This is the first in a series of weekly articles exploring five Wisconsin hiking pioneers.
In 1846, young John Wesley Powell’s family moved to Walworth
County, Wisconsin and bought a frontier farm. A few years later he was the
teacher in a one room schoolhouse.
In his early twenties, he began taking long trips through
the Mississippi River valley, usually traveling on foot or by small row boat. In
1855, he spent four months walking across Wisconsin along a route that roughly
approximates parts of today’s Ice Age Trail, from St. Paul, Minnesota to Green
Bay, Wisconsin, then south to Chicago.
After losing part of an arm in the
Civil War, he got a job as a professor of science at Illinois Wesleyan
University. He taught all the sciences, from physical geography to zoology and
organic chemistry. Two years later he moved to Illinois State Normal
University as curator of the Natural History Museum and professor of geology.
For the next decade, he
spearheaded the mapping of the Colorado River basin—the last place still
largely unexplored in the Lower 48. He led multiple expeditions to the
West and made recommendations for the use of its arid land. His call
for conservation measures made him unpopular with Western Congressmen.
In 1879, Congress established the
U.S. Geological Survey, largely patterned on Powell’s recommendations. Two
years later Powell took over the USGS while he was already director of the new
Bureau of Ethnology in the Smithsonian Institution. He headed both agencies for
One of Powell’s top priorities
at USGS was topographic mapping. In 1884 he told Congress “A
Government cannot do any scientific work of more value to the people at large
than by causing the construction of proper topographic maps of the country.”
Congress agreed and an army of topographers set out to map the country.
The USGS originally focused on
economic geology—aiding the mining industry and therefore helping
industrialize the United States. Powell was not opposed to applied studies, but
put much of USGS’ resources into basic sciences, like geomorphology and mapping
glacial deposits. The latter he delegated to a fellow Midwesterner with strong
Wisconsin ties, Thomas Chamberlin.
Powell was a founding member of
many scientific societies and active in many others. He was instrumental in the
founding of the National Geographic Society, its magazine, National Geographic, the Cosmos Club and others. He was a member of
the National Academy of Sciences and served as president of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science.
The years Powell lived in
Wisconsin were not numerous. But he inspired many who followed, including Benton
MacKaye, the founder of the Appalachian Trail, and John Muir, father of the
National Park System.
Who do you think will be next week's featured Wisconsin hiking pioneer?
Geotechnics and regionalism: the lineage of thought from John Wesley
Powell to Benton MacKaye, by Nikkilee Cataldo, University of Southern
Maine, May, 2013.
John Wesley Powell, by Jeffrey Lee, The Encyclopedia of Earth, 2009.