26

STH-026“O-town to J-ville”

 

WisMap26Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 26 is becoming an increasingly major feeder route between Oshkosh and Janesville. A primary route through and around towns like Waupun, Juneau, Watertown, Jefferson, Fort Atkinson and Milton, Highway 26 and its “Business” routes take you through a lot of “main streets,” lets you find the first kindergarten in the nation, brings you right past an actual Underground Railroad stop from the 1850s, offers dinner theatre of Broadway caliber, and access to burgers at old-fashioned drive-ins and amazingly tiny stands… all while providing access to outlet mall shopping, high-speed alternate routes and other major routes in the state.

Wisconsin Highway 26 Road Trip

The Drive (North To South):

Oshkosh

Highway 26 starts just outside of Oshkosh at I-41. Start by checking out Oshkosh (pop. 66,083) itself, Wisconsin’s eighth largest city (it’s about the same size as Janesville, Eau Claire, and Waukesha.) Oshkosh is still probably best known for it’s OshKosh B’Gosh overalls, which started getting manufactured in the city in 1895. Today they’re made elsewhere, but the corporate offices remain. Other major companies in the area include Oshkosh Truck, Bemis, and some chocolate makers like Hughes and Oaks. UW-Oshkosh is the third largest campus in the UW system with over 13,000 students, and their presence is felt through the downtown area (especially on Friday and Saturday nights.) UW-Oshkosh has some interesting accolades: it was recognized as the first “Fair Trade” university in the country in 2008, and in 2011 it was ranked “Best for Vets” in Wisconsin by Military Times EDGE Magazine (36th in the nation) and 35th nationally in Sierra magazine’s “Cool Schools” survey.

Oshkosh lies along Lake Winnebago, right where the Fox River empties into it from the west. Roughly 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, Lake Winnebago is the largest lake in the nation that lies entirely within one state. Most days from Oshkosh, you can see across the lake to the bluffs that form part of the Niagara Escarpment on the eastern shore. Rather shallow (average depth is about 15 feet), the lake is very popular for swimming and boating, and definitely for fishing at all times of the year. Shallow waters make for fast ice freezes in winter; the city and surrounding towns on the lake often plow roads on the surface; among the most popular fishing times is February, during spearfishing season for sturgon. On the northwest side of Oshkosh is Lake Butte des Morts, an 8,800 acre lake that was largely created by damming the Fox River near Menasha in the 19th century. Like Winnebago, Butte des Morts is shallow and very popular for fishing. The size of the lake necessitated a causeway for U.S. 41 to cross it in the 1950s; a newer, higher bridge opened in 2013 to accommodate heavier traffic flow as U.S. 41 became I-41 while also freeing up water flow that the old causeway had been interrupting for decades. “Butte des Morts” itself means “Hill of the Dead” in French; early explorers gave the name in reference to a nearby Native American burial mound.

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Downtown Oshkosh, featuring the Civil War Monument. And yes, this is as high as the skyline gets.

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Downtown Oshkosh features a number of interesting buildings and landmarks, including the Grand Opera House (100 High Avenue, 920-424-2350). The first fat lady sang there in 1883 and it was an early addition (1974) to the National Register of Historic Places. A refurbishment was completed in 2010 and today the Grand Opera House seats 600 and hosts a variety of events. Other notables include the Paine Art Center & Gardens (1410 Algoma Blvd., 920-235-6903), which has a beautiful botanical garden area and features events all year; the Oshkosh Public Museum (1331 Algoma Blvd., 920-236-5799) features exhibitions and permanent attractions like the 8-foot-tall Apostles’ Clock from 1895, an interactive exhibit called Grandma’s Attic, and more, all housed in a Tiffany Studios-designed home built in 1908. The Military Veterans Museum (4300 Poberezny Road, 920-426-8615) sits just north of where Highway 26 begins at I-41 and houses an impressive collection of military vehicles, artifacts, and more.

Heading southwest out of the city, you approach Highway 26 by taking Highway 44 south to I-41, and then 41 south to where 26 begins (a little over two miles south). Along the way, you pass Wittman Regional Airport, which opened in 1927. Wittman is normally fairly quiet but becomes the world’s busiest airport for one week during the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Fly-In every July.

From I-41 right by Wittman Field, Highway 26 heads southwest out of the Oshkosh area, barreling through farmland into Fond du Lac County and Rosendale (pop. 923), noted mainly for its intersection with Highway 23 and the local police enthusiasm for writing speeding tickets – so watch your speed going through town!

Further south, Highway 26 hooks up with U.S. Highway 151, where it becomes a freeway for just over a mile before breaking off and heading into the first major town past Oshkosh, Waupun (pop. 10,718). Long known for holding Wisconsin’s primary state prison, Waupun is also billed the “City of Sculptures”, being the home of famous sculptor Clarence Shaler and a series of his works. Sculptures like End of the Trail, Who Sows Believes In God, Dawn of Day, and Morning of Life grace the city in various parks and streetsides. Waupun also serves as a northwestern gateway to the Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. The Marsh Haven Center, just east on Highway 49, is a nature education center offering hiking paths and an observation tower at the edge of the Marsh itself.

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Highway 49 cuts through the heart of Waupun as the main street, still cutting the county line; Dodge County is to the south, Fond du Lac County is to the north. Highway 26 is the main north-south crossroad.

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Throughout the city, the sculptures show up to greet you. This one above is called The Citadel.

Waupun has held Wisconsin’s primary state prison site since 1851, when it was selected due to its “proximity to transportation and readily available building materials in the area”, according to the Department of Corrections’ historical site. Back in the day, Wisconsin’s justice system was considered so efficient, a popular chant in Milwaukee was once “crime on Sunday, Waupun on Monday”, indicating that infractions would be met with swift action. This was before a lot more lawyers showed up. The Wisconsin Historical Society page on the Waupun Correctional Facility reports that in 1878, sales of the goods manufactured by the prisoners produced enough revenue to run the prison without drawing from the state’s treasury. Wouldn’t that be nice now? You can find the State Prison south of Highway 49 along Madison Street, also known as County M.

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South Cell Hall was originally built in the 1850s; its walls still stand today.

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These are the walls in the question, built in the 1850s, that still stand today.

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The prison’s history makes it an easy candidate for the State Register of Historic Places.

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Another civic building in Waupun, featuring yet another statue in its front yard – this one is west along 49 a bit from 26 (click to enlarge).

Highway 26 runs through Waupun, just west of the U.S. 151 bypass before crossing it again and making a beeline south into the heart of Dodge County. The Wild Goose State Trail, a 34-mile rail-to-trail right-of-way from Fond du Lac to Clyman Junction, runs just to the east and there are many access points along the way. Minnesota Junction (which, ironically, doesn’t look that much like Minnesota at all) provides a junction with Highway 33 and, shortly thereafter, Dodge County Airport. From there, it’s a short hop into Dodge’s county seat, Juneau (pop. 2,485). Juneau the city has nothing to do, ironically, with Juneau County… that lies about 60 miles to the west. It’s not named after Milwaukee’s first mayor Solomon Juneau either, but rather his son Paul, whose mother (and Solomon’s wife) Josette was the daughter of a local Indian chief. Juneau itself hosts the Dodge County Courthouse and several nice parks. Highway 26 goes through the heart of town and has a brief jog west before heading south again out of town.

