Sunday, February 21, 2016

Wisconsin Hiking Pioneers:

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 many years.

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.

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