Historic Green Travel

At a time when everyone and everything is engaged in going green, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin’s first environmentally-sound tour occurred long before going green was hip.

In July 1858, an anonymous Milwaukee resident and his companion set out to cross the entire state, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, on foot, just for the heck of it. Signing his articles only as “Alpha C.,” he described their “walk of some little romance” in the Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel.

1856 View of MilwaukeeSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1856 View of Milwaukee
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

Walking only three miles outside Milwaukee on the first day, the pair walked 23 miles to Delafield the next day, stopping in Oconomowoc, “a very pleasant village, full of pleasant people, on a very pleasant lake, full of very pleasant sail boats,” he wrote.  Every trip seems pleasant at the start, doesn’t it?

At Watertown, floods had damaged the Watertown Plank Road, which made it “risky for the unsuspecting traveler 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;… and my walk to the Mississippi came near ending at the Rock.”

From Watertown, the pair turned north into Dodge County, where they found a well-kept resort on Lake Emily and the “largest field of Fife wheat I have ever seen…I am incompetent to describe it with justice.”

Fort Winnebago, which they examined at Portage, “is not the interesting pile of ruins that some folks expect to find it. 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 exorbitant fee of $3.00, thinking that with the coming dark, the travelers’ only option would be to pay.  “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.”

1858 map of WisconsinSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1858 map of Wisconsin
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

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.  They pushed through to Sparta and then on to La Crosse where they climbed Grandad Bluff and the writer realized “the earliest ambitious wish of my boyhood was at last gratified — I saw the Mississippi!”

Arriving in La Crosse thirty days after they began, the author concluded ” by the roads I travelled, the distance is 302 miles, all of which I walked,” a mighty distance to walk then as it is almost unimaginable today.  And clearly the walking bug and spirit of adventure were still in him, as he planned to continue on to Itasca Lake, Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi, excited by the prospects of all that he would see along the way.

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2 thoughts on “Historic Green Travel

  1. anerdatlarge says:

    Nice post. It’s always amazing to read of the long walking journeys that folks used to take before the automotive age. It was fairly normal to walk a hundred miles or more if you wanted to go somewhere. I wish it were more feasible to take such a journey today, but these days there seem to be a lot of barriers to walking.

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