After a brief junction with Highway 60, which joins Highway 26 for about one mile, Highway 16 joins Highway 26 for the ride past Clyman (pop. 388) towards Watertown. It’s pretty much open land for this section, but it’s worth checking out Dickie Lee’s Whacky Shack (920-696-3563) for a bite or beverage and some good immature humor.

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Methinks there’s a double entendre in this business establishment’s name along Highway 26 near Clyman, but maybe it’s just me.

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Perhaps part of an old gas station, this charming little sight is just north of Watertown along Highway 26 while it’s joined with Highway 16 in Dodge County. It may have been moved since the expansion to four lanes, we’re checking.

Highway 16 breaks off as a bypass to the southeast and Highway 26’s mainline begins a bend around western Watertown (pop. 21,598), which is actually the largest city along Highway 26 between its two terminal cities of Oshkosh and Janesville. We follow the traditional city route, so use “Business” 26 into the heart of town. Otherwise, there’s not much to experience!

Watertown was the second-largest city in the state back in 1855 and launched the first kindergarten in 1856. It can be found – and toured – on the grounds of the Octagon House, an 1854 structure built by one of the city’s founders, John Richards, to fulfill a promise to his sweetheart (he promised to built her the finest house in Wisconsin Territory if she would marry him. This was before the days of just using a stadium message board to ask.) The “water” in Watertown comes from the Rock River, which winds through the city.

Heading into downtown Watertown, crossing into Jefferson County, you reach an intersection with Highway 19. Downtown is to the east a few blocks on Highway 19 (aka Main Street) and is fairly extensive, featuring a number of shops and late 1800s-era buildings. A nice stop is Mullen’s Dairy Bar, a throwback malt shop-type place that opened in 1931. An aggressive Main Street program is paying off and walking around, back and forth over the Rock River, is a great way to stretch your legs as you check out everything from clothing stores to taverns and historic bank buildings. The “water” in Watertown indeed comes from the Rock River, which winds through the city. Twice.

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Amid a typical Wisconsin middle-class neighborhood on the southeast side of Watertown lies the historic Octagon House, built in 1854 to fulfill a whipped guy’s promise.

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In case you want detail on the historic marker…

A left from 26 onto Highway 19/Business 16 brings you to the Main Street in Watertown. The city’s downtown is fairly extensive and features a number of shops, along with Mullen’s Dairy Bar, a great throwback malt shop-type place that opened in 1931. An aggressive Main Street program is paying off and walking around, back and forth over the Rock River, is a great way to stretch your legs as you check out everything from clothing stores to taverns and historic bank buildings.

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Up for a malt, ice cream or other sweet concoction from an old-fashioned, authentic soda fountain place? Mullen’s Dairy Bar in downtown Watertown offers items for your taste buds and cool items to look at from the store’s early days.

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The main drag in Watertown, which is Highway 19 – and was U.S. 16 until 1962. Today, this section is also “Business” Highway 16. Highway 26’s original route cuts right through on the west edge of the downtown strip; the bypass today is a little over a mile further west.

Heading south from Watertown, Highway 26’s mainline meets the original road again at speeds southward seven miles to a major crossroads in the form of I-94. At the junction with the Interstate, which will only get more congested in the future, is a sprawling complex of development: the Johnson Creek Outlet Mall, truck stops, an array of restaurants, big-box stores and a multiplex movie theater are all rapidly making this a focal point for shoppers in Jefferson County and beyond.

The apex is part of rapidly-growing Johnson Creek (pop. 2,012), which calls itself “Crossroads With A Future… and a Past.” Johnson Creek’s (called “JC” by the hip and trendy… sorta) focus used to be along present-day County B and County Y, which were the old highways 30 and 26, respectively. The old downtown is still there, west of Highway 26 along County B, about one mile southwest as the crow flies from the current I-94/Highway 26 interchange. It’s rather quiet and pleasant amid the booming development taking place all around it, especially to the north and east. One piece of Johnson Creek history is The Gobbler, which you can learn about in this great piece from the Capitol Times, from this note from HotelChatter and in our “salute” to the right. Groovy, baby!

 
State Trunk Tour Salute:
The Gobbler

Just west Highway 26 and south of I-94 lies a well-recognized old supper club, restaurant and motel called The Gobbler. It opened in 1967 and looks like something The Jetsons would have appreciated due to its completely round design for the supper club; the adjacent motel (featuring round beds, hot tubs, etc.) was burned down by the JCFD in 2001. You can read a non-glowing – yet hilarious – review of the old Gobbler here. A bigger, extensive salute to the Gobbler can be found on this blog, featuring tons of links and pictures.

gobbleroldThe Gobbler was hip when it opened in 1967; “groovy” hadn’t quite gone into the mass use yet.. This page from their original pamphlet (left) indicates the era; below is how the main building looked in 2014 after it had been closed for years. It has since reopened as the Gobbler Theater, and we’ll get updated info posted soon!

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26maltaway_500South of Johnson Creek, Highway 26 returns to a busy 2-lane over farm fields and railroads, passing a large malting plant once owned by Ladish, now owned by Cargill. From I-94 or the hilltops by Johnson Creek Outlet Mall or the nearby Days’ Inn, they almost look like a city skyline of old office buildings; from up close, not quite.

Bypass Alert: Jefferson

Not too far south of Johnson Creek, a bypass of Jefferson opened up in 2011 to connect with an existing “Super-2” bypass of Fort Atkinson that opened in the early 2000’s. The bypass around Fort Atkinson is now four lanes also. Use the bypass if you’re in a hurry to get to Milton or Janesville; however, for the full State Trunk Tour experience, we’ll follow the traditional path through the towns! These are called “Business 26”.

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Left: Highway 26 zooms around Jefferson and Fort Atkinson on a 4-lane freeway bypass, so you can save time if you want. But the full experience comes with going through town! Right: On the north end of the Highway 26 bypass, “Business” 26, the traditional route, branches off near the huge Cargill plant. Follow Business 26 south to go through the heart of Jefferson and then Fort Atkinson.

“Old”/Business 26 heads into Jefferson (pop. 7,338), the namesake county seat that calls itself “the Gemuetlichkeit City”, referring to the friendliest of German heritage; ironically, Jefferson also hosted a German POW camp during World War II. Rosemary Kennedy, John F. Kennedy’s sister, spent much of her adult life in Jefferson at the St. Coletta School, which provides care for children and adults with learning disabilities. Her sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver (mother of Maria Shriver and mother-in-law of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose Wisconsin connection involves graduating from UW-Superior), created the Special Olympics in 1968 in Rosemary’s honor.

The city is located where the Rock and Crawfish Rivers meet; the Rock runs just west of downtown and parallels Highway 26 until finally ducking under it south of town. At the downtown crossroads, Highway 26 crosses U.S. Highway 18. A short jog to the west on U.S. Highway 18 lets access Jefferson Speedway, a quarter-mile track that bills itself as “Wisconsin’s Action Track”. Most of the racing action happens on Saturday nights, and during racing season hosts the Jefferson Bargain Fair every Sunday. Over 100 vendors come out to the track with various items for sale, as the smell of fuel and tires has usually dissipated by then. It’s just west of the new Highway 26 bypass.

