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Island transformed into park

MOLINE -- When Tom Greene, Moline's landscape supervisor, first started cataloging trees on Sylvan Island 25 years ago, the only visitors it attracted were fishermen.

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Todd Mizener

Tom Greene, Jesse Perez and Gary Madsen, along with other members of the Sylvan Island Dreamers, have converted the once overgrown Sylvan Island into a place Quad-Cities area residents can enjoy.

Over the years, the 38-acre island off 2nd Street also drew vandals and other troublemakers who left trash, broken glass and scattered brush.

Primarily because of the volunteer Sylvan Island Dreamers, the group Mr. Greene has coordinated since 1993, the once-neglected former industrial area has been transformed into a clean and attractive public park.

``We try to make the island friendlier to the public,'' Mr. Greene said.

``I enjoy the fact that people come up to me to thank me for opening it up,'' Dreamers president Gary Madsen said. ``Everywhere I go, people say they're using it now. When we started, many people were disturbed we would make it another Ben Butterworth (Parkway).

``We destroyed very little of what was natural on the island,'' he said. ``Before things were done, though, you couldn't walk on there without running into damage. There was glass all over the place, brush all over the place.''

The entrance to the island -- off a footbridge -- once was covered in brush, and the first work of the Dreamers was to clear the area and give better access to the island. That allowed people going on to the island to feel safer, Mr. Greene said.

The Dreamers opened up trails, and enlisted college students and other volunteers to haul away trash and debris.

The island was created in 1871 when the Sylvan Channel was dug to provide water power to industry. It was home to Republic Iron and Steel from 1894 to 1956, as well as a stone quarry and ice-cutting business.

The former Iowa-Illinois Gas and Electric Co. -- now MidAmerican Energy -- sold most of the island to Moline in 1966.

``It illustrates the history of the Quad-City area,'' Mr. Greene said. ``It's a former industrial site that played a very important part in the development of Moline and Rock Island.

``The island provided power that made Moline and Rock Island possible. It's an abandoned industrial site that's reverting to nature,'' he said, noting the Dreamers' motto, ``Linking Nature, Recreation and History.''

Island enthusiasts devote themselves to the tasks not only because of the island's key role in the area's development, but for personal reasons as well.

Mr. Greene's father-in-law used to buy steel for Deere & Co. from the island, and his wife's grandfather was married to the steel mill's secretary. The father of Jesse Perez -- another passionate Dreamer -- worked at the steel plant, and Mr. Perez was instrumental in getting a monument built that honors those who worked on the island.

That was unveiled, near the island entrance, in 1995.

``It went way beyond the expectations,'' Mr. Perez said of Sylvan's improvements. ``All we were going to do was widen the path. It's come a long way. It's going to be a beautiful island.

``My satisfaction is when I see couples and elderly people walking there, seeing mothers and their strollers on the island,'' he said. ``My greatest joy also is when I see handicapped kids on those piers. I get sentimental when it comes to the island.''

``Many people don't think of a park as something this large,'' Mr. Greene said, though New York's Central Park is more than 20 times bigger than Sylvan Island.

``People usually think of a narrow piece of grass, a playground, a baseball diamond,'' he said. ``But how many people want to play ball on any given day? Count all of the people who want to fish, to bird watch, to walk, bicycle and are interested in the history of the island, and in plants and trees. That's 70 to 80 percent of the population.

``The general public has been neglected in park work in recent years,'' Mr. Greene said.

The work that's been done on the island, the only one in the area with two dams and two bridges, includes benches, picnic tables, trails, fishing piers and a visitors center.

The center, done last summer, features aerial photographs of the island, a map of planned trails and points of interest, a history of the island, and a comprehensive identification of animals, fish, birds and trees found in the area.

The Dreamers are planning to add an overlook on Sylvan's north shore, a third fishing pier, a sculpture and drinking fountain. The sculpture is one of nine planned art projects along the river in the Quad-Cities and will represent the island's different uses, Mr. Greene said.

``We're trying to decide how fast to proceed, to do things in stages. We want to make sure we don't get too far out on a limb,'' Mr. Perez said of the plan to build two river overlooks, which may be topped with gazebos.

``We need to raise more money,'' he said. Just about all the island projects have been done without city funds.

Many of the services from business and groups to improve the island have been donated or given at reduced cost, Mr. Greene said. ``It's a project for the public good. We showed people we were capable of carrying out the project.''

Mr. Perez said Kenny Jones, who owns a nearby garage, has been crucial in letting the Dreamers use office and storage space for free. ``If it wasn't for him, we'd never have been where we are.''

The group also is putting up new signs, directing people to the island from the nearby bike trail, and to various points of interest once in the park.

``People got the idea that when we put the Rogers center in, that ended the project,'' Mr. Greene said. ``We have the overlook, the fishing pier and other odds and ends.''

Even with the opening of the visitors center, the island hasn't been used much more over the past year, mainly because there has been a lot of construction on the bike trail that connects Moline and Rock Island, Mr. Greene said.

The trail runs in front of the entrance to the island, and the Dreamers are getting ready for an influx of people.

-- By Jonathan Turner (January 22, 1998)

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