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Big Story: Moline's Sylvan Island mounts surging comeback

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It is nearly suppertime on a spring evening, and the Sylvan Island parking lot is full.

One family is flying a kite in Sylvan Island Gateway Park and another is heading for the island’s entrance with a pair of binoculars for bird watching. As two kayakers paddle alongside pelicans in the island's backwaters, a seasoned geocacher explores Sylvan for the first time. 

Some appear eager to make their maiden crossing of the new footbridge above Sylvan Slough — a secondary channel of the Mississippi River — to explore the wooded trails that occupy the 38-acre island. Others list their reasons for coming: off-road bicycling, dog walking, fishing and photography among them.

The aged bridge to Sylvan Island was declared too dangerous in April 2013, and the city-owned park was closed to bicyclists and pedestrians for much of the next five years.

But the new 200-foot-long steel span opened Dec. 21, and the warm weather is driving hordes of nature and outdoor sports enthusiasts back to the serenity of Sylvan.

“It doesn’t compare to any other park we have,” said Lori Wilson, director of the Moline Parks and Recreation Department. “At Sylvan Island, you cross that bridge, and you’re in the Land of Oz.”

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Fishing family

Rock Island residents Roberto Sanchez, his wife, Maria Perez, and their 3-year-old daughter, Maricruz, spend an April afternoon fishing from a rocky outcrop on Sylvan Island.

The man-made island once had a bustling steel mill and limestone quarry. Today, the range of recreational offerings is as assorted as the people drawn there. A monument dedicated in 1995 recognizes “all people of diverse ethnic backgrounds” who shared the space for work and play.

Its location along the Great River Trail, between the Rock Island Arsenal and the Moline-Rock Island border, entices people of many races, ethnicities and interests. Norm Moline, a retired geography professor at Augustana College, has frequented and studied the island for almost 50 years and calls it a microcosm of the region.

“It’s a place that reflects, in a larger sense, the makeup of the community,” he said.

An island is born

Long before it evolved into a popular park, the area now known as Sylvan Island was an extension of the Moline shore — an oak-hickory peninsula that jutted out into the slough.

Almost 150 years ago, the federal government partnered with the Moline Water Power Company and built a 2,100-foot-long channel that still today accommodates a hydropower dam system. The excavation cut off a portion of land, officially forming Sylvan Island in late 1871, according to a report titled, “Sylvan Island: A Century of Choice,” produced by Norm Moline and his students in 1971.

The two hydropower dams, located on the northwest and southeast tips of the island, maintain its connections to Arsenal Island and the Moline shore, respectively.

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Hydropower dam

An angler uses a boat in April to fish near the hydropower dam that connects the Rock Island Arsenal and the northwest side of Sylvan Island.

The feds in 1872 built the first bridge across the canal, allowing horse-drawn carriages and ox carts access to the isle. The new span also made it accessible to commerce. In 1894, Sylvan Steel Company started a mill on the east side of the island.

On the west side, Moline Stone Company opened a quarry that yielded construction materials for 20-plus years until groundwater inundated the mine. During the intervening winters, two companies harvested ice from the frozen Sylvan waters.

Republic Iron and Steel Company took over Sylvan Steel's operations in 1899, and factory workers cranked out 6,158 tons of steel in October 1917 — a monthly production record — six months after the U.S. entered World War I. They rolled used steel rails into fence posts and parts for tractors, combines and other farming implements.

A railroad bridge, now owned by MidAmerican Energy Company, supplied the plant with raw materials and distributed its finished products.

High production levels continued into the early 1950s, when about 150 people worked at the Republic Steel mill. However, a combination of high operating costs, diminishing supply of suitable materials and lack of demand for its products forced the company to cease operations on the island in 1956. By 1958, the site was abandoned.

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Sylvan Island aerial

This aerial photograph of Sylvan Island, taken April 28, 2000, shows the pair of 19th century hydropower dams that connect the site to Arsenal Island and the Moline shore. 

In 1966, the city of Moline bought the island and its industrial ruins for $75,000. The weakening bridge was closed to vehicular traffic just a few years later.

Aside from fishermen, the island garnered little attention between the time of the desertion and the city’s takeover. Meanwhile, Mother Nature stepped in, returning vegetation to the previously developed east side of the island.

“Now what we’re seeing over here is a 60-year-old secondary forest in a damaged natural environment,” Norm Moline said.