In downtown Jefferson, meanwhile, a line of stores, taverns and several banks built with beautiful stonework line the street. To the west just south of U.S. 18 is a park that holds Jefferson Depot, the old railroad station, and newly refurbished bridge spanning the Rock River past the tracks.

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The handsome Jefferson Depot lies along the Union Pacific tracks by the Rock River in downtown Jefferson.

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This cool twin arch wood bridge spans the Rock River, connecting Jefferson’s east and west sides.

Have you checked out Wedl’s? It’s a hamburger stand and ice cream parlor – with an emphasis on the burgers. Wedl’s burgers are cooked – in lard – on a cast iron skillet over a century old. Which makes them delicious, of course. In summer, the burgers are made in an 8’x 8′ stand next to the main building – making it the smallest burger shop in America. The burgers are small – they weigh in at 1/8 pound – but they pack in a lot of great flavor, enough to have caught the attention of the Travel Channel! You’ll find Wedl’s one block east of Business Highway 26, right along U.S. 18/Racine Street in downtown Jefferson.

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Wedl’s stand – the burgers are cooked in the little shack to the right. The burgers are “smashed”, a cooking technique that turns them from round, ice cream scoop-size balls of meat into flat patties that cook quickly and thoroughly. And deliciously. If that’s not a word, it is now.

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Just south of Jefferson is Fort Atkinson (pop. 11,621), or “Fort”, as all the locals call it. A bustling town (Money Magazine recently named it “One of America’s Hottest Little Boomtowns”) set along the banks of the Rock River shortly before it widens into Lake Koshkonong, Fort Atkinson was originally Fort Koshkonong but renamed Atkinson after Henry Atkinson, the fort’s general.

Business 26, the original 26 route, goes into the heart of Fort Atkinson along the Rock River through a series of residential neighborhoods. A few jogs west and south, and you cut through Fort’s extensive downtown and head over the Rock River – just like you did in Jefferson and Watertown – past a wide variety of shops, restaurants and even some nice artwork along the waterway. You also cross U.S. 12 and Highway 89 downtown, with easy access to nearby towns.

Just off Business 26, south along the turnoff via U.S. 12 and Highway 89, is the Hoard Historical Museum, which features history of the area including Sauk warrior Black Hawk, Abraham Lincoln’s early days in the area, the “father of American dairying” (for whom the museum is named) and, next door, the National Dairy Shrine Museum, which offers plenty of interactive exhibits, displays, and artifacts covering the fine art of bovine lactation, which of course leads to milk, cheese, yogurt, and ice cream… so this is important.

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Real children actually play quite a bit in the yards in Fort, but even in the harshest weather these kids are always outside. Check this out after sundown... they're holding "fireflies" that have fiber optic lights so they look like real fireflies at night.

Real children actually play quite a bit in the yards in Fort, but even in the harshest weather these kids are always outside. Check this out after sundown… they’re holding “fireflies” that have fiber optic lights so they look like real fireflies at night.

The Fireside Dinner Theatre is located in Fort Atkinson, even though most of their auditions are held in New York. Drawing people from far and wide, the Fireside combines dining with stage entertainment, celebrating 50 years of Klopcic Family hospitality and more than 35 seasons of professional theatre. This year’s shows include Disney’s “High School Musical”, “The Witnesses” and “The Sound of Music.” The place is huge inside, and that’s just the gift shop. The Fireside is along Business Highway 26, just south of town.

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Chief Black Hawk’s legacy is well-documented across south central and southwestern Wisconsin. In some communities, he has a park or monument named after him. In Fort, it’s a tavern.

South of da Fort, Business 26 reunites with the mainline Highway 26 and it continues as a four-lane expressway traversing some rolling hills and skimming Lake Koshkonong, one of the largest lakes in Wisconsin. Koshkonong was actually man-made, created from a wide marshland the Rock River ran through. Many of us have heard about Lake Winnebago’s shallowness; Koshkonong’s rivals it, averaging only about six feet deep. A Milwaukee Bucks player could practically walk through it without having to swim or snorkel (standard disclaimer: kids, don’t try it.) A variety of access roads lead to the lake; supper clubs and restaurants also dot the roadside as you cross into Rock County, the final one for this road.

A few miles later lies Milton (pop. 5,090), where Highway 59 joins in for a few blocks as you pass the Milton House Museum, the most famous local landmark… and now a National Historic Landmark. The Milton House itself is a hexagonal stagecoach inn constructed in 1844. It has three claims to fame: it was the first poured grout building in the United States, it’s the oldest concrete building still standing in the U.S., and it’s one of 14 officially recognized stations on the Underground Railroad from the pre-Civil War days. Joseph Goodrich, Milton’s founder and a staunch abolitionist, provided the Milton House for runaway slaves on their way to Canada or points north. Goodrich was a busy guy: the same year he founded the Milton House, he founded the Milton Academy, which evolved into Milton College, which lasted until 1982. It was the oldest college in Wisconsin until it closed. Football fans know the college for its most famous alumnus, Dave Krieg, who played in the NFL for a whole lot of seasons, including some notable ones for the Seattle Seahawks.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Milton’s original name was Prairie du Lac. When settlers applied to get a post office in 1839, the name was dismissed because it sounded too similar to “Prairie du Sac”. It was renamed for Paradise Lost author John Milton, familiarized to people everywhere via Professor Jennings’ (Donald Sutherland) lecture in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Interestingly enough, two major stars from the movie (John Belushi and Thomas Hulce) either went to college or grew up in nearby Whitewater. Karma? Perhaps.

Many of Milton’s older buildings are seeing new uses as shops or even wineries. The Northleaf Winery opened in 2009 in a former wheat warehouse and blacksmith shop made primarily of lime mortar, an early form of concrete. Northleaf features two dozen wines, most bottled on-site; they specialize in pairings that include locally-made chocolates. It’s definitely worth a stop, right along the original Highway 26 through Milton. Bypass-takers can access it via the Highway 59 exit.

From Milton, Highway 26 heads a fast five miles south to Janesville (pop. 60,483), the “City of Parks”. Highway 26 enters Janesville at about the same time it crosses I-39/90 and intersects with U.S. Highway 14, which has ducked around the north and east sides of Janesville since 1952. Here, you’ll find a massive, sprawling array of stores, restaurants and travel services, since so many major highways come together here. Continuing south on Highway 26 (as Milton Avenue) brings you past the Janesville Mall, a regional shopping center, through a long commercial strip and then into some of the city’s older neighborhoods. Major companies founded in Janesville include Parker Pen and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance, neither of which are headquartered in the city anymore. Janesville does host playground equipment maker Swing N Slide, now a subsidiary of Playcore, Inc., Blain’s Farm & Fleet (a store you see many times on the State Trunk Tour), and Gray’s Brewing Company, of which more will be divulged shortly.

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Perched high above the Rock River is Janesville’s memorial to fallen Civil War soldiers.

Janesville is the home of former Senator Russ Feingold, Representative and now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (not exactly two peas in a pod), race car driver Stan Fox, even WNBA Houston Comets player Mistie Williams, daughter of Chubby Checker. Janesville hosted Wisconsin’s first state fair in 1851 on a site just south of downtown, which still holds a series of impressive, expansive older homes. Janesville is the county seat of Rock County and the largest on the Rock River, with the exception of Rockford, Illinois. Janesville’s a bit of a brewing town, too: on the west side lies Gray’s Brewing (2424 W. Court Street, still along old Highway 11, about 2 miles west of where Highway 26 ends), crafter of numerous award-winning brews. They’ve even been making cream sodas since 1856.

