Monday, August 30, 2010

The Lost City

One of the paths meandering through the Lost City Forest in the UW Arboretum--what remains of a paved road of the former Lake Forest development built in the early 1900's.

One of my favorite (and now long-forgotten or altogether unknown) stories about Madison is of the "Lost City." I can remember my mom pointing off into the trees one day as we drove through the Arboretum. "There's a city in there," she said. I don't think we really believed her (hey, I was all of nine years old, my sisters younger than I was), until we heard about it some years later. The story goes something like this:

Back in the early 1900's, a land developer by the name of Chandler B. Chapman, along with two others, established the Lake Forest Land Co. on the site of what is now the Lost City Forest in the UW Arboretum. They dubbed it the "Venice of the Midwest" and immediately planned out a huge suburb along Lake Wingra's southern shore.

An engineering firm from Milwaukee designed the community with a circular plaza in the middle where a civic center was to be built, with arterial roads creating a half-pie formation radiating out from it. Those who know where to look can find what remains of the stonework that once circled the planned plaza. Canals and lagoons were dredged for those not living directly on the lakefront.

Alas, Nature had other plans. Developers quickly learned that the topsoil of the marshland made up of peat and marl was inappropriate for building. Almost as fast as they were laid, roads, drainage pipes and foundations shifted or were swallowed by the swamp.

The high cost of materials and labor in a post-war climate also contributed to the project's demise, soon to be followed by the indictment for fraud of Victor H. Arnold, president of the Madison Bond Co and partner in the development. And then, of course, came the Great Depression.

Despite these setbacks, developers continued to lure potential clients, claiming that a great development was underway, even though very little building had been done. Sixty-one lots had been sold by 1920, with most of those buyers losing every penny they had invested, and a tangle of legal battles ensued.

Eventually, the land was acquired by a group looking to establish a research and teaching environment for the University of Wisconsin. It would take almost two decades for the land to become a part of the Arboretum, as Chapman dug in his heels and made every attempt to avoid admitting failure or selling the property. Only after the county threatened to seize the land for back taxes and debt did he finally give in.

For 9,000 years, the Winnebago (now Ho-Chunk) had thrived on this swampy land. It only took 100 years for Chapman and other white developers to rape the land, depleting it of natural resources and inflicting ecological disasters that still afflict the area. In an attempt to fill in the marsh, developers dredged sediment from the lake bottom, leaving two great trenches in their wake. During years when the water level is low (obviously not this year), you can still see the top of one of the dredges that was left to rust in the water.

The dredging of the lake also killed off vegetation where the dredges were hauled in, altered or stemmed the flow of natural springs, and reduced the shoreline with the fluctuating water levels. These changes drastically altered the food chain, both animal and vegetable. Many of the plant species that now thrive in the marsh are non-native and even invasive.

Today, as you walk through the Lost City Forest, you can still find evidence of the failed housing development. Many who walk what is left of the paved streets or who stumble across the ruins of foundations and stairways that lead nowhere amidst the wild honeysuckle have no knowledge that a small "city" was once planned for this land. Like Atlantis, the sunken city has become no more than legend.


Jana said...

Wow, that's equal parts sad and awesome. Sounds like a weird and fun place to visit.

Heather said...

It's so quiet along some of those paved paths that it can be kind of eerie in there, especially on days when there aren't a lot of other patrons. If I ever stumble across one of those crumbling stairways, I'll take pics to post, but I am not tearing off into unknown territory where there might be poison ivy. At least fighting a dense thicket of honeysuckle doesn't make you itch for a week!

Shelley Munro said...

That's interesting. Are you sure you don't want to brave the undergrowth. I'd love to see some pictures ;-)

It would be a good setting for a story - maybe a mystery story with ghosts...

Heather said...

Shelley: Thank you, I've always thought this one of the more interesting stories in our history. And yes, I am quite sure I do not want to brave the undergrowth for pictures. Considering how my ankle has been stinging all afternoon and evening from a nettle I brushed up against in the garden today, I shudder to imagine the agony I would be in were I to encounter poison ivy. Ugh! Maybe once fall moves in and the icky stuff (including ragweed!) starts to die off. *wink*

As for ghosts... Considering the many centuries this area was settled by Native American tribes, I would not be at all surprised if spirits walked the grounds. Though the "Lost City" is in the swampy area along the southern shore of Lake Wingra, there are effigy mounds on the eastern side of the lake. So yup, definitely have to be spirits wandering around in there. Another good reason NOT to go in there alone at night, LOL.

Alice Audrey said...

I hate to say it, but I'm glad the project failed. I much prefer the land as part of the arboretum.

Heather said...

Alice: That makes two of us! I can't imagien Madison without the Arboretum as it is currently.

Alice Audrey said...

Madison has changed a lot since I've been gone. I know, we talked your ear off about it in the zoo. Still, I could see the arboretum being gone - and it isn't a pretty picture.

Heather said...

Perish the thought!

Bill said...

I live in Glendale, Ariaona, now. But I used to live in Madison, and I biked to work nearly every day, and part of that time, through the Arboretum.

I biked by remnants of streets, and curbs of the lost city every day, and I knew precisely what it represented. Surely not something that "raped the land", but merely the mistake of a well-meaning developer. Certainly not as debilitating as that hippie, anarchist mayor, and lawyer for the terrorists who bombed the science lab a the U of W, Paul Soglin, who wrecked Madison when I lived there.

Bill Martin

Marcus Medler said...


I grew up there- my father owned half a block on Dickson place.(1946 to 1959) It never felt eerie it was wonderful- a natural play ground being reclaimed by nature. Many of the lots were city people's garden lots- there were few residents and Fish Hatchery road was a country lane.

As youngsters we felt the spirit of native people and the sacred nature of Lake Wingra (south west side). I explored every inch of the upper, higher ground part now the arboretum and fancy houses but in the 50's only a handful of houses and lots of ruined roads and overgrown basements.

thanks for the post-we were minutes from St. Marys but it seemed to a youngster the land of the Last Mohican