The Wisconsin River once served as a major passageway for trade and commerce. This once hardworking river, lacking in the industries of old, is now a regional playground.
The Great Sauk State Trail opened Thursday with a ceremony in Prairie du Sac at the river’s bank near Eagle Island. The ceremony included several local and county leaders as well as Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Secretary Dan Meyer and Department of Transportation Secretary Dave Ross.
Former DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp left her post at the end of August to go to work for the EPA, but it was her staff that did the heavy lifting alongside of Ross’ crew to help make this trail happen. It’s simply amazing the bureaucracy of converting an abandoned railway from metal tracks to a paved path for hiking and biking.
That bureaucracy was waded through by the leadership of Sauk County Board Chair Marty Krueger. The embattled county chair accomplished something that many before him were not able to attain and that was an agreement to convert this former rail corridor into a recreational trail. This trail will bolster the economies of the Sauk Prairie area and Sauk County.
Whether you like Krueger’s leadership style or not, this was a major accomplishment and a huge win for the county. Since the Badger Army Ammunition Plant was mothballed in 1997, several efforts to use this track for recreation have been thwarted. The challenges began not just with the concept, but the multitude of objections. The objections continued even after a major railroad bridge in Sauk City over the Wisconsin River literally was blown up due to safety reasons. Those objections ended when Krueger successfully lobbied the state for this corridor and nudged the state into acquiring the Madison to Reedsburg line. Those agreements also included the costly improvements to the railroad bridge over Lake Wisconsin in Merrimac.
Of course, Krueger did not do this all alone. Hundreds of people worked on various aspects of this project. Stepping stones still exist before the completion of this trail meets its full potential.
The Great Sauk State Trail Commission still needs help from the Friends of the Great Sauk State Trail to raise money for the rest of the trail. As of today, the trail ends at the fence of the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area, and the group has raised about one-third of the $1.5 million needed for the next phase to take the trail to Devil’s Lake State Park.
The remains of the defunct Sauk City rail bridge still need to come down, but that is in process, and a new bridge for pedestrian and bicycle traffic needs to be erected. Once that is done, we need the state and Dane County to do their part. They need to connect the bike path that ends seven miles north of Middleton to this corridor. Once complete, the Great Sauk State Trail is predicted to become the busiest trail in the state network.
Jeff Wright, president of the trail friends group, appropriately marked the trail’s opening by quoting August Derleth, Sauk City’s favorite son. Derleth chronicled life in the Sauk Prairie area and the Wisconsin River in several of the books he authored. The prolific author had a passion for the community with a river running through it.
Derleth’s “The Wisconsin: River of a Thousand Isles” was one such book that chronicled the river, beginning with the early exploration of the territory by French traders. He told the legendary stories of the Indian nations that lived there as well as stories of the lumberjacks and the miners who would capitalize on the river’s power.
If Derleth still were alive today, what would the next chapter of his book have read? What story could he tell about how this seemingly simple bike path might change the face of the small community in Derleth’s “Sac Prairie.”
The Wisconsin River once was a major workhorse during the early American industrial revolution. The dam changed her future here as the upper river became Lake Wisconsin. The dams upstream helped transport lumber on through to the Mississippi River. River boats traveled up and down the riverway, carrying passengers and commodities in the late 1800s. A new dam in Prairie du Sac delivered more promise as electricity changed life on this prairie 100 years ago.
The trail will bring new people into the community and tourists once will again help capitalize on the potential of this mighty river. The Great Sauk State Trail is simply another improvement on this playground we call the Wisconsin River.