Editor's note: This article is adapted from a recent speech given by Mollenhoff, a Madison historian, at the First Annual Yahara Lakes Conference.
Madison is and always has been viewed by its residents as a special city. Why? The three most common answers are: It's the capital of the state. It's the home of the university. It's the lakes. Remove any of these key ingredients and you profoundly change the equation. All are needed. However, it is my conclusion that the lakes have played the largest role in making Madison special. How, when and why did the lakes come to exert such a commanding influence on this city? The answers are fascinating and replete with lessons for tomorrow. Let's begin with the most important ways that the lakes shaped Madison. I count nine.
1. The lakes profoundly influenced the decision to locate here.
When you stop to think about it, putting a capital city here was illogical, because Madison was not on a major river and not the geographic center of the state. It was unwise because squishing a city onto a narrow isthmus defies common sense, especially since much of the isthmus was a soggy cattail marsh. And it was unlikely, because Madison had serious competition.
When Wisconsin's territorial legislators gathered at Belmont in October l836 to decide where the capital should go, 19 developers stepped forward with plats rolled up under their arms. This meant there were 18 alternatives to Madison, with every developer touting his paper town as superior to the others.
But Madison won. Why?
The chief reason was James Duane Doty, a former federal circuit court judge for the Wisconsin territory. As a western land agent for wealthy Easterners, he had explored more of the state than any other person. He was an experienced city planner and had already laid out Green Bay and Fond du Lac. He was politically sophisticated, and an astute salesman.
Moreover, Doty had a great product, an audacious vision of what could be. Madison was not in the middle of the state, but was exactly in the middle of the southern tier of counties where the richest soil was concentrated, and which would therefore be settled first by farmers.
Madison was not on a major river, but Doty had a scheme to link the city via canals to the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers. He also had a distinctive street plan where the streets converged on the Capitol Square like spokes on a wheel. All of the competing paper towns used the traditional, rectilinear, boring grid system.
And, finally, Madison's site - an hourglass isthmus between two lakes - was drop-dead gorgeous. In this sense, Madison was in a class by itself, and Doty made its beauty a prominent part of his sales pitch.
2. Civic leaders quickly embraced lake-generated beauty as a dominant city-shaping value.
Madison's lakes enchanted nearly all who saw them. Darwin Clark was among the first to arrive in Madison in June 1837, when the current state Capitol site was still an open prairie with a few small oaks. This is what he wrote:
"Not a ripple was to be seen on the surface of the lake. It lay gleaming in the sun like a vast resplendent mirror.... I felt as if I was under the influence of some invisible alien power impressing me that this was to be my lifelong home, and thus it has been."
But it was not just picturesque beauty of the lakes that people noticed; it was the clarity of their water. In 1853, a Massachusetts reporter said you can "see the drifts of white sand far down to the transparent depths."
Such descriptions routinely appeared in early writings about Madison. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance civic leaders placed on the beauty of the lakes and the clarity of their waters. They were widely viewed as the soul of the city, a reminder that Madison was special and had a high destiny. This lake-oriented esthetic quickly became embedded in city plans, program and policies.
3. The Madison lakes provided the energy for the city's first power plant which helped trigger a great city boom.
The man who built this power plant and who was the first person after Doty to create a big, bold vision of what Madison could become was Leonard Farwell. A conspicuously talented man who made a fortune selling hardware in Milwaukee, Farwell bought extensive tracts of land in Madison in 1847.
Job one was to generate waterpower for commerce. So in 1849 Farwell built a dam at the outlet of Lake Mendota and removed some debris from the outlet of Lake Monona. This made Lake Mendota about six feet higher than Lake Monona - enough to power a huge four-story mill.
The mill, an instant success, ran 24 hours a day. Farmers flocked to Madison to have their grain ground and their lumber sawed. The mill and dozens of Farwell's other city-growing strategies transformed Madison from a sleepy village of 600 in l846 to a full-fledged city of 12,000 in 1857, a 20-fold increase.
Today, we call this the Farwell boom, because this human dynamo, then in his 30s, had big but doable ideas, and he knew how to make them happen. He was another practical visionary in Madison's history.
4. The duty to maintain and enhance natural beauty kept Madison from becoming a conventional factory town.
In 1857, a major depression swept across the country and inflicted great damage on Madison. Discouraged by its economic prospects, about 40% of the city's population left. From then on until about 1920, Madison leaders grappled with the question of how to get the city growing again. Two futures beckoned.
One was tourism. Madison would become a prestigious northern resort where tourists from St. Louis and New Orleans would come to enjoy our cool summers and crystal-clear lakes. They would stay in big, lake-fronting hotels, like the one located in what's now Olin Park. They would fish, swim, ride steamboats, relax and take carriages into town.