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Gray’s has been crafting beer and a variety of cream sodas in Janesville since 1856.

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Janesville hosted the first Wisconsin State Fair in 1851. No word on how much cream puffs cost back then.

Highway 26 angles over on a few other streets entering downtown Janesville and ends at U.S. 51, just before one final jump over the Rock River. The city’s “skyline” – to put it fairly loosely – looms along the river to the south and a series of city streets lined with historic buildings await, especially in the Courthouse District. Homes like Lovejoy Mansion (pictured below) and the Merrill-Nowlan House are registered historic places; the Lovejoy Mansion held the local YMCA’s offices for a while.

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Nearby St. Lawrence Avenue, which parallels the river and runs through the Courthouse District, overlooks downtown; lovely old mansions line the street for a good distance.

Highway 26 is a good slice of eastern and southern Wisconsin, passing right by or close to a number of historic sites and giving you a bunch of good selections for shopping, entertainment or just finding nice places to stretch out and relax. Enjoy this one! Other great routes and places to see are all around.

Highway 26 ends at it hits U.S. 51 in downtown Janesville.

Highway 26 ends at it hits U.S. 51 in downtown Janesville.

CONNECTIONS:
North Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 41
Can connect nearby to: Highway 44, about 2.5 miles north; Highway 91, about 2.5 miles north; Highway 21 about 5 miles north; U.S. 45, about 3 miles east

South Terminus:
Can connect immediately to: U.S. Highway 51, Highway 11 (the city portion)
Can connect nearby to: U.S. Highway 14, about 4 miles northeast; I-39/90, about 4.5 miles northeast

LaCrosse Brewery

16

STH-016

“La Crosse to Milwaukee the fun and historic way!”

WisMap16Quickie Summary: A former U.S. highway, State “Trunk” Highway 16 comes in from Minnesota at La Crosse and works its way toward Milwaukee through routes so popular they were supplanted by Interstates in most areas. Paralleling I-90 and/or I-94 much of the way, Highway 16 goes through many of the towns the interstate highways bypass. Highway 16 used to continue into downtown Milwaukee and across Lake Michigan on a ferry to Muskegon via the old Milwaukee Clipper, where it then ran all the way to downtown Detroit just short of the Canadian border, hey. Today, though, it ends at I-94 in Milwaukee’s western suburbs, but not before passing by a ton of interesting things along its almost 200-mile journey.

Wisconsin Highway 16 Road Trip

The Drive (West To East): Highway 16 in Wisconsin begins on, of all places, an island in the Mississippi River. You’re skipping over The Mighty Mississip. The Old Miss. The Old Man (just channeling my inner Clark W. Griswold.) Highway 16 here is multiplexed with U.S. Highways 14 & 61 and was the busiest bridge across the Mississippi River between Dubuque and St. Paul before I-90 was built just to the north in 1969.

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Highway 16, along with U.S. Highways 14 & 61, begins on an island in the Mississippi, right before the bridge that leapfrogs you into downtown La Crosse.

La Crosse

16_bridgetolcDowntown La Crosse lurks through the truss work of the 1939 bridge carrying eastbound Highway 16 back toward La Crecent, Minnesota. The hills framing La Crosse are clearly visible in the background (click on picture for larger view.)

 

 

 

 

 

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Highway 16 (along with US 14/61) enter and leave Wisconsin using each of these bridges, although the state line is several hundred yards to the west yet. This beach along the Mississippi River faces downtown La Crosse but is still in Wisconsin.

Highway 16’s bridges spanning the Mississippi River connect to La Crosse from La Crescent, Minnesota. The newer span is the Cameron Avenue Bridge, which opened in 2004; the other is the Cass Street Bridge. Opened in 1940, the Cass Street Bridge originally carried both directions of traffic; today, each bridge carries one-way.

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Downtown La Crosse, across from an island beach in the Mississippi River but is still within Wisconsin. That’s the skyline right there – if you don’t count the bluffs in the backdrop.

La Crosse statue by its tallest building

The statue of Natives playing lacrosse is fitting for the city. The city’s tallest office building, the 126-foot, 10-story U.S. Bank Place.

Entering Wisconsin here means entering La Crosse (pop. 51,818). Situated on a rare piece of flat land amidst beautiful coulees and hills, La Crosse emerged as a Native American trading post due to its position at the confluence of the Black and Mississippi Rivers. La Crosse holds a number of “quality of life” accolades, often involving low crime or livable small city status; I note USA Today also named La Crosse one of the “Top Ten Places Worldwide to Toast Oktoberfest” (more on that in a second.)

Long known as a brewery town, La Crosse was home to G. Heileman Brewing Company for almost 140 years, cranking out a variety of brands, most notably Old Style. Today, the sprawling brewery complex lies just south of Highway 16 as it comes to the surface in downtown La Crosse and continues to run as the City Brewery. The World’s Largest Six Pack is indicative of La Crosse’s fun style, and you can access this gigantic, John Blutarsky-pleasing sight by following U.S. Highway 14/61 south less than a mile once you’ve crossed the bridge into the city.

6pack_500Once Heileman and the home of Old Style, the “World’s Largest Six Pack,” which holds enough beer to fill 7.3 million cans, lives on as the storage tanks for the City Brewery, founded in 1999. City Brewery brews about a dozen of its own beers as well as Mike’s Hard Lemonade and several flavors of Arizona Tea. This is one block north of Highway 33’s western end.

La Crosse is Wisconsin’s largest city on the Mississippi River and holds the corporate headquarters of Kwik Trip, the Trane air conditioning company, and FirstLogic. This is where journalist Chris Bury got his start before moving on to Emmy Awards and little shows like Good Morning America, Nightline and World News Tonight. Model and actress Alexa Demara hails from La Crosse; FHM magazine called her “the hottest thing to come out of Wisconsin since Brett Favre’s spiral.” A century earlier, actress Minnie Dupree came out of La Crosse to a prominent career in New York theatre. Young actor Brandon Ratcliff also hails from the city.

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Paddleboats ply the Mississippi in the summer and make stops in La Crosse at Riverside Park.

It’s also a college town, home to Viterbo University, Western Wisconsin Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. In keeping with the spirit of the World’s Largest Six Pack, La Crosse also hosts one of the largest Oktoberfest celebrations in the United States and has been doing so every year since 1961.

Also at the intersection where Highway 16 meets the southern start of U.S. 53, which heads north a few blocks into the heart of downtown La Crosse where you can enjoy Historic Pearl Street. It’s filled with Civil War-era buildings, specialty shops, a microbrewery, galleries, antique shops, coffee houses and, at night, college students doing what they do best when they’re not studying. The Pearl Street Brewery, once located on Pearl Street, now sits nearby on the north side of town in a former Rubber Mills Boot factory. On the east side of downtown along 9th Street, the Swarthout Museum features changing exhibits from prehistoric to Victorian; over on 5th Street, the Children’s Museum of La Crosse has exhibits for our future leaders on three floors, along with a climbing wall for all ages. All of this can be reached by your car, or you can hop the La Crosse Trolley in the warm weather months for a little “no need for the gas pedal” tour.

