Visionaries created city’s most popular recreational destination

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Ted Sullivan
Saturday, April 3, 2010
— Former Wisconsin Rep. Henry Reuss called Janesville park officials in the 1980s with an ambitious plan.

“He just matter-of-factly said, ‘We’re going to build this trail through Janesville. This Ice Age Trail has to happen, and it has to happen now,’” Tom Presny, Janesville parks director, recalled.

Reuss, a Milwaukee Democrat, later flew to Janesville and joined locals on a drive around the city. He told them how the 1,100-mile trail would pass through Janesville and promised federal help.

He was confident, but he knew how to tackle such projects. He had helped establish the Kettle Moraine State Forest and Appalachian Trail.

“He was just a man of determination, strong determination,” Presny said. “As much as anything, he was our mentor and maybe our inspiration.”

Today, the Ice Age Trail gets more recreational use in Janesville than anything else in the city. The trail has grown from a mowed grass path to a paved sidewalk, linking parks, downtown and the Rotary Gardens.

In Rock County, the trail marks the southern edge where glaciers stopped and melted more than 15,000 years ago.

About 21 miles of trail in Rock County guides hikers through glacial features, prairie grasslands, wildlife areas, wetlands, wooded hills, rock cliffs and the Rock River, a former glacial melt water channel.

Hikers might see sandhill cranes, deer, wood ducks, turkeys, pheasants or owls on the trail. They might see several fish in the lakes or river.

Along the way, hikers pass the site where Abraham Lincoln camped among soldiers near Storrs Lake in July 1832. Lincoln was pursuing Sauk Chief Black Hawk and his warriors, who were running north along the Rock River. The Milton House, an Underground Railroad National Historic Landmark, also is on the trail.

“I think it’s really opened up an opportunity for people to get out and enjoy the outdoors and enjoy nature,” said Mike Guisleman, coordinator for the Rock County chapter of the Ice Age Trail Alliance. “The trails in Janesville are an amazing resource, both for kids and adults.”

60 years in the making

The idea for the Ice Age Trail started in the 1950s. Milwaukee resident Ray Zillmer envisioned the trail following the outline of the state’s most recent glacier. In 1980, Congress designated the Ice Age Trail as a National Scenic Trail.

Janesville’s involvement dates to the 1970s, Presny said. A formal letter written in 1985 highlights the city’s interest in being part of the trail.

The goal was to links parks, open spaces and other natural areas in the city and county for natural, off-road recreation, he said. The city, after all, prides itself as the city of parks.

“We felt that we were a contender to be a part of this,” Presny said. “Maybe we were a little bit naďve. Early on, we thought this would happen quite quickly and without much effort.”

Early struggles

In reality, creating the Ice Age Trail through Janesville was difficult. Public land didn’t directly connect through the city. Private land would have to be donated or bought.

The trail also had barriers such as Interstate 90/39 and the Rock River.

Bridges and an underpass would be needed, Presny said. A line couldn’t just be drawn through Janesville to build a trail.

“I knew it was going to be a challenge,” Guisleman said. “It was slow and frustrating.”

Support for the trail wasn’t immediate. People were skeptical. The trail passes 1,800 homes, and residents worried about security and noise. Meetings were held to convince the public to support the project.

Soon, landowners began donating property easements. Donations and state and federal grants rolled in. The city also supported the project, Presny said.

“People understood what we were doing, but they didn’t understand what we were up against,” he said. “Once a month, we would go out and mow a 6-foot-wide trail, and we called it the Ice Age Trail.”

Initially, few people used the Janesville section. Signs were put up. After time, the trail became popular. The mowed grass wore down. The trail was turned to gravel. Eventually, it was paved.

Inline skaters, bicyclists and disabled people suddenly could use the trail. Surveys now show that 200,000 users are on the trail each year, more than pools or golf courses, Presny said.

Still building

The Ice Age Trail continues to be a work in progress. Miles of trail aren’t finished, including in southern Wisconsin.

Supporters want to connect Janesville and Milton to the east and Riverside Park and the Robert O. Cook Memorial Arboretum to the west.

Supporters also would like to see the trail connect to Green County and the Sugar River Trail and to Walworth County and the Kettle Moraine State Forest.

“Once we link with those two destinations … you would have hundreds of miles of trail,” Presny said.

Guisleman hopes the trail will be finished in his lifetime, but he doubts that will happen. The trail has been a 60-year project.

“We certainly have come a long way,” he said.

Last updated: 1:42 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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