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Dividing Ridge

Linear Mound on the Dividing Ridge

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-38942

Dividing Ridge

As the last glacier retreated from what is now Madison, it left a long gravel ridge on the strip of land between lakes Monona and Wingra. The ridge was 75 feet high at its tallest point, steep sided, with a crest between 30 and 150 feet wide. At various times it was known as the Walnut Mounds, Dead Lake Ridge, and the Dividing Ridge.

The ridge was used by ancient Native Americans as a campsite and workshop. A trail wound along the crest, and another followed its base on the Lake Monona side. It was also a ceremonial site; over the centuries at least 25 effigy mounds were built on the center portion of the ridge, some as much as ten feet tall. Many more mounds were created on the northern and southern ends of the ridge. Among the shapes were thunderbird, water spirit, turtle, conical, and linear. Many of the mounds served as graves.

In 1859 Increase A. Lapham, Wisconsin’s first scientist, platted the mounds as part of his survey of the antiquities of Wisconsin. By that time some of the mounds had already been damaged by settlers making “improvements” to land they’d purchased upon the ridge, and others had been excavated by relic seekers. In the decades that followed the Dividing Ridge yielded fireplaces, flint chips, numerous skeletons, arrowheads, potsherds, grooved stone axes, a copper awl, and a clay trade pipe.

Beginning in 1870, builders began leveling the Dividing Ridge to obtain gravel to construct Madison’s streets. The J. H. Pieh gravel pit was opened on the north end of the ridge, and the Elisha Keyes pit on the south. Over the years they each worked towards the center. By 1908 only a slender section of the ridge remained between the two, crowned with four mounds, and seven years later those mounds were gone, leveled for their black soil. By 1915 the Dividing Ridge existed no longer.

In 1845 Madison’s Catholics purchased three acres on the northeast slope of the ridge and opened a cemetery, which they named Greenbush. Soon Madisonians were referring to the entire area from Erin Street on the south to Milton Street on the north, and from Murray Street on the east to Mills Street on the west by that name. No one was buried in the cemetery after 1865, when Calvary Cemetery was opened across from Forest Hill in what was then far west of town. In the years that followed, many of the Greenbush bodies were moved to Calvary as other family members died and were buried in that cemetery. Sometime after 1902, the remaining bodies located in Greenbush were moved to Calvary, and in 1912 St. Mary’s Hospital was erected on the site.

Today all that remains of the Dividing Ridge is its northern terminus, a small park above the bear dens of the Henry Vilas Zoo. This land was purchased by city in 1910 and 1913. There were originally eleven effigy mounds in this park; eight remain, though both of the bird effigies have been mutilated.

The Annie C. Stewart memorial fountain also stands in the park. Designed by Frederick J. Clasgens and completed in 1925, it has a concrete bowl 21 feet in diameter, with three figures in marble - a sea nymph and two dolphins - in the center. At one time water flowed from conch shells, held in the hands of the dolphins, into small basins; the shells served as drinking fountains. Today the fountain is badly damaged and waterless.

Said Charles E. Brown, Madison’s premier archaeologist of the early part of the last century, “the destruction of the Dividing Ridge was a crime which should never have been perpetuated. It was one of Madison’s most charming scenic features.”