La Crosse is home to the La Crosse Loggers, one of the Northwoods League baseball teams. They play at Copeland Park (aka “The Lumber Yard”), which sits north of downtown just off U.S. 53. The Loggers play a 70-game season from June through August. This is a good baseball town; it’s where MLB players Damian Miller, Scott Servais, George Williams and Jarrod Washburn all hail from.

16_gdadbluffOne of La Crosse’s most notable landforms, Granddad Bluff made an appearance in Mark Twain’s Life On The Mississippi, towers over 500 feet above the city and brilliantly reflects the afternoon sun.

 

 

 

Drive-In Watch:
Rudy’s Drive-In is one of the great ones in Wisconsin. Built in 1966, Rudy’s features roller-skating carhops and a sheltered carport where you can pull up and order your probably-unhealthy-but-delicious food from the menu sitting right out your window.

rudys800Car shows and “Cruise Nights” happen regularly throughout the summer. You can find Rudy’s two blocks west of Highway 35 along Highway 16, which is La Crosse Street here. Highway 35 basically bypasses downtown La Crosse, instead going right through neighborhoods.

Past the downtown area, Highway 16 gets close to the bluffs that line eastern La Crosse and heads northeasterly as Losey Boulevard. Approaching I-90, you’re in the busy outskirts where all the big-box stores and chain restaurants are… it’s like the ‘burbs.

Past the junction with I-90 and beyond La Crosse, the coulees and ridges dominate the landscape on all sides as farmland emerges amidst the topography. The first town you reach is West Salem (pop. 4,738), home of Pulitzer-prize winning author Hamlin Garland, the La Crosse Fairgrounds and Speedway, and two octagon-shaped houses, one of which is Garland’s homestead. Past Lake Neshonoc and an intersection with Highway 108, Highway 16 follows the relatively flat area along the La Crosse River valley – not far off the La Crosse River Trail, great for biking – and the hills, bluffs and coulees surround you, often from a distance.

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From Highway 16, Highway 108 heads north, past an “old” section of Highway 16 featuring a bridge from 1926, and zigzags north a bit through La Crosse County along part of Eggins Coulee.

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We love these old bridges. Along Highway 108 just north of today’s Highway 16, the original 16 route is still marked, heading across a creek on a bridge constructed in 1926 – and left practically unchanged since. This is in New Salem.

Sparta

Shortly after entering Monroe County is the Bicycling Capital of America, Sparta (pop. 8,648). Sparta is the western host of Fort McCoy, the eastern terminus of the La Crosse River Trail, and the northern terminus of the world-famous Elroy-Sparta Trail. All of this hubub results in a commercial strip through town where you can get just about anything. Joining Highway 71, Highway 16 goes through this commercial strip as it also crosses Highway 21, which goes into Sparta’s main downtown area before heading towards Oshkosh, and Highway 27, a key north-south route through the coulee region.

The town’s enthusiastic support of bicycling extends to street name signs that bear bike symbols. Numerous motels and B&B’s cater to the cycling crowd while downtown establishments offer supplies for your bike and sustenance for your tummy. And speaking of your tummy, the “Ben Biken BBQ Bash”, named by Governor Doyle as the Official State Barbeque Championship of the State of Wisconsin, takes place every September. Coupled with typical September weather, it might be the best weekend of the year to go check out the area. You can eat brisket and burn it off biking.

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The Deke Slayton Museum, chock full of bikes and space exhibits.

On top of bikes, Sparta has a number of attractions. Some kids who grow up in Sparta leave for big cities; Deke Slayton left for Earth’s upper atmosphere. The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum honors the astronaut, native son, and head of NASA Operations from 1963 to 1972. And that fiberglass hippo, whose mouth you putt golf balls into while playing mini-golf? Chances are, it was made in Sparta at the FAST Corp. (FAST stands for Fiberglass Animals Shapes and Trademarks.)

spartaphantFAST does business all over the world, and few companies like it exist. A drive into their lot yields a sprawling field filled with fiberglass fun: large cows, alligators, elephants that double as childrens’ slides… the list goes on. You may traverse the field and marvel at their creations, as long as you behave and don’t climb on anything. Their lot can be found by following Highway 21 to the northeast edge of town, at the junction with County Highway Q. Look for giant fiberglass things.

FAST’s work is particularly evident in its hometown. The statue of a man on a bicycle that announces your entrance into Sparta along Highway 71 and the Clydesdale outside of the local Budweiser distributor are just two of the many pieces you can find in the area.

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Made locally, “Ben Biken” greets you to the Bicycling Capital of America along Highway 71 & 16.

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Sparta’s high school nickname? The Spartans, of course! (This doesn’t encourage graduates to go to Michigan State, does it??)

Heading east from Sparta, Highway 16 crosses Interstate 90 and begins a straight shot through the Fort McCoy Military Reservation, often paralleling the interstate just a few hundred feet south. I felt like opening it up and maxing out the speedometer with such a nice straightaway, but something told me that military land but be an even worse place to break the law than a regular ol’ stretch of road. Oh, and turn your lights on for safety.

Tomah

Downtown Tomah along U.S. 12 just north of Highway 16

The Main Street boulevard through downtown Tomah, lined with historic buildings and shops. This is where all the heavy traffic between Madison and Minneapolis went before I-94.

Next up is the crossroads city of Tomah (pop. 8,419), which holds the Monroe County seat. Transportation has long been a hallmark of Tomah; it has an Amtrak station for the Empire Builder line and it’s where main highways tend to arrive and split. Pre-Interstate days, it’s where then-main roads U.S. Highways 12 and 16 split; when the interstates were built in the 1960’s, they decided to split Interstates 90 and 94 here as well. It’s considered a halfway point between Chicago and Minneapolis and definitely focuses on hospitality and logistics. Even shows of power congregate here: the Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck & Tractor Pull is one of the largest in the country and takes place every June at the Monroe County Fairgrounds, right off Highway 16 on the western edge of town. You’ll find plenty of hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, truck stops, and stores to stock up for trips. Quite a few transport companies and distribution facilities are located here. In keeping with the transportation theme, Gasoline Alley comic strip creator Frank King grew up in Tomah.

Tomah, home to Gasoline Alley creator Frank King bannerPart of the reason for Tomah’s being a center for transportation is its location where the Driftless Area of western Wisconsin meets the forests and cranberry bogs of central Wisconsin. To the west, hills; to the east, flatter forested lands perfect for growing and harvesting cranberries. Tomah is known as one of America’s cranberry capitals, with the world’s largest cranberry festival taking place in late September in nearby Warrens, which also holds the Wisconsin Cranberry Discovery Center. Heading south of out of Tomah via Highway 131, you immediately head into hills and an extensive part of Wisconsin’s Amish Country. And of course, Fort McCoy is just to the west.

Highway 16 comes into Tomah from the Fort McCoy grounds and goes right past Recreation Park, which holds the Monroe County Fairgrounds. Found just off Butts Avenue (heh-heh, heh-heh), events there include the annual Budweiser Dairyland Super National Truck & Tractor Pull, the second largest truck and tractor pull in the nation.

Highway 16 stays on the south side of town and hooks up with U.S. Highway 12 just south of downtown. Highway 131 begins here and heads south.

