Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Unwitting Ice Age Trail Pioneer

by Drew Hanson

[A version of this essay appeared in the Winter 2001 edition of Mammoth Tales.]

Have you ever been asked, “Since Ice Age glaciers were in many states why is the Ice Age National Scenic Trail only in Wisconsin?” I have.

Tongue in check, I sometimes answer, “Have you ever wondered why Rocky Mountain National Park is only in Colorado? Don’t the Rocky Mountains span thousands of miles and several states from Alaska to Mexico?”

I’m generally a little less sassy.

My typical response describes the world-class landscapes created by continental glaciation in Wisconsin and how the Ice Age Trail Alliance was founded here by the late Raymond Zillmer.  Another reason for the Wisconsin focus is the work of the late Wisconsin Congressman Henry Reuss who championed conservation legislation for Wisconsin between 1960 and 1980. The tens of thousands of people who have volunteered their time since 1958 to make the Ice Age Trail a reality also deserve a share of the credit.

Surprisingly, however, the Trail’s roots go back much farther. It was actually during the late 1800s that the seeds for a national park and trail to commemorate the Ice Age were sown: and they were sown in Wisconsin!

The life and extraordinary career of Thomas Chamberlin far exceeds the realm of the Ice Age Trail. He published more than 250 scholarly articles and books and received a multitude of awards for his work. One of his several biographers placed him alongside the world’s greatest thinkers, including Aristotle, Galileo, Newton and Darwin. His most-significant work was in the field of geology, which provides another basis for making Wisconsin the home of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Thomas Chamberlin was born in 1843 on a farm at the crest of a glacial end moraine near Mattoon, Illinois. He attended Beloit College in southern Wisconsin and the University of Michigan. He served for two years as principal of Delavan High School, in southeast Wisconsin, and taught at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater for three. In 1870, he co-founded the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Returning to Beloit College in 1873, he began a nine-year term as professor of natural history. His primary focus became a thorough study of glaciated southeastern Wisconsin. This work resulted in the first scientific publication in the world on interlobate glaciation and the naming of the Kettle Moraine.

For most of his tenure at Beloit College, Chamberlin wore the second hat of Chief State Geologist. From this statewide position, he began to illustrate the anomalies of the unglaciated Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin. More importantly, he published the four large books titled Geology of Wisconsin. It surpassed in excellence and scope similar efforts of any other state geological survey.

His stock increased, Chamberlin became head of the Glacial Division of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). It was, likewise, a hat he would wear in addition to others. Seventeen years as Division head brought him recognition as the foremost authority on glacial geology in the United States.

In 1892, Chamberlin became the first chairperson of the Geology Department at the University of Chicago. Two years later, he completed the first-ever map of North America showing the extent of glaciation.
At the beginning of Chamberlin’s career, geologists believed there to have been one continental glaciation during the Ice Age. By the late 1870s, Chamberlin was the first to understand that there had been multiple glaciations–initially arguing that there had been two. Years later, using the best tools of his day, he determined there to have been at least four glaciations and named them for the states where their deposits were most easily recognized. Wisconsin was chosen as the namesake of the most recent continental glaciation.

(Since the 1960s, studies of deep ocean cores demonstrate that there have been perhaps 12 to 15 continental glaciations during the past 2 million years. The last period of the Ice Age, between 10,000 and 75,000 years ago, continues to be known as the Wisconsin Glaciation.)

Shortly before his death in 1928, the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW), which he once served as President, honored Thomas Chamberlin with a bronze plaque attached to a large erratic boulder. It was placed at the top of Observatory Hill–a drumlin on the UW campus– where it stands to this day. The plaque describes his service to the University and monumental accomplishments in the field of geology.

Thomas Chamberlin was the greatest American geologist of his generation. His brilliance lit so many paths of knowledge that he made an unwitting contribution to the Ice Age Trail. His recognition of the unique geology of Wisconsin and naming of a period of history for this place provides one of the compelling foundations of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Thousands of years ago, colossal glaciers had profound impacts on the planet. The landscapes of Wisconsin provided the ideal Ice Age canvas for continental glaciation to paint its most beautiful landscapes and intriguing sites for scientific research. The Ice Age National Scenic Trail is today a place to preserve, commemorate and enjoy this masterpiece.


The History of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, S.W. Bailey, R.A. Paull, and L.H. Burckle, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin Systems, 1981.

“Chamberlin, Salisbury, and Collie”, Allan F. Schneider, in Geoscience Wisconsin, volume 18, “History of Wisconsin Geologists”, Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, 2001.

“Wisconsin’s Glacial Landscapes”, David M. Mickelson, in Wisconsin Land and Life, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.

Ice Ages: Solving the Mystery, John Imbrie and Katherine Palmer Imbrie, Harvard University Press, 1979.

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