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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Hiking Across Wisconsin


"I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking," wrote Henry Thoreau in the fall of 1854. One of them could have been the anonymous Milwaukee resident who set out in July of 1858 to walk across the entire state, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, just for the fun of it.

He travelled with a companion, first to Waukesha County, then northwest to Portage, the Dells, and on to Mauston, Sparta, and LaCrosse. They may have been Wisconsin's first tourists. Signing his articles only as "Alpha C.", he described their "walk of some little romance" in a series of letters to the Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel. To kick off this year's tourist season we present a few excerpts from them, liberally sprinkled with links to historic pictures and other contemporary descriptions.

The two intrepid hikers "walked only three miles outside the city" on their first evening afoot, "but the next day, twenty-three miles further on brought us to Delafield... We stopped at Oconomowoc a day; a very pleasant village, full of very pleasant people, on a very pleasant lake, full of very pleasant sail boats." Every hiker knows how pleasant things seem at the start (and what usually happens later).

At Watertown, floods had damaged the famous Watertown Plank Road, which made it "risky for the unsuspecting traveller to attempt to cross Rock River after dark. There was enough of the bridge left to carry a man into deep water, and nothing laid across to stop him;... 'Malignant Fate sat by and smiled' on all who passed that way after dark, and my walk to the Mississippi came near ending at the Rock."

From Watertown the pair turned north into Dodge County, where they found Fox Lake "shallow, and surrounded by marsh; in it is a large quantity of floating marsh -- moveable real estate, in pieces of from one to forty acres... Dodge, Fond du Lac, and Marquette counties form a glorious farming country... The grain is cut there by four horse reapers mostly, and to see these mighty machines at work is almost the next thing to seeing a steamship sail."

Fort Winnebago, which they examined at Portage, "is not the interesting pile of ruins that some folks expect to find it. Some well-built frame houses, filled with the filthiest kind of people, is all that is left... The old hospital and officers' lodge, near by the rest, are in but little better condition." The story of their later restoration is told in the Autumn 2000 issue of our Wisconsin Magazine of History (on pages 7-9).

Heading for Baraboo the pair needed to cross the Wisconsin River as dusk came on. The owner of the only boat offered to take them across for the exhorbitant fee of $3.00. "It was almost dark, and he thought the only thing we could do would be to submit to his terms; but we showed him there was one thing more we could do; we reduced ourselves to the state of nature, fastened our little effects up our backs over our shoulders... and swam the river."

Exhausted and wet, they camped somewhere around Devils Lake and "then, for the only time during the whole journey, some doubt came into my mind as to there being so much romance about it after all; for that evening only, it assumed the aspect of a stern matter of fact; Fancy was overpowered by Experience." They made a large fire "to keep the wolves and mosquitoes away, and ate voraciously of smoked beef and crackers."

They reached the Wisconsin Dells the following day, "where one might think the whole world was made of rock." They visited Pilot Nob, admired the gorges, and speculated correctly on the potential of the area as a magnificent tourist destination.

Following the railroad northwest for the next few days they passed through Lemonwier Valley, and the new towns of Mauston, New Lisbon, and Greenfield, where workers were constructing a 1,300 foot railroad tunnel. Surveyor Andrew Davis kept a journal when he laid out the route of this rail line the previous year.

"They played a naughty trick on us at the Tunnel; they told us (men whom we thought ought to know) that it was five miles to the next railroad station west; we resolved to walk it before breakfast next morning; so we started at four o'clock A.M." In fact, their path ran quickly into a 12-mile-wide tamarack swamp. "We found no station at the end of five miles; on the contrary there is not a dwelling in the whole twleve miles through the swamp--. But we knew nothing of that; we kept walking and walking, and never came so near perishing with hunger before."

Despite this initial disappointment, they pushed through Sparta and then on to LaCrosse the same day and climbed Grandad Bluff: "One gigantic peak points up above the others; it is densely wooded at the base, but as it runs up it becomes bare of trees... When halfway up the earliest ambitious wish of my boyhood was at last gratified -- I saw the Mississippi! The tip top of the peak commands a magnificent view of this mighty river for many miles up and down, hidden in places by its own rude monster bluffs, then re-appearing below; sweeping around a wide bend for miles, then returning far below to be lost in the dim distance... We descended and entered the city a little after sunset, having walked forty-two miles that day."

"I was thirty days on the way from Milwaukee to La Crosse," the anonymous author concluded. "The La Crosse and Milwaukee Railroad is just 200 miles long; by the roads I travelled, the distance is 302 miles, all of which I walked."

For more on tourism history, visit Turning Points in Wisconsin History and look at historical pictures of your favorite summer destinations in Wisconsin Historical Images. And don't miss Visitor Appreciaton Day this coming weekend, at our own Historic Sites.


:: Posted in Curiosities on May 28, 2006

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