Continuing east from Tomah, U.S. 12 and Highway 16 two join together for the next 40-plus miles while paralleling I-90/94. This is only fitting since this was the interstate before they built the interstate. A string of towns you zoom past on the interstate become places you can check out with more care on this trip. Quaint burgs like Oakdale (pop. 297) and Camp Douglas (pop. 592) host facilities for Mill Bluff State Park, which is located right between the two.

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Landforms in this part of the state make for great state parks, including Mill Bluff, halfway between Oakdale and Camp Douglas on the Monroe-Juneau County line.

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This view from Highway 16 & U.S. 12, which closely parallels I-90/94 through Camp Douglas, shows Castle Rock. Once an island in a shallow sea, it towers above the landscape.

Camp Douglas also hosts Volk Field, which in turn hosts the Wisconsin National Guard Museum. Housed in a log lodge built in 1896, the museum contains exhibits, dioramas, video and slide programs, and a battlefield map. It also extensively covers the state’s famous 32nd Division, which Highway 32 was named after and the French regarded as Les Terribles, but they meant it in a good way for us – and them. The German Haus Restaurant offers a nice view of Castle Rock, spaetzle and bier along with parking and access the Omaha Trail, which bikers can take to Elroy.

Next up for drivers is New Lisbon (pop. 1,436), which calls itself “The Friendly City.” Highway 80 intersects here, as does the Burr Oak Winery in case you didn’t sample any German beer back in Camp Douglas.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
Kurtwood Smith (Red Forman in “That 70’s Show” is the only actor on that Wisconsin-based show who is actually from Wisconsin.

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Juneau County’s capital, Mauston, is a prime stop for stock-up items and a gateway to the rail-to-trails and scenery of the Driftless Area. Here, Highway 82 meets up with U.S. 12 & Highway 16 for a brief ride through downtown.

Next up is Mauston (pop. 4,256), which in some materials refers to itself as the “un-Dells”, referencing its close proximity to, but much more relaxed and homey approach than, nearby Wisconsin Dells. County seat of Juneau County and home to the area’s largest medical center, Mauston (rhymes with “Boston”) hosts five companies who are Fortune 500 members and is wedged between Decorah Lake to its north and One Mile Bluff to its south. Highway 82 provides access to I-90/94 to the east – as well as about twenty fast-food restaurants and tourist places featuring giant plastic things – and access to the more rugged hills toward Elroy to the west. Highway 58 heads north toward Necedah and south into the heart of the Driftless Area, too.

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Mauston’s St. Patrick Catholic Church at the end of Pine Street is one block off Highway 16, but visible around much of the town.

Through Mauston, Highway 82 goes past a slew of growing neighborhoods and several large schools, which serve communities for miles around. The larger, more rugged hills of the “Driftless Area” of Wisconsin beckon; before long, you start twisting around through valleys and past increasingly frequent rock cuts and bluffs. This is a main route for bicyclists and ATV’ers looking to take advantage of the rail-to-trail systems in southwestern Wisconsin.

After a long end-round past Sheep Pasture Bluff (no sign of sheep on this particular day), Highway 16 heads through little Lyndon Station (pop. 500) on the way towards the Dells.

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This area was once of the greatest hop-raising districts in the country, supplying breweries with a key ingredient. This marker in Lyndon Station recalls the days when an editorial in 1867 encouraged locals to “keep hopping, hoeing and hoping”, which could also be rap lyrics today.

Past Lyndon Station, I saw an interesting place: it just said “massage” and a phone number, which began with the “666” prefix. I do no further research. Shortly after that is the double-entendre named Cruisin’ Chubby’s, in which I believe dancing of some sort takes place. In between is the Dells Motor Speedway, which features a 1/3-mile semi-banked asphalt oval and hosts super late models and stock-car racing on Saturday nights. Lots of interesting places in just a few short miles.

us12us16signOnce you cross I-90/94, the Dells begin. First, you hit about two miles of thick forest; then suddenly, lights, action, and roller coaster rides begin to fill the view. Yes, you’ve reached the tourist mecca of Wisconsin Dells!

By the way, some old signs, like at left, still show 16 as a U.S. Highway, which it was from 1926 to 1978 in Wisconsin. Remember, before the Interstate this was THE way highway between Madison and Minneapolis/St. Paul. Imagine how much busier it was back in the day!

Once you cross I-90/94 at its Exit 85, the Dells area begins. First, you hit about two miles of thick forest that’s part of Rocky Arbor State Park, a 244-acre refuge from the bustling vacationland on the other side of the trees. Pine trees (which aren’t super common in the area otherwise), beautiful bluffs, hiking trails, camping, RV spaces, and more. Hunting and trapping are allowed – with a license – and the park is open in winter for winter hiking and snowshoeing. So any time of year, you can check out the 500 million year-old sandstone formations.

As you cross from Juneau into Sauk Columbia County past Rocky Arbor, one quick drop and suddenly lights, action, and roller coaster rides begin to fill the view. Yes, you’ve reached the tourist mecca of Wisconsin Dells!

Wisconsin Dells & Lake Delton

Ah, Wisconsin Dells, the “Water Park Capital of the World” and Wisconsin’s most popular vacation destination. Highway 16 comes into the area and immediately, the architecture changes. The vibe changes. And the amount of traffic changes. When people refer to “Wisconsin Dells”, they usually mean the whole area, including Lake Delton and the region up and down the Wisconsin River, whose gorgeous ‘dells’ and gorges give the area its name. Wisconsin Dells itself started out as Kilbourn City in 1857. It was named after founder Byron Kilbourn, who also played a major role in getting Milwaukee started as a city one decade earlier. Renamed Wisconsin Dells in 1931, the city set the state’s high temperature record of 114 degrees Fahrenheit five years later. But indeed, it gets cold here, too, which explains why so many waterparks offer indoor facilities. It’s also chock full of foreign workers, many of whom are college age from Eastern Europe and South America. Time magazine actually named it one of the “Best Places for College Students to Work during the Summer” in 2004, proving there’s a list for nearly everything.

For Highway 16, it all starts at the junction with Highways 13 and 23, where a ride west on 13 leads you right to I-90/94. Here, U.S. 12 leaves Highway 16 and, coupled with 23 southbound, heads into Lake Delton. This section on the west side of the Wisconsin River is where the bustling and larger resorts generally are; you’ll find roller coasters, mini golf courses, ferris wheels, waterparks, upside-down White Houses (a place called “Top Secret”), plastic pink flamingos, motels, hotels, ski jumps in bodies of water… it’s all along this stretch. The world’s largest Trojan Horse can’t be missed. I mean, it’s right there – you can even see it from Highway 16 before it turns east!

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Motels, pedestrians and stray beach balls line this stretch in Lake Delton just south of Highway 16, with skywalks allowing pedestrians to avoid traffic and/or winter; and as you can see, traffic can get heavy on this stretch. Stop and go traffic much of the time on Saturdays and Sundays in the summer is not uncommon.

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It’s hard to miss the World’s Largest Trojan Horse along U.S. 12/Highway 23 just south of the junction with Highway 16. A ride passes through it; no word on if anything else is hiding inside.

So at the big intersection where U.S. 12 leaves and heads south, Highway 16 breaks east with Highways 13 and 23, hopping over the Wisconsin River and entering the energetic strip that marks downtown Wisconsin Dells (pop. 2,418).