The second big economy-growing idea was factories. Its backers asserted that tourism would only boost the summer economy, whereas factories would provide year-round jobs and a permanent increase in population. But Madison had an exceedingly articulate anti-factory clique composed of professionals, professors and government leaders.
"Do we really want to encourage factories to come here knowing that their smoking chimneys will make our skies leaden and our lakes a depository for their wastes?" they asked. "Reflect," warned one writer, "how many places there are which can be made big and how few places there are which God has made beautiful."
Madison's beauty and its protectors prevented Madison from becoming a factory town in the usual sense and laid the foundations for the city's high design standards.
5. Madison's lakes inspired leaders to create an outstanding private system of pleasure drives and parks.
John M. Olin was a brilliant lawyer, UW Law School professor and park nut - the term then applied to a dedicated open-space promoter. Olin was worried because Madison had almost no parks, especially along its lakeshores, and the city did not believe parks were its responsibility.
Consequently, Olin started one of the most amazing private parks departments in America. In the space of 18 years, he spearheaded campaigns to create two picturesque carriage drives around Lake Mendota, five flagship city parks, and a public greenway along the Yahara River. Olin raised almost all of the money to buy, develop and maintain these drives and parks, and his efforts drew national and even international attention.
Not until l933 did the city assume full responsibility for operating the parks that Olin and his followers developed. Today, Madison boasts more than 6,000 acres of parkland - far more than most other cities our size - and thousands of feet of publicly accessible lakeshore. All are monuments to the idea Olin drummed into the heads of civic leaders: that Madisonians have a moral duty to make natural beauty and lakeshores accessible.
6. Madison's lakes played a pivotal role in making the city embrace urban planning.
Madison was among the first 1% of cities in the country to secure a comprehensive plan. Once again, the man behind this distinction was John Olin, who was troubled by how Madison was growing. Homes were built eave-to-eave, railroads sliced up neighborhoods, streets boasted more utility poles than trees, and the lakeshores were being usurped by homes and boathouses.
And so Olin hired John Nolen, widely regarded as one of the best urban planners in the country. Nolen was enchanted by Madison's potential, saying the city "could establish a new standard of city-making in the U.S." He envisioned it as a world-class city comparable to Lucerne and Geneva, two beautiful lake-fronting Swiss cities, as well as Weimar, Oxford, Versailles and Rio de Janeiro.
Nolen delivered a wise and farsighted master plan, including a Great Esplanade along the Lake Monona shoreline. Nolen said this design, with its scale, fountains, formal gardens and buildings, would be equal to any waterfront in the world. Receding from the Esplanade toward the Capitol is what Nolen called the Grand Mall, a six-block area bounded by Main Street, South Pinckney, South Carroll and Lake Monona. Nolen's goal was to give the new capitol, then under construction, more land, dignity and lake frontage.
At first civic leaders ignored these recommendations, and many others, until they realized that Nolen was right, and far ahead of his time. Then, gradually, leaders implemented key components of Nolen's visionary plan.
7. The lakes strongly influenced Madison's recreational activities.
From the day the first settlers arrived in Madison, people have been having fun on and in the water. In 1905, a photographer caught a group of boys skinny-dipping in Brittingham Park, then under construction. Other lake-oriented pastimes included fishing, sailing, steam boating and camping. In the winter, lake ice provided a huge flat track for horse and cutter racing and breathtakingly fast iceboats.
Today, the Madison lakes are a destination point for tens of thousands of boaters, fisher folks and water sports enthusiasts. But algae blooms and sprawling weed beds discourage people from venturing into the water, clothed or otherwise.
8. To achieve popular city goals, Madison leaders greatly compromised lake water quality.
To reduce mosquitoes and make room for more people and commerce, Madison leaders filled in about 3,800 acres of marshland. To make Madison irresistible to tourists - and especially serious fishers - they introduced the German brown carp. To eliminate the backyard privy, leaders began dumping sewage into the lakes.
At the time, nearly all civic leaders thought this was a good idea. Here's why: If a huge city like Paris could dump all of its sewage into the Seine with no harm to the river, then surely little Madison could dump its sewage into its huge lakes. What they failed to consider was that rivers flow and lakes don't.
By 1890, about 80% of the city's untreated sewage flowed into Lake Monona. The results were revolting. The once white bottom sand was now covered by thick black sludge, and lake water turned slimy, stinky and green with algae. Winds deposited piles of raw sewage up to three feet high along lakeshores, provoking howls of protest - and lawsuits. Visitors thought they were in the Chicago stockyards, not beautiful Madison. Lake Monona had become the city cesspool.
9. The degraded condition of the lakes required the city to partner with the UW and made Madison a national leader in sewage treatment.
