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Historic walking tour is quick path to appreciating RF's evolution

Longtime River Falls historian Ursula Peterson assembled this short walking narrative to help visitors and locals alike appreciate the city's evolution.1 / 2
These scenes,from left, the old Junction Mill near Falls & Winter Streets, the Swinging Bridge and the entrance to UW-RF's South Hall, are notable landmarks.2 / 2

Maple Street Bridge

Crossing the Kinni west of downtown.

In the 1850s, the main channel of the river was first crossed here by a covered wooden bridge to connect the business section of the town with what was then called the "Brooklyn Side." It was replaced by an iron bridge over the main channel, with a stone arch over the millrace. They were destroyed in the 1894 flood and a wooden bridge served until 1912. An iron bridge was then constructed, which remained until 1973. Having been built by the same company, this was similar to the Cedar Street Bridge that was removed in 1994.

Heritage Park

In the bicentennial year of 1976, the River Falls Garden Club asked permission to beautify the area and to make a small park around the municipal parking lot. Volunteers created the park and have maintained it ever since. Prompted by members of the Pierce County Historical Association, the club funded the installation of the old city fire bell and the marker. The bell had been in a City Hall tower from 1916 until the tower was removed during renovation in 1957.

Greenwood Mill/Railroad Marker

In Heritage Park on the west bank of the river.

With funds from the River Falls Tuesday Club, the Pierce County Historical Association erected the historical marker commemorating the Greenwood Mill that was located just to the north of this spot. Also remembered is the railroad, which in its first years serviced the flour mills, then the town's most important industry. It took 20 years to get the railroad, and during that time flour was sent by wagons to the river towns of Prescott or Glenmont to be shipped down the St. Croix River. When the Greenwood Mill was torn down, the mill race was filled in, and, after the railroad service ended, that area was used for parking.

Looking south you can still see the concrete supports on which the railroad crossed the river, when the line was extended to Ellsworth in 1885.

White-Kinnickinnic Pathway

This walkway extends along the west bank of the river as it flows through downtown It was built in 1980, along a railroad spurline to the Junction Mill. A turntable and engine house for the railroad and a grain elevator were located in this area. Some of these buildings were used later for a sauerkraut and pickle factory. Follow the path south to Winter Street.

Junction Mill/First Settlement Historical Marker

Located near the parking lot at the pathway's end at the corner of Falls and Winter streets.

This marker was erected by the Pierce County Historical Association and the Tuesday Club. It commemorates the first settlement of River Falls, made by Joel Foster in 1848 after his return from the war with Mexico.

Located on this site, the Junction Mill helped the city become a major flour producer in the 1860s and 1870s. As wheat production moved west, milling became less profitable here and was replaced by other industries. All that remains of the mill is a limestone and brick chimney that stands as a symbol of the once-great flour industry.

After the mill burned, citizens recognized the desirability of hydro-electrical power production and established the Municipal Power Plant in 1900. The plant now produces 18,900 kilowatts at peak capacity, of which water power provides 375 kilowatts.

Falls Street Bridge

Crossing the river between Winter Street and Cascade Avenue.

There have been four bridges at this site, beginning with a wooden bridge in 1866. The third bridge, built in 1925, was replaced in 1991-1992 by the present bridge in a slightly different location. Standing on it, you can look downstream to where Joel Foster spent the first winter with his African-American servant Dick in a cave underneath what is now the power plant. Slightly to the southwest of the bridge is the dam which, when it was built higher in 1912, created Lake George. It submerged land that had been used for many ventures, including the Foster saw mill, a machine shop, starch factory and stockyards.

Swinging Bridge

Follow Winter Street south to Cascade Avenue and turn right.

The Swinging Bridge was built by the Women's Improvement League in 1925 to replace bridges in the glen below that were constantly washed out by floods. Until then, there were steps down to the glen and springs below. The bridge was rehabilitated in 1985.

Beneath the Swinging Bridge was the Cascade Mill dam, which was located on the north side of the South Fork and a bit downstream. On the far side of the bridge City Park, now named Glen Park, was established in 1898.

Built in 1934, the swimming pool was a WPA project, part of the National New Deal. It is still in regular use today after several improvements.

University of Wisconsin-River Falls

Following Cascade Street to the east and across Main Street.

As you enter the campus you will pass four dorms built in the 1950s-1960s, then Karges Gym and Hagestad Student Center.

On the right is South Hall, the most historic building on campus. Note the markers by the center door and inside on the first floor. Built on the site and the foundation of the original 1874 Normal School building which burned down in 1897, South Hall has served the university and community for over 100 years. The Normal School, originally a teacher preparatory school, was the state's fourth. The limestone for the foundations came from a local quarry.

Across Cascade is North Hall, the west part of which was built in 1914; the east section was added in 1927.

Both buildings are on the National Register of historic sites.

Methodist Church

West to Oak Street, turn right, and go north to Second Street.

On the corner of Second and Walnut streets is the city's oldest church.

The Methodist Church on the northwest corner was built in 1897 to replace a small church dating back to about 1860. When the Normal School burned in 1897, the Methodists lent the school their new building, which was used for nearly a year until the present South Hall was finished. The church's latest expansion project was started in 2003.

