents were originally from farm families. It was interesting and thought it was pretty cool to go out and ride on the fender of the tractor while he was picking corn until dark. How silly and naive I was, hanging on for dear life!  
He’s a good man, that’s all there is to it. I’m very lucky. Next year will be our 50th Anniversary. I hope this Coronavirus pandemic will be over so we can celebrate with friends and family. I look forward to it. We’re grateful to God.

A Passion for the Park

Riverside Park is my passion. When I was little, I used to ride the Riverside and Great Northern Railroad miniature train with some of my siblings. The park was a block and a half away. We either rode our bikes or walked over there.
 
We played shuffleboard, played on those 10-foot slides made of metal that got hotter than hot, the merry-go-round and the swing sets that went in so many different directions. Those were the best swings!
As a child, my mom used to get water from the artesian well to can her pickles with it.
Mary (2nd from right) on the Riverside & Great Northern Railroad ride with her brothers Bill and John.
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We had our own well, but she liked that water, and it’s tested by the city every year. We used to play at the well often.
I’m a lifetime member of Friends of Riverside Park and have been with the group since we started in 2006. We weren’t as organized at the beginning and worked to become a non-profit. I take part in committees and things like that.

Two of my brothers have passed, as well as my parents. We put in a bench dedicated to my brother, Joe, which faces the South Pavilion, the artesian well, the playground, the river and the disc golf area.
 
He used to play and is in the Iowa Disc Golf Hall of Fame! That bench is also is near our old home area.
 
A bench dedicated to my parents is located up in the third scenic overlook. Sometimes people have weddings up in that area, too, and the deer love to roam there. 
We also have another bench for our parents down near the lower Ice Age trail. That bench is near where their house was once located. A lot of people dedicate benches, picnic tables, awnings and such for the park.
One of my first jobs was at Blackhawk Tech. Then, for 25 years, I worked for CESA 2. I worked for the school district for a while, as well.
 
Now I’m retired, and Shuffleboard is still one of my favorite activities. I’m one of the Friends of Riverside Park representatives, where I help to run the games each week. I love it! Bob has always loved golfing with the guys and still plays.

We truly love spending time in the park.

2015- 2020

2015 - The City of Janesville’s first public splash pad opened in the summer of 2015. It is located where the sand volleyball pits were formerly located.

The following is a video of a 2015 November ride through the park created by Duane Brewer, former Director of JATV Media Services.
 
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The Botsford Family: Mary (in the yellow dress) with her five brothers and their parents (center), Tom and Dot 
2016 - Disc Golf was added to the park, along with the Expression Swings (parent and tot), and a fun children’s zip line. 

2017 - Christopher Rabuck, a member of Friends of Riverside Park and local photographer with a love of history, was killed by a drunk driver while in Riverside Park in late 2016.
 
The Friends of Riverside Park and others put in a lovely swing memorial with a dedication plaque to Christopher. It is located at his favorite area of the park where he would take many pictures and share them online. He was a friend to the park and to the community, as well. He is greatly missed by all who knew him.
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Memorial Swing for Christopher Rabuck - Photo by Abb's Tracks Photography
2018 - New pickleball courts were built and dedicated as the Jim Clark Memorial courts.

2019 - The Kids Zone and Gaga pit were built. The Gaga ball game is much like dodge ball. Balls could be checked out from the concessions stands. 

2020 - Work began in spring to beautifully restore the artesian well. Friends of Riverside Park worked on the project with the masonry done by Todd Wyman.  

By March, the global Coronavirus pandemic impacted Rock County and the City of Janesville in every capacity. For the safety of visitors, all large events at Riverside Park had to be canceled. 

The Shuffleboard courts were totally refurbished and, by late summer, were back in use with careful guidelines and safety for the users.
Scroll to view some fun Riverside Park features and activities.
 
Wildlife and Nature

When one walks through the park, the variety of woodland wildlife can be seen and enjoyed. These beautiful wooded and open areas are home to deer, squirrels, raccoons, fox, woodchucks, many types of birds, pelicans, blue heron, bald eagles, beavers, wood chuck, opossums, ducks, wood ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, wild turkeys, egrets and so much more!

In the spring, at one of the overlooks, just past the “lilac circle” on the left, one can spot the eagles’ nests.
In addition to all the fun to be had with games, picnics and playgrounds, area boaters can enter the Rock River at the Boat Launch and anglers enjoy catching a variety of fish along the banks of the Rock River. Two sets of fisherman’s steps were put in not far up from the South Pavilion.
Scroll to view photos of the diverse Park wildlife and scenery
at Riverside Park.
Hiking enthusiasts can enjoy the easier roadway or the mild challenges of the Devil’s Staircase and Ice Age path that leads to the Arboretum just across the road on the northwest edge of the park.

In winter, folks from far and wide enjoy sledding Riverside’s hills, cross country skiing and dog walking. People may join the “Dog the Geese” program in summer by checking out a free vest from the city. The dogs help to keep the geese in the water in this area.

The Rock River

The main feature that makes Riverside Park so attractive is our beautiful Rock River and her natural, meandering curves around the park. This important and gorgeous water way has been a source of recreation, enjoyment and employment for over a century and a half, helping to build our City of Janesville into what it is today. 
It has also been an occasional cause of devastation, when we’ve witnessed the river overflow her banks. 12 years ago, we saw record rainfall and the river rose and rose until we had what is known as The Flood of 2008! 

The disaster took a toll on downtown businesses, carp were swimming on Main Street and much of the lower areas of Riverside Park were under water. Many homes in these low-lying areas were damaged or completely destroyed in the flood. The Janesville community came together to pull through that challenging summer and fall. The City of Janesville worked hard to clean up the parks along the Rock River. The Friends of Riverside volunteered to clean up pavilions and continues to maintain them today.

In spite of that 100-year disaster, more often than not, the river has been life-giving and vital to the economy and growth of our community. 
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Photo by Pat Sparling Photography
This August, the river level is quite low, but it continues to be a place of beauty, of connecting us to our natural world, a place of awe, as the local wildlife gather, feed and nest along her shores. Like the wildlife, the people of our community enjoy the flowing current of the Rock River and the joy this park brings through many river adventures.

May we find new appreciation for our amazing Rock River and our beautiful parks. Let us always strive to protect our river, shores and water so that future generations can enjoy her flowing beauty and take pride in all she has to offer. 
Pat Sparling Rock River.jpg
 
Please consider supporting Friends of Riverside Park so they can continue to maintain this favorite, beautiful, natural wonder in our community!

Become a Friend

Visit Friends of Riverside Park: www.jvlriversidepark

Annual membership for an individual is currently just $15. For a couple or family, it is $25, for a supporter it is $50. Patron, Partner and Bronze levels are also listed on the website.

The membership fees go toward ongoing projects in the park such as new trees and landscaping, the flower beds, projects like the new roofs on the bathrooms, on the North Pavilion and the concessions stand. The next project is a new roof on the South Pavilion.
Photo by Pat Sparling Photography

Sources:

Friends of Riverside Park
Mary Frei
The Janesville Gazette
Growing Up in Janesville Facebook Page
Google Maps
Special thanks to the photographers: Pat Sparling, David Abb, Scott Weberpal, Mary Frei, Arron Reeves, Kathy Corrado McCarthy, Tasha Calkins Laveen and the late Christopher Rabuck