Thanks for Asking | Sept. 9, 2010

answering your questions to the very best of Frank's considerable ability

Frank Smoot

In the ‘river cities’ I’ve lived in (three to be exact) – and in plenty I’ve visited – the city has always provided public areas where people could hang out, picnic, dip a toe, or more. Actual access to the actual water. When the cities haven’t provided this it’s usually because the water is so polluted that you’ll sprout full-body carbuncles and a pronged tail. Is there some safety/legal/economic/carbuncle reason that prevents Eau Claire from developing public river fun spots?

Thanks for asking!  All of the above, I think, plus one.

Safety: To take just one example, the Water Street Business Improvement District nixed a Fifth Avenue “Beach Launch” for a “River Lookout Point” with no direct access to the water. The police and fire departments wouldn’t support a beach launch, partly because they’re the ones speaking to the parents of drowning victims, and partly because they’re on the hook for rescuing folks so that no one has to speak to the parents. The Chippewa’s more dangerous than it looks, but we’re also more cautious than some.

Legal: I’m no lawyer, but common wisdom has long suggested (and some court decisions have asserted) that when you’re on the water you’re not on anyone’s property. But touch shore and you’ll find plenty of legal stuff (including liability, and responsibility for runoff, pollution, etc). I always alight on my favorite river by parachute or seaplane.

That said, beaches aren’t illegal in Wisconsin, nor is providing access to them. We’ve got a couple of popular, local-ish swimming/wading spots on rivers: Riverview Park on the north side, and Big Falls on the Eau Claire River east of the city. (Then there’s lakes ...)

But, you’re right; we’ve got no sizable, sandy river access in the heart of the city, where Germans in Speedos can alarm other citizens. (Other factors: it’s a tad cold much of the year; we’re shy folk – except, apparently, the UWEC kids these days – and we like grass “buffer strips” along our river banks to control erosion and runoff. Earth-friendly, but not very beachy.)

    Economics: Always, yet we progress. Slowwwly. The city acquired the Phoenix property in 1981. Clean-up involved removing 34 tons of tires (and so much more), and excavating almost 8,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. Some 22 years later, we had a park plan. In 2008, the city formed the West Bank Redevelopment District (Location? Think: Family Video on W. Madison). I’d give it 20 years and see where we’re at.

Carbuncles: Back in the day, our rivers were nasty. I don’t say that lightly. An 1891 booster book boasted, “Few cities indeed have as convenient a way for the disposal of sewage.” In the 1920s, children made beach balls and water-wings from pig bladders they found near the slaughterhouse, then used them at a swimming hole just downriver from the outflow of that same slaughterhouse. Seriously.

As late as the 1970s, aerial photos showed massive plumes trailing downstream from local manufacturing plants. As late as 2002, the Chippewa had extremely high average phosphorus levels (from agriculture, and, ahem, lawns and gardens). Our rivers are better now and improving.

But this leads to the “plus one” I mentioned above: perception. The Chippewa is a brown river, “stained” with tamarack, carrying a high concentration of dissolved organic matter, and transporting a large bed-load of sand. Its color still reminds long-time Eau Clairians of its dark, dirty, and dangerous days. Do they want to encourage dipping a toe or more? Probably figures into the thinking, at least a little.

  • Got a local question? Send it (17 S. Barstow St.) or email it ( and Frank will answer it!  Frank has lived in Eau Claire for most of the past 41 years. He is an editor and researcher at the Chippewa Valley Museum, which is open all year just beyond the Paul Bunyan Camp Museum in beautiful Carson Park. You should go there.


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