Huron River Renaissance
Ann Arbor rediscovers its river
by Grace Shackman
From the September, 2021 issue
When my husband and I were first married in the mid-1960s, we often wandered down to Argo Park, which was only two blocks away from our home on Pontiac Tr. We'd go into what was then Wirth's Canoe Livery, in a building which the family also lived in, and put a dime in one of their nickelodeons or sit on the screen porch and enjoy the view of the Huron River.
We were always the only ones there. After we had our first child, we would take him down to the playground at Longshore Park across from Argo, and again we were always the only ones there.
Fast forward: to get to Argo from our home on the west side, we park south of the river and walk through the tunnel under the tracks just west of the Amtrak Station. Argo is now so popular that it's almost impossible to park nearby.
On a recent weekday morning, the park's two lots were already full, as was the road in front of the park; the rented overflow lot east of the park was beginning to fill up. People who park there are directed for safety's sake to walk through a path in the woods rather than along the street.
Street parking on nearby residential streets is not an option since only people with resident stickers can park there, a necessity when the congestion got so bad that residents often couldn't even get out of their driveways.
Downriver, Gallup Park is equally crowded. On a recent visit, we had to wait in a line of cars both to get in and out.
This change didn't happen overnight. Numerous improvements have been made to the parks, including connecting most of them with each other along the Border-to-Border trail (B2B).
Colin Smith, the director of the Ann Arbor Parks and Recreation Department, says activity in the riverfront parks has increased sharply in the last ten to fifteen years. "It's a
real renaissance," he says. "People love the water."
In the nineteenth century, public parks were a rarity. People sometimes paid farmers with riverfront property to picnic and swim on their grounds. Picnicking in cemeteries was another option. It was only in the late 1890s that the city purchased its first riverfront property, today's Island Park.
It moved to acquire its second in 1902, when mayor Royal Copeland appointed a committee to look into buying the dumping ground between the railroad station (today's Gandy Dancer restaurant) and the river. But the attraction wasn't the water--Copeland wanted to remove an eyesore that he feared gave people arriving by rail a bad impression of the town.
After three years, the committee admitted defeat as the owners either wouldn't sell or were asking exorbitant prices. The next step was to create, by charter amendment, a parks commission with the power to condemn property, which it did under the leadership of George Burns (later the namesake of Burns Park). But Riverside Park, as it was initially named, remained undeveloped.
In the following years, the park commission improved Island Park by building the Greek Revival shelter in 1914 and the curving cement bridge in 1918. In 1919 it hired the first parks superintendent, Eli Gallup. Over the next four decades, Gallup created most of today's park system.
One of Gallup's first duties was to open a municipal beach on Argo Dam's millpond. Detroit Edison (forerunner of DTE), which built the dam for power generation, had offered to build the beach if the city would operate it.
The beach proved to be very popular. Kids came from all over the city, some every day during the summer. An island was created one winter by hauling cement, sand, and gravel onto the ice. When it melted, a new island was formed, where advanced swimmers enjoyed hanging out.
The beach closed after the 1948 season over concerns about water quality. You can still see the island, now overgrown, near the Argo boat launch.
Gallup created another park east of the Broadway Bridge on the north side of the river, an area that had been used for slaughterhouses. Between 1925 and 1934, Gallup obtained sixteen parcels by purchase and donation and cleaned up the area with help from WPA workers. He transferred the name Riverside Park from the still-undeveloped site across the river. Informally known as "hobo park" because it was a hangout for people riding the rails, it was later renamed Broadway Park.
In 1955, Detroit Edison offered to sell their riverfront properties. According to Al Gallup, Eli Gallup's son, "my father had the sense to tell the city to buy it, which they did."
The acquisition gave the city four dams and their millponds: Barton, Argo, Geddes, and Superior. All but Superior are now the sites of major parks, but it took money and imagination to create them.
Barton Dam came with nearly 100 acres of property, but it was on the north side of the river and could only be reached through Barton Hills, which refused to allow public access. The eventual solution was to build a pair of pedestrian bridges connecting a parking lot on the south bank to what's now the Barton Nature Area.