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At the intersection coming up, U.S. 12 and Highways 13, 16, and 23 all converge. I-90/94 is less than a mile to the west via Highway 13. The Dells’ main “strip” is to the east, along 16.

In addition to being home to the amphibious World War II vehicles known as the Wisconsin “Ducks” (which started in 1946) and Tommy Bartlett’s Water Ski & Jumping Boat Thrill Show (which made the Dells its permanent home after an amazingly successful temporary stop in 1952), Wisconsin Dells’ selection of waterparks is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

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One of the Wisconsin Ducks in front of Ripley’s, believe it or not.

This is truly a mecca of recreational vacation fun. Let’s take a look at some facts about the area around the Dells (thanks to the “Quick Facts” section of wisdells.com):

– There are 18 indoor waterpark/playground properties in the Dells, the highest concentration of such facilities in the world
– The first indoor waterpark in the nation, The Polynesian, opened here in 1989
– The largest indoor waterpark in the U.S. is the Kalahari Resort, with 125,000 square feet
– North America’s largest waterpark is Noah’s Ark, covering 70 acres, utilizing five million gallons of water and powering screaming people down three miles of waterslides
– The Wilderness Hotel and Golf Resort’s indoor and outdoor waterpark space combined covers the space equivalent to six football fieldsAnd if you want fudge shops, only Mackinac Island in Michigan can compete with the downtown strip along Highways 13/16/23. Mmmm… fudge. “The Strip” features t-shirt stores that seem to repeat every 100 feet or so. But there are also a ton of unique – or just not too common – things. Among them: Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not!” Museum, one of only two in the U.S. (the other is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming); the Rick Wilcox Theater; and waterparks a’plenty. Feel like going extreme? Extreme World features a 130-foot high bungee jump, a skycoaster and for those who prefer to stay on the ground the whole time, a big selection of go-karts and tracks.

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Plenty of sights to see along Broadway, the stretch of Highway 16 where it goes through the heart of Wisconsin Dells. Highways 13 and 23 run with 16 here, too. Nig’s Bar, pictured at night just above, is one of those places advertising itself via t-shirts that people wear (“I had a swig at Nig’s”) all over the place… you’ve probably seem them.

wisdells-cyclesthru13-16-23Basically, Highway 16 goes through the original Dells’ main strip as Broadway. This is a major crossroads in the state and marks a division for Highway 16, where it ceases to parallel Interstates for a while and begins its push into eastern Wisconsin.

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This is part of the “dells” in Wisconsin Dells. A boat ride reveals all kinds of rock formations along this stretch of the Wisconsin River. These dells were formed about 15,000 years ago during the last Ice Age.

At the east end of Wisconsin Dells, you’re suddenly in the countryside again. Highway 13 heads north towards Lake Superior (it’s a long road) and Highway 23 makes its way toward Green Lake and Sheboygan. Meanwhile, Highway 16 makes the plunge southeast and you have a long, fairly lonely ride (most traffic takes I-90/94, which parallels 16 on the other side of the Wisconsin River) towards the next town, with plenty of time to decompress from the activity in the Dells.

Portage

The next town in question is Portage (pop. 9,728), named for the Fox-Wisconsin waterway that quietly connects the two rivers, and by extension the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. What remains is now a small water pump and aeration flow system, although efforts are underway to restore the canal, whose use by boats ended in 1951 when the dam and locks making its use possible were closed.

Portage is the county seat of Columbia County and considered by many where “up North” begins. Its strategic location, once defined by a connecting waterway and Fort Winnebago, is now defined by the I-39 and I-90/94 split and junction of Highways 16, 33, and U.S. Highway 51. Still, Portage boasts a sizeable downtown that overlooks the waterway area, filled with shops and businesses catering to both tourists and residents from miles around. Writer Zona Gale hailed from Portage and used the area as a setting for her Pulitzer prize-winning play Miss Lulu Bett in 1921.

It’s home to Fort Winnebago, which protected the portage in the frontier days. Little remains of it today, but the old “Surgeon’s Quarters” are still available to view. The Old Indian Agency House is another point of interest. In keeping with part of Portage’s raison d’etre, Highway 33 crosses the Wisconsin River at this point.

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Portage includes some nice parks, like the lovely Pierre Pawquette Park, which I can only assume is named after a Frenchman.

Heading out of Portage, U.S. 51 hooks up with Highway 16 for the ride past the Swan Lake State Wildlife Area (no, this isn’t where the song came from). This is the second instance of the former U.S. highway hooking up with a current one. After a few miles, U.S. 51 departs southward for Poynette, Madison and eventually New Orleans. Highway 16 heads southeast again toward Wyocena (pop. 732), where it speeds under Highway 22 in a “Super 2”-style interchange. It may seem unnecessary, but Highway 16 once went through Wyocena and the bypass was built in the 1950s before the interstates displaced it as the main route between Milwaukee and destinations like Minneapolis and La Crosse.

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This road once carried Highway 16 through Wyocena. The highway’s role as a primary route between Milwaukee and Minnesota before the interstates necessitated a bypass in the 1950’s, which carries Highway 16 today. Other bypasses were since built at Watertown and, much more recently, Oconomowoc.

Highway 16 also ambles around the village of Rio (pop. 938), which is pronounced, please, “rhy-oh”. They had to do something to distinguish it from the Brazilian city. The lack of beaches, palm trees, Sugar Loaf Mountain and Portugese-speaking people do the same, as does the lack of crime and instability. Rio provides crossroads to access two state wildlife areas, Mud Lake and Grassy Lake (how creative can you get?)

The next actual city on Highway 16 greets you right as you hook up with Highway 60 and duck under the U.S. 151 bypass: Columbus (pop. 4,479). It’s one of 17 U.S. states that has a city named Columbus. Located on the Crawfish River and straddling Columbia and Dodge Counties, Columbus refers to itself as the “Red Bud City” and boasts largest antique mall in Wisconsin with the Columbus Antique Mall – 78,000 square feet filled with stuff across 444 booths under one roof. The Christopher Columbus Museum in the antique mall features souvenir memorabilia from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and as well as lithographs, china, tapestries, statues, and more. Columbus also has the closest Amtrak station to Madison, which is a fairly quick ride down U.S. 151 from here.

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Stretches of downtown Columbus feature an array of preserved architecture, shops and yes, a few watering holes.

Columbus has done a great job preserving architecturally significant buildings, with the entire downtown district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Architectural and photography students come to check out Jaeger’s Mill on the Crawfish River, or the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank Building (known as the “Jewel Box”), which was one of the last buildings designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan. Students of history may revel in the Sunday morning toll of the steeple bell from Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, partially made up of pieces of French canon captured during the Franco-Prussian War and presented as a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (no comments were solicited from any area French residents.)

Downtown Columbus features a wide variety of shops and draws a good number of visitors on a nice day. Highway 16/60 intersects with Highway 73 right downtown. A short jaunt along 73 (aka Park Avenue) brings you past a nice part of town, to the original 1902 Kurth Brewery building (described and pictured below), and a connection with Highway 89.

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One of the last buildings designed by famed architect Louis Sullivan, the Farmers & Merchants Union Bank draws attention with its facade. City Hall is kitty corner.

