“Old 53 through Chippewa, past Leinie’s, Zoos, and Fairs”
Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 124 is a short-but-sweet route that follows the original U.S. 53 route from Lake Hallie through the heart of Chippewa Falls before mainlining through the beautiful farmlands of rural Chippewa County before ending near Bloomer. It’s the primary access point for the Leinenkugel Brewery, the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, the lovely Irvine Park Zoo, and Chippewa Falls’ downtown.
Highway 124 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North): State “Trunk” Highway 124 begins at the interchange with the U.S. 53 freeway and County OO on the north side of Eau Claire near the border with Lake Hallie. Owing to the fact that much of this stretch is the original U.S. 53 highway from decades back, you’ll also see “Business U.S. 53” signs at times.
From a short connector with the freeway, Highway 124 heads north through Lake Hallie. While no longer the main road to Chippewa Falls, with the four lanes, wide divider, and many business lining the route you can tell this was once the primary road between Eau Claire and Superior.
As you approach the end of Lake Hallie, Highway 124 meets up with Business 29, the original Highway 29 before the freeway bypass was constructed. This short stretch is like a mini expressway, with an interchange at Park Avenue that was part of the historic Yellowstone Trail. This stretch of Highway 124 is now Bridge Street, which uses said bridge to leapfrog the Chippewa River and drop you right into Chippewa Falls.
Highway 124 heads into Chippewa Falls (pop. 14,047), the seat of Chippewa County. Named after a falls on the Chippewa River that’s now a large hydroelectric dam, Chippewa Falls calls itself “Gateway to the North Woods.” It was also the gateway to the supercomputer, being home to Seymour Cray, the famous engineer who took supercomputers to a whole new level in the latter half of the 20th century. From Minneapolis-based CDC to his own company, Cray Research (you may have heard of the Cray-2 supercomputer, for example), Seymour Cray played a key role in making computers what they are today.
Check out our State Trunk Tour Podcast about Chippewa Falls:
Recently redesigned, the downtown area is accessed via a roundabout with Business 29 and then Highway 124 splits into northbound and southbound one-way streets; northbound is High Street while southbound, two blocks to the west, is Bay Street. Duncan Creek flows just to the east of Highway 124 here, and several cool bridges span the waterway; to the west, numerous downtown buildings. They include shops, restaurants, the Chippewa County Courthouse, and the Heyde Center for the Arts, a cultural center that opened on High Street right downtown in a former high school in 2000. The building, constructed in 1907, is a beautiful Neoclassical structure and today hosts a variety of performances, concerts, films, the visual arts, and more.
Just west of downtown from Highway 124 via westbound Business 29, a one-half mile trek or so brings you to the Brewster Brothers Brewing Company & Chippewa River Distillery. Opened in 2016, this combination brewery and distillery is full of experimentation.
Leinenkugel Brewery Alert!
Just past downtown as Highway 124 becomes a two-lane street again, you’ll find one of the most iconic brands in Chippewa Falls: the Leinenkugel Brewing Company. A landmark in town since 1867, Jacob Leinenkugel and his business partner John Miller were lured to Chippewa Falls by the prospect of a town with 2,500 thirsty lumberjacks and no brewery. It turned out to be a wise business move. Leinenkugel’s is famous for beers like Leinenkugel’s Original (originally called “Chippewa Pride”), Summer Shandy, Honey Weiss, Cream Ale, Big Butt Doppelbock (ya hear that, Sir Mix-A-Lot??), Sunset Wheat, Classic Amber…the list goes on and on! Tours are available year-round, every day except major holidays. Check the tour link or call (888) LEINIES for details.
Chippewa Falls is known to giddy female movie-goers worldwide in the late 1990s as the hometown of Jack Dawson, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the movie epic Titanic. The famous hole in the script deals with Lake Wissota, which actually did not exist when Titanic sunk — it was developed in 1916, when work on a dam created the now-famous body of water.
Chippewa Falls is home to the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, which serves this part of the state with plenty of State Fair-style fun, events, animal showcases, concerts, and more. It has since 1897, back when it was a lot tougher for northern Wisconsin residents to get to the main fair in West Allis. The grounds are just north of the Leinenkugel Brewery right along Highway 124, and the main entrance is just two blocks to the east along Edward Street. The grounds host various other events throughout the year, including a fun annual Oktoberfest celebration.
A true gem right across the street along Highway 124 is Irvine Park (pronounced “ER-vin”.) It was founded as a city park in 1906 and opened a zoo three years later with a bear pen. Today, this half-square mile complex offers the Irvine Park Zoo, a free zoo with an impressive array of animals. On displays are tigers, cougars (no, the cat kind), lemurs, fishing cats, hyenas, porcupines, and more. A petting zoo area allows children to pet and feed donkeys and goats – and adults can probably feed the animals, too. The grounds beyond offer open areas where – literally – the buffalo roam. A drive along those enclosed grounds will often reveal bison feeding on grains or grass or just hanging out.
Irvine Park also offers historic structures including the Sunny Valley School, a historic schoolhouse that was moved to the park in 1965 and offers tours on weekends. The 146-foot long “Rumble Bridge” was built over a ravine in 1907, shortly after the park opened. This interesting pony truss structure features diagonal wooden deck slats fastened at only one end – hence the “rumble” when vehicles crossed the bridge. The bridge stopped carrying vehicle traffic in 1981. It’s only for pedestrians now (and perhaps cross-country skiers in winter) and it’s fun to explore, cross, and admire. Irvine Park also features a cave with natural springs that once served as a storage facility for a early brewery in town – no, it was Leinenkugel’s. The cave doesn’t go very deep, but it gets dark in there quickly!
North of Chippewa Falls
As Chippewa Falls fades, Highway 124 makes a beeline north through the farmlands of Chippewa County. This is where U.S. 53 headed north for nearly a half century before the U.S. 53 freeway opened in 1972. But for decades, this was one of the busiest roads in northwest Wisconsin. Right near the 45th parallel crossing, you’ll find a historic marker noting the Nation’s First Cooperative Generating Station. Formed in 1937, it brought much-needed electric power to a wide swath of rural Wisconsin from Buffalo and Trempealeau Counties over to Rusk, Sawyer, and Taylor. The generating plant lasted until 1975. While long dismantled, this first for the nation definitely deserved a marker!
After passing through tiny Eagleton, Highway SS heads west towards Bloomer; this is where U.S. 53 left this stretch from 1926 to 1972. The remaining two miles of highway was always the original Highway 124 – all of it.
Highway 124 comes to its northern end at Highway 64, about five miles east of Bloomer. You can connect nearby to Highway 40, which goes north well into the forests or west to Bloomer itself, the “Jump Rope Capital” of the nation. Maybe you should skip over there! (Bad pun, we know, but we’ve literally come to the end of the road.)
Can connect immediately to: U.S. 53, Business U.S. 53
Can connect nearby to: Highway 29, about 1/2 mile north; Business 29, about 2 miles north; the Yellowstone Trail, about 2 miles north; Highway 312, about 3 miles south
Can connect immediately to: Highway 64
Can connect nearby to: Highway 40, U.S. 53