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Military Roads

During Wisconsin's territorial period, the federal government found it expedient to develop a system of military roads to transport supplies and mail between forts established for frontier defense.  The first military road in Wisconsin was built between 1835-1838 by garrisons stationed at Fort Howard (Green Bay), Fort Winnebago (Portage), and Fort Crawford (Prairie du Chien) to link the forts.  Possible routes were examined between the fall of 1832 and the summer of 1833.  Construction did not begin until an official order was issued in 1835.

Specifications called for the road to be 30 feet wide, with all trees less than 12 inches wide to be cut to within six inches of the ground and those over 12 inches wide to be cut to within one-foot of the ground.  These stumps were left in the ground to rot, rather than removed from the right-of-way, and posed a hazard to anyone on the road who might collide with them and tip their wagon.  Bridges were to be constructed across substantial streams, and smaller streams would be filled in with heavy logs and topped with a handrail.  Causeways constructed of poles and brush bundles (corduroy) were laid across the road in marshy and wet areas and then covered with dirt from the side ditches that had been dug.

The completed road was crude by today's standards and the poor conditions allowed for limited use.  The road was used primarily during the winter months when frozen conditions allowed for easier travel.   During the remaining months, the road was passable only in dry conditions.  Moisture caused the surface to be slick, and rainfall would submerge portions of the road.  Trees were blazed along the trail in wooded areas to guide the traveler, but on the prairie it was more difficult to follow the trail.  Poor road conditions and the isolated areas bisected by the road created dangerous travel conditions.

Initially the military roads served as a communications and supply link between the forts in Wisconsin and Fort Dearborn in Illinois.  Early wayside hotels were constructed along the military roads.  The first building in Fond du Lac was a double-log structure erected in 1836, known as the Fond du Lac House, which served as a tavern and an inn.   Additional taverns were located near Lake Winnebago, Poynette, Lake Mendota, Blue Mounds, Ridgeway, and Dodgeville.  Travelers wishing to stay overnight along more remote stretches of the route could stay in makeshift shelters that had been constructed by the military when they worked on the road or simply camp under the stars.

As the importance of the forts as frontier outposts declined, the military road began to play an important role in the settlement of Wisconsin.  As the frontier moved further west and areas were opened for settlement, the road provided transportation and facilitated immigration and the settlement of towns and farms across the state.  During this period of settlement the route shifted due to changing patterns of land use.  The military road was used for about 20 years, until 1860 when more modern roads, some of which were constructed along or near the original alignment, eventually replaced the road.  Use of the road also declined as the railroad expanded across the state and new roads were constructed along section lines.

Roadside Highlight: Raube Road

Raube Road as it appeared
in 2002. The raised portion visible
in the photo is the historic road
bed. Courtesy of Jim Draeger,
personal collection.

The Raube Road site (listed in the National Register of Historic Places June 4, 1992), located in Fond du Lac County, contains the archaeological remains of a portion of the military road that linked Fort Howard and Fort Crawford.  The site contains two segments, measuring 65 and 33 feet long, of the original c.1835 roadbed.  It consists of a flagstone and corduroy construction that was built to span a low, marshy area and provide a firm surface for pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

The Raube Road site is unusual because it does not conform to military road specifications.  It is not 30 feet wide, and flagstones and gravel were used as the base for portions of the remaining segment.  This archaeological site provides insight into the actual design, construction, and use of military roads in Wisconsin.  Its construction reveals information about road-building materials and techniques in the 1830s, and how the standard designs were abandoned in low-lying and marshy areas.

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