In 1971, Norm Moline and his collection of Augie supporters proposed designating the island a combined fishing, nature and historical park.

Sylvan Island Dreamers

During its dormant years in the late 1950s and early- to mid-1960s, parts of Sylvan Island fell victim to littering — a lot of littering.

Rusty beer cans dotted the display of discarded goods — sofas, toilets, washers and dryers — marring swaths of the island’s north side.

“The city would bring in big dump trucks, and we’d fill those things,” Norm Moline recalled.

Volunteer-led cleanups were organized on a fairly regular basis throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Then, in the early 1990s, the Black Hawk Chapter of the Izaak Walton League and a group from Moline’s nearby and largely Hispanic Floreciente neighborhood — the Stone Quarry Gang — discovered their common interest. They called themselves the Sylvan Island Dreamers and registered as a 501c3 nonprofit to transform the neglected city land into a prime recreation destination.

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Thomas W. Rogers Visitors Center

Volunteers paint a concrete bench under the Thomas W. Rogers Visitors Center pavilion during an Earth Day cleanup event last month on Sylvan Island.

They cleared overgrown brush and bramble from paths, creating scenic walkways. Gaping pits, caused by erosion, were filled. Signs, benches, fishing piers, overlooks, a fountain and an open-air visitors center materialized under the Dreamers' guidance.

The group landed financial and material donations for its host of island improvements. The volunteers worked hand-in-hand with the city and forged partnerships with other nonprofits, including River Action Inc., of Davenport, whose RiverWay project contributed two informational signs about Sylvan's history and its habitat.

Vandals delivered the Dreamers some setbacks, but the community embraced, praised and appreciated the efforts that led to the island’s revival.

“The more work we did down there, the more people started using it,” said Gary Madsen, who served as president of the group.

Madsen and his wife, Lissa, of the Izaak Walton League, and Jesse Perez, the leader of Floreciente’s Stone Quarry Gang, co-founded the Dreamers. Perez's father, José, had worked at the steel factory. Norm Moline was among others who helped drive the Dreamers.

“We each had our personal ties to it,” said Madsen, who now oversees the Izaak Walton League in Davenport. “That’s what held us together.”

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Sylvan dog walker

A man walks his dog in April between the old walls that formerly surrounded rail lines, which served the Republic Steel plant. It occupied almost half of Sylvan Island from the late 1800s through the mid-1950s.

Bridge problems arise

The rugged terrain at Sylvan Island jump-started many off-road biking careers.

“This is a really special place,” John Blair said last month as he stood over a campfire during the 10th anniversary of the Sylvan Island Stampede mountain biking race. “You don’t see places like this in the center of a city in this part of the country.”

Blair, former president of Friends of Off-Road Cycling, or FORC, co-founded the Sylvan Island Stampede in 2005.

It inspired similar events on the island, including Taming of the Slough, a paddle-bike-run triathlon presented by River Action, and Lagomarcino’s Cocoa Beano 5K race.

But the ailing bridge put a temporary halt to all of it.

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Former Sylvan Island bridge

General Constructors Inc. of Bettendorf removed this 145-year-old bridge to Sylvan Island in October 2017. Workers then replaced the crossing with a new 200-foot-long steel span in December, about 4½ years after the city of Moline closed the original structure.

After engineers ruled the 145-year-old span unsafe for bicycle and foot traffic about five years ago, the city used fencing to cut off access. The main problem, they said, was too much “bounce” in the bridge.

Taming of the Slough moved upstream to East Moline and Hampton, and the Cocoa Beano 5K relocated to the Village of East Davenport. FORC postponed its 10th Stampede until the island reopened.

For four years and eight months, only those with boats could access Sylvan Island. But a loan caretaker kept watch.

The late Dave Hill frequently ferried his lawnmower, a hand saw and a tool box to the island in his 17-foot canoe. He fought off mosquitoes and tiptoed around poison ivy to clear a path for paddlers to portage their gear across the island, an optional route for Floatzilla, River Action's paddle sports festival.

But one man and his sidekicks could not tame the island alone.

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Canoe

Volunteers Dave Hill and Rex Grove in 2016 use a canoe to transport lawn mowers to Sylvan Island to clear a portaging path for paddlers participating in Floatzilla. 