G.T. Smith Building and A.W. Lund Store

Go west toward Main Street.

On your left are the Masonic Temple, dating from 1928, and the Apostolic Church, dating from 1947. On the southeast corner of Walnut and Main is the G.T. Smith Building, built by an immigrant from Denmark. It burned down in 1915 and was immediately replaced in 1916. It then housed the Stewart Mercantile Co., one of the most progressive department stores in the area.

On the southwest corner of Main Street is the A.W. Lund Store, traceable to Andrew Lund of Haggie, Sweden, who reached River Falls in 1873. He soon started a wagon shop and carriage business, which was destroyed by fire in 1893 and was replaced by this building, which expanded its sales to farm machinery and hardware.

The Gladstone Hotel Building

On the northwest corner of the same intersection.

From very early in the town's history, this had been a hotel building. Brackett Hotel, also known as the Central House, burned down, and what is still referred to by many as the Walvern Hotel was constructed in 1886 by builder Charles Knowles. Briefly named The Garfield, it was soon known as the Gladstone Hotel. It was a major resting place for traveling salesmen who were brought to the city by the railroad and from the depot by horse and carriage.

On the northeast corner of the block, the building originally known as the Public Hall. The whole second floor was one large room, with a stage on the west end. This was used for meetings and dances, many theater productions and some high school graduations. The first floor housed for many years the first self-service grocery, the Red and White Store. It presently houses Donna's Hair Fashions.

Corner of Main and Elm

Walk a block north to Elm Street and observe four retail buildings from the downtown's earliest years.

The one on the southwest, dated 1881, has long housed clothing stores (J.C. Penney's, Benson's, Don's Clothing, Mr. J's Clothiers). It has since housed The Book Press and now Foster Sports is located there.

The building on the southeast, the A.P. Roberts Building, long housed a grocery store, a Red Owl. The lower part of the front has been restored to its former appearance and now houses Sunrise Tanning.

On the northeast is the Tremont House hotel, constructed in 1879 as a fine hotel for visitors. The façade, put on in the 1960s by the River Falls State Bank, was taken down in 2002 and the upper part of the building has been nicely restored.

On the northwest corner is the Home Appliance Store. Many remember this building as Tousley Furniture, which originally housed the Burhyte Store. Although it looks from the street like one building, these are two brick and stone buildings which are likely the oldest on Main Street. The side view along Veterans Park shows the antiquity, with charming windows and interlacing of brick and limestone.

On the corners is the Certified Public Accounts and to the north, Home Appliance.

Main and Maple Streets

One block further north.

On the southwest corner, Beyond Lighting was built for Moody Chevrolet in 1947 by Harry Luberg. To its south, the former River Falls Home Furnishings was the site for many years of the Lord Livery Stable. After its wood building burned down, it was immediately replaced by a brick livery stable and so used until about 1920. This building was enlarged in 1923 and retains the 1923 front.

The Boxrud Block, 109 N. Main St, was built in the late 1870s and was nicely restored in 2003-04 by the Boles Building Management. Some people remember it as the Dunn & Simpson hardware store from 1929 and then Hagbergs in the 1960s.

At the southeast corner of Maple and Main is the Drewke Building, built by businessman Albert Drewke in 1891.

On the northeast corner is a building - now Glass Express -- which probably dates to the 1870s. Note how the remodeling has altered the original windows. The side has been newly tuckpointed to preserve it for many more years.

The northwest corner -- the Subway Shop since 1989 -- had been for many years a gasoline station, and before that the site of the fire station/city hall. Prior to that it was a tavern, and before that a general store.

Walk north to the Division Street Bridge. This replaced a historic bridge crossing the river on Cedar Street. The Cedar Street Bridge, a steel spandrel arch design built in 1908, was the only one of its kind in Wisconsin and this entire area.

Looking to the south from the bridge, you can see on the left the longest operating mill in the city, the Prairie Mill, which began operations in 1854 and continued to 1952. It was first driven by water, and later its electric generator was also powered by the water wheel. Its dam created the Prairie Mill or Upper Mill Pond, a perfect spot for boating and swimming during the summer and skating, ice fishing and ice harvesting in the winter. Any of those possibilities ended when the dam broke in the early 1950s. The present mill structure was built in 1934, after fire had destroyed its predecessors.

Cross over the Kinnickinnic. As you walk south along the river, you can see the remnants of what were once a booming creamery and a laundry. For many years the Equity Feed Mill stood to the west. The vacant site was also home to the railroad depot, which survived until 1960. A TV newscast on the Kennedy-Humphrey primary election that year used it as an identifying place with the name River Falls and thereby showed its disheveled appearance, embarrassing the town on national television and therewith ending its existence.

The River Falls Academy

West to the corner of Maple and Fremont streets.

This building is home to a variety of tenants, including the River Falls School District's Renaissance Academy and Public Montessori Academy, as well as offices and music and art studios.

The building stands on the town's longest continuing educational site. It began as a private academy in 1856, later becoming the public school. The present building of 1926-27, of a pleasing Art Deco design, remained the only public school in town until Greenwood Elementary was built in 1955. It is still owned and used by the River Falls School District.