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History of the Yahara River Parkway in Madison, WI

Circa 1907 near the old Lapham School on Dayton St. | Photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society

Circa 1907 near the old Lapham School on Dayton St. | Photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society

Madison is known as the City of Four Lakes, but the Yahara River’s importance is often underscored.

History: The river has naturally existed since the first settlement of Europeans, connecting Mendota and Monona through marshland. Over time, it was canalized for mills on the north side + used as an informal trash dump. In the early twentieth century, shifting attitudes on environmentalism led to calls for preservation.

Development: In 1903, developer Ossian Cole Simond’s plan for the Yahara River Parkway and — along with the creation of Tenney Park — was born. The Madison Parks and Pleasure Drive Association was one of the driving leaders in parks and recreation for Madisonians. The parkway was even built with money from citizen donations, rather than large donors, and was completed in 1906. With the money, the river was widened + straightened to connect the lakes.

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The Parkway near Williamson St. today | Photo by 608today team

Architecture: The development of the parkway was modeled after the Prairie School style + John Nolen’s idea of a parks system. Simonds used native plants and local landscaping to create a naturalistic park with meandering paths. 9 bridges complete the character of the parkway + create space to enjoy nature.

Today: In 1995, both Tenney Park + Yahara River Parkway were designated as Madison Landmarks. After the Madison Parks and Pleasure Drive Association dissolved in 1938, the land was turned over to the city for management. Original plans for the parkway included pedestrian paths on each side of the river, but updates include one pedestrian path + one bike path. Another update to modernize — an underpass on East Washington Ave.

Next time you’re out on a stroll around the Yahara, you can thank Ossian, Madison Parks + previous Madisonians for the preservation of this natural beauty.

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