Glacial Drumlin State Trail, Wisconsin

Posted 09/01/12 by Laura Stark in America's Trails

Trail of the Month: September 2012

Wisconsin's 52-mile Glacial Drumlin State Trail follows the corridor of a former passenger railroad that some speculate was built by the Chicago and Northwestern Railway purely for political convenience. Completed in 1882, the Milwaukee and Madison Air Line provided a straight shot through rural countryside and several small communities to connect two of the state's most important cities—but very little in-between.  

"In Wisconsin, the bulk of the population was in Milwaukee, but Madison was the capital," says Jim White, president of the Friends of the Glacial Drumlin State Trail. "The railroad was built to provide good transportation between the two cities, so legislators would choose to ride on it and support the railroads."

But even if the line made good political sense on paper, laying the track itself proved far trickier. Though it provided a direct link between the two urban centers, the route happened to traverse a glacial swamp, and many of the wood pilings would sink into the ground. Along one especially hazardous passage, the ground was so unreliable that a guard had to be placed there to warn oncoming trains of the danger at all hours. One train, which didn't heed the warning to slow down, tumbled off the track and sank into the muck, where it remains today.

Even with these logistical hitches, the line eventually opened to great fanfare, according to a Milwaukee Sentinel article from the time: "The run between Madison and this city was a most eventful one, and the train was received at every station by crowds of enthusiastic people. At Waukesha, the enthusiasm was most marked, nearly one-half of the population of the village turning out to greet the arrival of the train."

Today, Waukesha, on the outskirts of Milwaukee, is the eastern terminus of the trail—and also home to one of its most popular sections. Unlike the crushed-limestone surface along most of the route, the 13-mile section between Waukesha and Dousman is paved. It's a favorite training spot for White, who competes in inline-skating marathons. "It's the perfect compromise between not too crowded and not too remote," he says.

The trail is well-used by cyclists and walkers, but its popularity doesn't slow in winter. You'll find snowshoers and cross-country skiers all along the route in the colder months, as well as snowmobilers on the unpaved portions. Animals are abundant, too. Blue herons, sandhill cranes and other water birds frequent the trail's many ponds, rivers and marshes, and wild turkeys, eagles, deer, foxes, rabbits, badgers and chipmunks can often be seen.

"You don't feel that you're in the city anymore," says Brett Johanen, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) property manager for the eastern half of the trail. "Within five to 10 minutes of your ride, you're out in the country."

The only slightly unpleasant spot on the trail is a 1.5-mile on-road gap by Highway 26 in Jefferson, where signs direct travelers along a two-lane road that is often busy with trucks thundering back and forth to an ethanol plant. This detour will eventually be remedied, though, by construction of a new off-road, crushed-limestone replacement. Construction is expected to begin within three years.

"We just purchased a majority of the property," says Lance Stock, the DNR property manager for the western half of the trail. "That was a section we really needed to get. We want to keep trail users off the roads and onto a safe corridor."

Another new addition has also recently seen positive movement. On its western end, the trail terminates at Cottage Grove. From here, it would be a short hop—less than 15 miles—for the trail to reach farther west to Madison, and plans are now in the works to do so. The Wisconsin DNR recently acquired the land for this section of the corridor from GE Healthcare.

"Within the next five years, we'll have the missing link developed," says Stock. "It just takes a while to get the funding in place to do the work."

As exciting as the future additions are, the current route offers plenty of intrigue. About 15 miles east of Cottage Grove lies the Zeloski Marsh, a beautiful wetland habitat popular for birding. In these peaceful surroundings, typical of much of the trail, you'd never guess that this ground was once a dangerous place. From the 1830s to 1850s, a notorious family of thieves consisting of Moses Finch and his 12 sons and five daughters—all wickedly expert with pistol and rifle—used the nearly impenetrable swamp as a hideout for stolen horses and cattle.  

Also nearby is the Lake Mills Depot, which serves as a DNR office, visitor center and nature center. As rental bicycles and trail passes are available here, it's good place to begin your journey. The restored depot, which dates back to 1895, offers interesting exhibits on the trail's development and railroad history.

Last year, the state trail—one of 41 in Wisconsin—celebrated its 25th anniversary. For a rail line with somewhat impractical roots, the Glacial Drumlin has certainly justified its construction in this second life as a rail-trail.  

"This is the third state trail I've worked on and my favorite," Stock says affectionately. "It goes through some nice communities, where people treat the trail like an extension of their property."


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