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Kinney, Thomas P. / Irish settlers of Fitchburg, Wisconsin, 1840-1860

Transportation routes,   pp. 14-27 PDF (2.8 MB)

Page 15

Transportation Routes
he road systems of southern Wisconsin were vital to the
development of the region from 1840 to 1860. The first
roads built through this vast wilderness connected the
southwestern Wisconsin lead mining region with the south-
eastern Wisconsin Lake Michigan port towns of Milwaukee,
Racine, and Southport (now called Kenosha). After Madison
was selected the territorial capital in 1836, the legislature
authorized roads out of Madison in all directions, creating a
spiderweb of transportation routes. Nestled within this mesh
was the Town of Fitchburg, which was quickly transformed
into an important commercial crossroads.
Fitchburg was becoming an essential conduit for southern
Dane County even before the Irish and other settlers began to
build farms and homes there. Its woods and prairies provided
valuable roadsites not only because the township served as
the southern doorway to Madison, but because Fitchburg con-
tained high grounds that separated two watersheds-the Yahara
River's to the east and the Sugar River's to the west. Travelers
utilized these highlands to minimize the problems of crossing
rivers and marshes with heavy wagons. In the territorial era
when many rural townships were crossed by only one or two
principal roads, Fitchburg boasted four major routes. These
included an important road that was used regularly by lead
teamsters traveling between Mineral Point and Milwaukee,
and the road for mail carriers-the Old Janesville Road (Fish
Hatchery Road)-which connected Madison to Janesville.16
These two roads converged in Fitchburg over the span of nearly
a mile and a half. The Madison-to-Monroe stage road (Semi-
nole Highway and Fitchburg Road) and County MM emerged
as the two other major routes. Along them, enterprising Yan-
kees built taverns and villages in the early 1840's. (Yankees
were those who were born in the United States and had lived
in New England, New York, and Pennsylvania.) The Irish fol-
lowed on the heels of these Yankees.
Although most of today's major roads in Fitchburg remain
on the same course as they followed in 1860, roads during the
settlement days constantly shifted in location and rose and fell
in popularity as streams were bridged, marshes were drained,
and ramps were built through cuts in hills. Roads affected
everything in people's lives-the way they traveled, where they
settled, and how they earned their living. One of the greatest
gambles Yankee or immigrant families took was whether or
not the parcel of land they bought was on a trail that would be
authorized as a road in the future by the territory, county, or
town. And if the farm was already on such a track, would the
road be abandoned if a stream was bridged two miles away? A
well-maintained road in front of one's farm not only increased
its resale value, but provided access to highways for hauling
produce to sell in Madison and for taking wheat and other
products to market in Milwaukee. Yankee merchants enter-
tained the same risks as they built their hotels, stores, and
blacksmith shops at stagecoach stops, which they knew could
be bypassed by railroads in future years. As long as a neighbor-
hood road maintained its utility, families prospered and enjoyed
seeing travelers who told tales of Indian skirmishes and even a
gold rush in a distant land called California. Roads brought to
the pioneers a way of seeing and interacting with the outside
world that cannot be recaptured today
The Old Janesville Road and the trail often used by lead
teamsters developed into the most important roads in Fitch-
burg. They converged around Oak Hall, a now defunct village
site near the intersection of Fish Hatchery Road and County M.
Oak Hall became the most prominent trading post in the sur-
rounding townships. When the Fox brothers came looking
for land in 1842, they traveled by way of the Indian trail that
became known as the Old Janesville Road and stayed at the
original hotel at Oak Hall.
The route commonly used by lead teamsters was actually a"
series of roads that connected Mineral Point to Milwaukee, and
included one of the first roads to cross Fitchburg. The lead

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