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History and waterways meet at Glen Park

RIVER FALLS -- If all you experience are the upper reaches of Glen Park, you won't be disappointed.

Children will gravitate to the historic pool, as they have for generations. A massive open space farther south allows plenty of room for football games or Frisbee tossing.

There are ball diamonds. And barbecues. And dozens of massive trees.

You won't go home wanting.

But if you venture to the park's north end, it's there you will find its true gem -- a suspension foot bridge overlooking a deep gorge cut by the once-raging South Fork Kinnickinnic River.

"It's so beautiful to look down on it," said River Falls Recreation Coordinator Cindi Danke.

Better news yet is that much more lies beyond the picturesque view. And it's there -- beneath the main parkscape -- where Glen Park's treasure really shines.

Two entrances to the gorge offer explorers a chance to hike to the bottom, where the South Fork's series of small waterfalls spill into the wider Kinnickinnic River at the base of a dam.

Children and adults enjoy splashing their feet in the South Fork's shallow summer trickle. More adventurous explorers venture to the falls and enjoy an upstream hike leading to hidden South Fork waterfalls.

Another path from the main landing takes hikers down a short trail flanked by native grasses and blooming foliage.

The trail ends at a secluded point, where a tiny beach beckons swimmers and anglers looking to wet a line.

A third park trail accessible at the end of Park Street leads to a popular starting point for kayakers and trout anglers.

Historic run

While limestone along the gorge walls expose the park's geologic history, man's hand in the park's development is also evident.

A flour mill built in 1868 predated the footbridge during a period when the South Fork flowed heavily. As years passed, the facility was repurposed as a sawmill, then as a beekeepers' supply store, according to the River Falls Park and Recreation Department.

But as the river level receded, it became less useful for milling. For years it stood idle, before a spring torrent washed away the mill and a nearby dam.

The city in 1898 bought 21 acres of private land, which would become Glen Park. The original swinging footbridge -- located almost exactly where the mill once stood -- was erected in 1925.

The swinging bridge replaced a system that required visitors to descend a flight of stairs and cross a river bridge -- which frequently washed out -- before ascending the other side of the gorge.

After falling into disrepair, the swinging bridge was restored in 1985.

River Falls Historic Preservation Commission Chairwoman Jeanne Zirbel called the swinging bridge a regional landmark.

"It's just a very popular spot," she said.

The wild side

But early 20th-century attempts to tame the park were simultaneously met with an effort to make it more wild, Zirbel said.

She said a Glen Park zoo opened for a time, housing two bears -- Billy and Betty -- plus a deer, badgers, foxes and pheasants.

Historic Preservation Commissioner Audrey Alton remembers the zoo, which she said also included a wolf and a monkey.

"It was enough where we were aware it was our little zoo," she said.

While that attraction has faded into history, other vestiges from that era remain, including the park's pool.

The pool has since been placed on the National Register of Historic places, since it's one of the few remaining pools left behind by the federal Work Projects Administration.

"It's been a wonderful place for River Falls," Alton said.