Beginning in the 1880s, civic leaders realized that dumping raw sewage in the lakes was a huge mistake, and they began to hire some of the best consultants in the country. But getting the sewage out of the lakes was hideously expensive and exasperatingly complicated. Even citizen activists threw up their arms in despair.
Then, in 1900, J.B. Johnson, the dean of the UW College of Engineering, made Madison an offer it couldn't refuse. Johnson agreed to loan the city his nationally known professor of sanitary engineering, in exchange for being named city engineer. Johnson was eager to demonstrate the practical value of UW expertise.
The city accepted, and two weeks later this professor proposed a new sewage treatment system known as bacterial reduction. The plant opened in 1901 and produced, as predicted, a clear effluent. Madison became one of the first cities in the country to have this state-of-the-art sewage system.
Significantly, this technology was one of the first examples of the famous Wisconsin Idea. And this bacterial-reduction concept is still the backbone of most municipal sewage systems today.
So there you have what I think are the most important historical relationships between Madison's lakes and its people. But there's a second major reason for Madison's specialness: For nearly all of its history, its leaders have crafted exciting visions of what this city could be.
When I talk about visions, I am not talking about idle imaginings or half-cocked ideas. I am talking about doable plans, dreams with a roadmap. In the case of Madison, these have included James Doty's vision of a city on an isthmus, Leonard Farwell's vision of Madison as a great metropolis, John Olin's vision of a city of parks, and John Nolen's vision of a world-class planned city.
Visions force us to acknowledge that which is big and true. They delight us with their scale, daring and imagination. They enable us to see beyond what is to what .
Because they necessarily require decades to realize, visions therefore stretch our sense of time. They make us more patient.
And finally, visions motivate us to get involved, to enlist in a great cause.
I call your attention to the power of practical visions for a reason. I think we need a new visionary plan for our Madison lakes. This is needed because our lakes are, at this point in time, facing unprecedented challenges.
Phosphorus and other fertilizers have clouded the waters with algae and rampant weed growth. Invasive species like the zebra mussel and the European water milfoil threaten to overwhelm existing species. There is increased pressure from boaters and other lake users.
We need to take charge of these and other problems. We need a plan that, among other things, would:
Reassure citizens that rehabilitation is possible. Many longtime residents doubt we can fix these lakes. That's why we need lake scientists to tell us: We can do this!
Clearly state rehabilitation goals and specify what level of rehabilitation is sought. Distill technical and scientific complexities into a comprehensive action plan that tells us exactly who must do what, when and for how long. For most citizens, these dots have never been connected. We hear about best practices like street sweeping and rain gardens, but we don't know their cumulative impact.
Include clear, understandable ways to measure how we are doing at regular intervals.
Explain what various levels of rehabilitation will cost and how they will be financed.
Drive urban growth policies including land use, agriculture, transportation, sewage treatment, water consumption and economic development.
Tell us what lifestyle changes we must make.
Resolve whether existing political jurisdictions are capable of solving lake-quality problems and, if not, devise alternatives.
Receive vigorous and sustained leadership from citizen organizations, governments and media.
Provide vivid and inspiring images about what we will experience when we get to our destination. Here, poetry is appropriate. We have to get to where we can once again paddle over these lakes and see "drifts of white sand far down in the transparent depths."
How I wish John Nolen could share his thoughts with us. I think I know what he'd say:
"Many of you know that I fell in love with Madison when I first saw it in 1908. But I'm worried by what I see today. You are the most rapidly growing area in the state, and you are stressing the ecosystem you esteem. Your most distinguishing and winsome natural feature - the beauty and health of your lakes - is anything but guaranteed. You lack a lake-centered plan to guide your growth. And I wonder if your leaders understand the importance of such a plan.
"On the other hand, you have that same incomparable site and you've done some wonderful things to keep and enhance its beauty. You still have some of the richest farmland in the world, a great university, an involved citizenry and an exceedingly high standard of living. If you take wise and farsighted actions, you can still be a model for the nation."
But a new Nolen will not come. We must do it ourselves. And that's okay. We have what it takes.
We have nationally known UW limnologists who have the technical knowledge to achieve our dream of clean, healthy lakes. We have farsighted elected officials, including Mayor David Cieslewicz and County Executive Kathleen Falk, who care deeply about our lakes.
We have experienced local government bodies such as the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission and promising intergovernmental partnerships like the Lake Mendota Priority Watershed Program.
We have a newly energized Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce that emphasizes quality-of-life issues, including our lakes, and dozens of citizen organizations like the Yahara Lakes Association.
All of these individuals and organizations are imbued with a keen sense of environmental stewardship and the need to work together in a regional framework.
I say the time has come to harness these auspicious resources to the power of an old-fashioned, time-tested tool: the practical vision.
Like it or not, Madison and Dane County are in the beauty and vision business. We forget this at our great peril. That is a lesson for area leaders from the past for today and tomorrow!