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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Madison & Other Imaginary Cities


The land that would be Madison passed from the Ho-Chunk to the U.S. in 1832, and was surveyed and mapped into parcels that settlers could buy in 1834 by Orson Lyon. Like nearly all newly surveyed land, it was sold for $1.25 an acre, which put a 40-acre farm within reach of any settler who had $50.00.

It also put real estate developers, called "speculators" in the language of the day, in a very powerful position. By visiting the land office and inspecting surveyors' maps (such as this one of Madison) they could buy up sections and even entire townships that had the richest farmland, the likeliest waterfall for a mill, the easisest transportation down a river, a crucial intersection of trails, or other potentially lucrative features. Speculators would then draw up a plat of an imaginary town at the location and sell off lots to pioneer settlers looking for a home.

George Featherstonehaugh (pronoucend "Fanshawe"), a cantankerous British geologist, was investigating Wisconsin in 1837 and deviated from his course to see some of these cities. He had obtained maps of them and, as he remarked in his travelogue, crossing the expansive prairies of southern Wisconsin "I could not but occasionally reflect on the oddity of seven large cities, each capable of containing a population of half a million of people, congregated so close together. There was Madison City, which was the metropolis; adjacent to this was the City of the Four Lakes, a short distance beyond this was the city of North Madison. Close upon this again was the city of East Madison. Then there was the city of West Madison, the city of South Madison, and the City of the First Lake, and the City of the Second Lake. Of each of these I had a beautiful engraved plan, with all its squares, streets, institutions and temples."

Of course, there were no such cities yet, as he discovered when he arrived hungry and tired at Madison:

"We hastened on, as the day was drawing to a close, and we had yet some distance to go to Madison City. ... Groping our way, and occasionally jolting over the fallen trees, we, at the end of an hour and a half, got to the shore of the Third Lake, having somehow or other missed the Second Lake, where Madison City was supposed to be. We now changed our course again, and keeping to the northwest, and meandering, and wondering and shouting for my companion, who had got out of the wagon to follow a small trail he thought he had discovered, I at length gave up the attempt to proceed any further, and, selecting a dry tree as a proper place to bivouac near, had already stopped the wagon, when, hearing my companion's voice shouting for me in a tone that augured something new to be in the wind, I pushed on in that direction, and at length found him standing at the door of a hastily patched up log hut, consisting of one room about twelve feet square.

"This was Madison City, and, humble as it was, it concentrated within itself all the urban importance of the seven cities we had come so far to admire, and to which, according to our engraved plans, Ninevah of old, Thebes, with its hundred gates, and Persepolis, were but baby-houses.

"Not another dwelling was there in the whole country, and this wretched contrivance had only been put up within the last four weeks. Having secured our horses, we entered the grand and principal entrance to the city, against the top of which my head got a severe blow, it not being more than five feet high from the ground. The room was lumbered up with barrels, boxes and all manner of things. Amongst other things was a bustling little woman, about as high as the door, with an astounding high cap on, called Mrs. Peck."

For more information about paper cities, built and unbuilt, see this article from the Milwaukee Sentinel, Feb. 15, 1903. The other principal source for this Odd Wisconsin is Daniel Durrie's History of Madison published in 1874.

For the next few weeks we'll feature episodes from early Madison history, not all of them odd, to help celebrate our state capital's 150th anniversary.


:: Posted in Madison on March 29, 2006

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