At Argo there was already a private canoe livery accessible from Longshore. The city just moved the parking lot back from the river and replaced the old building with a modern one.
Geddes Pond was the biggest challenge, as its banks were marshy and accessible only over the train tracks. A major dredging operation lifted dirt to use for walking and cycling paths, with the emptied area forming ponds. Al Gallup remembers that some of the fill came from dirt collected when a basement was dug for the U-M's Mary Markley dorm. After a 1968 flood washed out the dam, the city reshaped the pond bottom into a series of small islands linked by bridges, a signature feature of today's Gallup Park.
In 1971, the city bought riverfront land west of Gallup from physician Albert Furstenberg and his community-'activist wife, Elizabeth. Ten years later, they bought what's now Bandemer Park, across the river from Argo, which had been a railroad stockyard and an extension of Lansky's junkyard. They used money left to them by Mary Bandemer, secretary to dynamic 1950s mayor Bill Brown.
In the 21st century, people still use the parks for contemplating nature or meeting with friends for picnics, but there has been a sharp rise in interest in active recreation, which the parks department has worked to meet. "Our parks are a reflection of what the community is interested in and wants to use," explains Smith.
The Gallup and Argo boat liveries, which are managed together, are the busiest in the state. Renters have their choice of canoes, kayaks, rafts, pedal boats, stand-up paddleboards, and tubes. Argo will undergo an extensive renovation starting in the fall of 2021 to make it more disability-friendly.
Bandemer has some unique programs not thought of in the early park days, including a disc golf course in which Frisbees take the place of golf balls and the "holes" are chain nets. There's also a BMX dirt bike path for racing over challenging topography, including places that have to be jumped. Bandemer is also the headquarters of the Ann Arbor Rowing Club, which has a dock and boathouse for its sculls.
But the biggest change at Argo Pond, and the main reason that parking is so difficult, is the creation of the Cascades. Originally the headrace of the Argo Dam, it had become, in Smith's words, "a stagnant bathtub."
In 2004, the millrace was declared unsafe by state inspectors. The Huron River Watershed Council wanted to remove the entire dam, but the rowers persuaded the city to keep it. Instead, the millrace was rebuilt as a series of ponds connected by small rapids. With a total descent of twelve feet, kayakers and tubers "can have a whitewater experience," says Smith.
Much of Broadway Park is now a dog park, with separate sections for smaller and larger dogs. Since 2019, goats have been hired to remove the poison ivy and other invasives from the enclosures, as they have on the islands at Gallup Park.
The Furstenberg Nature Area has a carefully designed trail that leads through woodlands, prairies, savannas, and even wetlands, thanks to a boardwalk.
The latest improvement to Gallup Park is a universal-access playground for children with disabilities. Typical of many park programs, it was helped along by advocates and donors. The Center for Independent Living helped with the planning, and the local Rotary Club was the major donor.
While the city was developing its river parks, it joined the county in connecting them via the B2B trail. Smith worked closely with Bob Tetens, then head of Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation, who spearheaded the effort and coined the term "border-to-border."
Tetens first got involved in trails when he worked at the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Urban Area Transit Study (UATS), trying to figure out ways to reduce road congestion. When he took the parks job in 2001, he continued the project but started stressing the health and recreation benefits. "I decided to focus on the Huron River corridor," he recalls. "It was the most obvious, and it had a built constituency."
Done section by section, it took years to develop each trail, creating a plan that the different stakeholders would agree to, getting necessary permissions, and raising the money from myriad sources. In Ann Arbor, Tetens had help from the "Wolfpack," a group of business and community leaders convened by the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Office and the Michigan League of Conservation Voters--"talented philanthropists who worked behind the scenes and could shake trees at the state level." Tetens is now retired, but he hopes to see the B2B extended so people can walk on a tree-lined path from town to town.
Much of the trail in Ann Arbor already existed as some kind of rough path but had to be widened and improved for heavier use. Several bridges were added or rebuilt. A second tunnel is in the planning stage to go under the railroad tracks to connect Bandemer and Barton parks. When finished, all of Ann Arbor's river parks will finally be connected to one another--and to trails across the county, state, and country.
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