What do you know about Shawnee, Kan.? Not much? Well, wherever you’re from, you’ll want to visit the beautiful Wilder Bluff Park as soon as you can where there are numerous amenities to delight.
The name Wilder Bluff, one of five proposed, was chosen by Shawnee residents who had attended community meetings about the proposed park. Wilder Bluff is most fitting because the park land sits on a bluff above the old town of Wilder, which was founded in 1875 on land owned by Peter D. Cook. Cook, who lived in Topeka, had purchased the land from a Shawnee Indian, speculating that the area would become a train stop. The town eventually became a stop on the Kansas City, Topeka and Western Railroad, of which Mr. Cook was one of the directors.
Wilder was 2 miles from the Tiblow Ferry, which crossed the Kansas River to Bonner Springs. Over the years a post office, stores, a school/church, a blacksmith’s shop and a number of homes were built in Wilder. In 1878, several freed Black families moved to Wilder to farm the rich land. Their children attended the Kaw Valley School, integrating with the other children of the area. The town was a vibrant community until the flood of 1903, which covered the town. In 1911 a fire whipped by high winds destroyed much of the town again. In the 1930s, grain and many potatoes were shipped out of the Wilder railroad station. In 1951 a great flood again covered most of the homes and businesses to their rooftops. The town never fully recovered, and today it is only a small group of homes in Shawnee.
Future historical markers might tell the early story of the area so visitors may learn how people lived many years ago before the park was developed.
The park land was purchased in 2004. In November 2019, the project kicked off with a design charrette between the design team, Shawnee staff and the construction manager-at-risk. The design team encompassed city of Shawnee Parks and Recreation staff, Confluence and SFS Architecture and Centric.
Neil Holman, director of parks and recreation in Shawnee, asked for three designs. “I’m very hands-on with the development of each park in our system, and yes, I had ideas in mind for the park,” Holman said. “This meeting consisted of walking the park, followed by a visioning and goals session.”
The team visited the Belmont Elementary School third-grade class, where the students were asked to take home base maps. They worked with their family, brainstorming ideas and choosing the features they would like to see at the park. The goal of the exercise was to create excitement and a sense of ownership for the students and their families.
Holman said, “At the first public meeting, the agenda introduced the design team and presented the dot boards so the attendees could select amenities they wanted in the park. Two boards had images of park possibilities, such as swings and play equipment, and the third board had the projected park names to choose from. After all the comments and discussion, the design team came up with two concepts — Treetop Adventure and Terraced Patio.”
At the second public meeting, both concepts were presented and the public could vote on the concept they liked. Holman said, “Treetop Adventure was chosen, but there were some amenities that were equally liked from the Terrace Patio. Accordingly, they were incorporated into the ultimate design.”
Wilder Bluff is a huge hit with residents and nonresidents. The grand opening and dedication was held July 6, 2021. It is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The splash pad hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. The park is a beautiful place, featuring over 40 acres of parkland, a unique treetop canopy playground, a hillside slide and a natural-themed spray ground. There is a 1.38-mile walking trail, natural grasses, and a patio overlook. The Wilder Bluff shelter includes a fireplace and a buffet ledge with power outlets, which lends itself well to reunions and receptions as well as many other gatherings. As expected, there is plenty of good parking, including handicapped accessibility. Permanent bathrooms are available all through the open season, and in winter months, there are portable facilities. Leashed dogs are welcome and alcohol is not. Skating and biking are allowed, though skating may not take place across tables or other equipment.
This enormous project was funded entirely by the Parks and Pipes sales tax. Holman said, “That is only 1/8th of a cent that is split 50/50 with public works stormwater division. This is the third time the tax has passed by a 70/30% split. It is obviously very well received by the residents. This tax is for capital projects only, not for maintenance.”
Of course, Wilder Bluff is not the only park in the area. “We have 26 developed parks and six undeveloped parks in our system, and we try very hard to make each park a different experience for the user,” said Holman. The parks and recreation department oversees more than 1,010 acres of city parks, Shawnee Town 1929 Museum, the Civic Centre and the city’s two state-of-the-art aquatic facilities. Also offered are more than 500 classes, programs and special events for youth, adults and seniors.