Next-gen Dreamers

Almost immediately after the bridge closed, Floreciente native Becky Bernard introduced the Sylvan Island Dreamers to Facebook as a way to brainstorm.

She remembers exploring the island as a teenager in the late 1970s and early 1980s, imagining what purpose the old foundations once served.

“We had no idea it had been a steel plant,” she said. “I fell in love with the ruins.”

Bernard, a member of FORC, tracked the progress of the bridge replacement and updated other next-generation Dreamers in the Facebook group.

In 2014, Moline received a grant worth up to $1,037,600 from the Illinois Transportation Enhancement Program to help pay for the replacement span. Further planning and preparation delayed bidding of the project to April 2017, when the Illinois Department of Transportation awarded General Constructors Inc. of Bettendorf an $820,560 contract for the new Sylvan Island crossing.

The original grant paid for 80 percent of the work, or $656,448, and the city paid the remaining 20 percent, or $164,112. The state did not disburse the additional $217,040 initially made available for the project, according to city engineer Scott Hinton.

With the city's permission, Bernard and FORC volunteers Ray Nees and Kurt Davis kayaked to the island for the first time together early last spring to assess the damage done to their beloved trail system.

“Mother Nature had reclaimed it,” she said of the growth that made it difficult for them to find trails they once knew “like the backs of our hands.”

They returned by boat several times before the new bridge opened to the public in December, extending their labor of love through the winter months. FORC volunteers, Bernard estimated, invested more than 1,200 hours in restoring the island's four-mile loop in advance of the Sylvan Island Stampede.

“I didn’t think it would happen,” said Blair, the Stampede co-founder. “But it’s great that it did, because it gives people a place to go.”

'What a jewel'

Memories of fly fishing for walleye 50 years ago came back to John Kloos as he walked across the bridge to watch the Sylvan Island Stampede.

“This used to be one hell of a place,” said Kloos, Bernard’s father, who still lives in Floreciente with his wife, Gloria. “We’d catch our limit every day.”

The churning waters below the hydropower dam on the southeast side of the island have been one of the area’s hottest fishing spots for many decades. The slough collects fish that unsuccessfully attempt to migrate upriver, which in turn attracts anglers from as far away as Chicago.

Between the mountain biking race, an Earth Day cleanup and an organized night hike to see the pink moon, Sylvan Island had a busy April. Fresh graffiti on the powerhouse owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reveals other activities.

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Sylvan Island anlgers

Anglers use a boat in April to reach the water near the hydropower dam on the southeast side of Sylvan Island.

May and June are looking busy, too.

Last Sunday, River Action and Moline Parks hosted a walking performance, “The Romance of Sylvan Island.” And River Action’s popular Father’s Day bicycle event, Ride the River on June 17, will include a stop with activities and food on Sylvan Island.

Wilson, of Moline Parks, said she anticipates the island getting more use than usual this season, largely because the community has missed it.

“When something is taken away from you, and you don’t have it, you appreciate it so much more when you get it back,” she said. “The community is realizing what a jewel they have here now that it’s open.”

Future plans

In December, Moline Park Board President Don Welvaert appointed the Sylvan Island Advisory Committee, which includes eight representatives from FORC, River Action, Global Communities, Renew Moline, Augustana and Moline Parks. The group has the authority to plan events, workdays and small projects.

Norm Moline, who represents Augustana, wants to add more signage around the island to make it more user-friendly. “You’ve got the Putnam Museum that tells our Quad-City story inside, but this is the place where you can learn about our local history outside,” he said.

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Sylvan Island cleanup

Volunteers rake brush during an Earth Day weekend cleanup in April on Sylvan Island. The city of Moline co-hosted the event with Friends of Off-Road Cycling, Global Communities, Renew Moline and River Action.

Kathy Wine, executive director of River Action, does not want to see much change. “We don’t need to make it anything but a wild place,” she said while planting flowers during last month’s cleanup near the island’s entrance.

Other than routine maintenance and upkeep, Wilson said the city does not intend to pursue any future developments on the island.

Both Madsen and Perez, the original Dreamers, visited Sylvan last month for the first time since the new bridge opened.

“It’s beautiful down there now,” Madsen said. “It was our dream to see it like it is now.”

Although their dream was interrupted, the impact of their mission again is on display, and the migratory birds aren't the only ones flocking to it.

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Jack Cullen covers health and the outdoors for the Quad-City Times.