Columbus, like many Wisconsin cities, has a brewing history. Started on Park Avenue (today’s Business U.S. 151/Highway 73 at the intersection with Highway 89) in 1859, the Kurth Brewery quenched thirsty Columbusinians (or however you’d say it – Columbans, maybe?) for most of the ninety years that followed. Prohibition originally shut it down in 1920, but the Kurth Brewery managed to bounce back for 16 years after it was repealed, churning out items like Banner Beer and Blue Mound Beer throughout the 30s and 40s until it finally closed for good in 1949.

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Highway 60 snakes along the Rock River between Astico and Columbus. Highway 16 is along for the ride here, too.

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A couple enjoys the serene wayside along the Rock River just outside Columbus. The Rock eventually flows to the Quad Cities before meeting the Mississippi.

Highway 60 continues with 16 for the straight shot from Columbus to Clyman. At Clyman Junction (named for the railroad junction, not the road one), Highway 60 heads north and then east toward Hartford and Grafton. Meanwhile, we turn south and join Highway 26 for the ride south toward Watertown. It’s pretty much open land for this section, but it’s worth checking out Dickie Lee’s Whacky Shack (920-696-3563) for a bite or beverage and some good immature humor.

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Methinks there’s a double entendre in this business establishment’s name along Highway 16 near Clyman, but maybe it’s just me.

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Perhaps part of an old gas station, this charming little sight is just north of Watertown along Highway 16 while it’s joined with Highway 26 in Dodge County. It may have been moved since the expansion to four lanes, we’re checking.

Highway 16 technically runs as a bypass to the southeast that was built in 1962 and skirts the outer edge of Watertown (pop. 21,598), while Highway 26 leaves to bypass the city to the west on a new route opened in 2013. But for the true State Trunk Tour experience, follow Business 16 – the traditional city route – into town! Heading into downtown Watertown, crossing into Jefferson County, you reach an intersection with Highway 19, which you join eastbound because that’s also Business 16. Downtown is fairly extensive, featuring a number of shops and late 1800s-era buildings. A nice stop is Mullen’s Dairy Bar, a throwback malt shop-type place that opened in 1931. An aggressive Main Street program is paying off and walking around, back and forth over the Rock River, is a great way to stretch your legs as you check out everything from clothing stores to taverns and historic bank buildings.

octagonhousemarker_267hiWatertown was the second-largest city in the state back in 1855 and launched the first kindergarten in 1856. It can be found – and toured – on the grounds of the Octagon House, an 1854 structure built by one of the city’s founders, John Richards, to fulfill a promise to his sweetheart (he promised to built her the finest house in Wisconsin Territory if she would marry him. This was before the days of just using a stadium message board to ask.) The “water” in Watertown comes from the Rock River, which winds through the city. Twice.

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Amid a typical Wisconsin middle-class neighborhood on the southeast side of Watertown lies the historic Octagon House, built in 1854 to fulfill a guy’s promise.

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Up for a malt, ice cream or other sweet concoction from an old-fashioned, authentic soda fountain place? Mullen’s Dairy Bar in downtown Watertown offers items for your taste buds and cool items to look at from the store’s early days.

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The main drag in Watertown, which is Highway 19 – and was U.S. 16 until 1962. Today, this section is also “Business” Highway 16.

The first crossing of the Rock River is downtown where all the murals are; the second crossing is on east side of town at a park where walking trails, pedestrian bridges, and even fishing piers with carp-specific disposal bins are available(?)

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A nice summer day along the Rock River in Watertown. Water levels can vary greatly – we’ve seen this park submerged before.

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Highway 19/Business 16 ends as it merges into today’s Highway 16 east of Watertown, heading towards Oconomowoc. Highway 19 once continued with 16 all the way to Milwaukee; it was truncated back to Watertown in 1947.

Highway 16 continues east from Watertown and parallels the Canadian Pacific railroad through northeast Jefferson County. The road juts over the north end of Ixonia‘s (pop. 2,902) main crossroads. Technically still a town rather than a village or city (but probably not for long, given the recent growth), its name came from a little girl. As explained in the Ixonia Heritage Book Index, which illustrated the naming debate going on when the town first split from the Town of Union in 1846: “To satisfy all factions, it was agreed to put the letters of the alphabet on slips of paper and have young Mary Piper draw them until a word was formed that could be used as the town name. The result was Ixonia.”

It goes on to say that it’s the only Ixonia in the country. I’ll bet you’re just as shocked as I am by that revelation.

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The BP along Highway 16 in Ixonia salutes “crusin'” along the highway.

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In autumn, vast farm fields turn colors just as leaves on the trees do. This field between Watertown and Ixonia turns a brilliant yellow on a sunny September day.

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Wisconsin was the first governmental body to identify roads by number. The first actual markers went up along this section of Highway 16 (originally Highway 19) in 1917. Click on the picture to enlarge, and then you can read all the text!

East of Ixonia, a cozy little wayside at the Rock River crossing features the historical marker detailing Wisconsin’s status as the first governmental body in the world to number its roads.

History here is indicated not only by the route marker, but by evidence of the original U.S. Highway 16 and State Highway 19 from the 1920s, the remnants of which are still visible in broken-up pavement paralleling the new road just to the south by 100-200 feet between the Rock River crossing and the exit where Highway 16 either goes into, or bypasses, Oconomowoc.

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Part of the original U.S. 16 (which was actually WIS 19), a road dating back before it was numbered in 1917. Can you imagine this as a main road between Milwaukee and Minneapolis?

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Here’s that same stretch of 16 once things green up. The prettiness of the area cannot be debated.

Oconomowoc

**Bypass Alert**
Highway 16 – technically – now runs around the north and east ends of Oconomowoc on an expressway bypass that, although planned since 1960, opened in 2007. If you want to save about five minutes, follow the bypass. To see the town – which you should do – follow Wisconsin Avenue (now known as “Old” 16) at the exit simply marked “Oconomowoc”. Wisconsin Avenue re-joins Highway 16 automatically on the east end of the city.

Oconomowoc (pop. 12,382) is a ten-letter city, five of which are o’s. Native American for “gathering place of the beaver” (according to one translation), it’s probably also the only Oconomowoc in the world, too, just like Ixonia. And Waunakee. And a bunch of other Wisconsin places.

Oconomowoc, built around Lac La Belle, Fowler Lake and Oconomowoc Lake, is at the western edge of Waukesha County’s “Lake Country” and served as a resort town for wealthy Americans as far back as the 1870’s, earning it the nickname “Newport of the West.” A host of American presidents throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s visited Oconomowoc, and some of the mansions where they stayed can be seen on walking tours around town.

State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
The first premiere of Wizard of Oz was in Oconomowoc, at the Strand Theater on August 12, 1939, thirteen days before it opened nationwide. You can find the site of the Strand in front of today’s Oconomowoc City Hall, on Wisconsin Avenue – Historic Highway 16.
Brewfinity Brewing's Jorge jalapeno beer in a can

Brewfinity’s Jorge jalapeno beer, a State Trunk Tour favorite.

*** Brewery Alert ***
On the way into Oconomowoc on the city/”old” Highway 16 route you can reach Brewfinity, a craft brewery that originally opened as the Sweet Mullets Brewing Company in 2014. Brewfinity offers a variety of beers, including an unusually good and flavorful jalapeno beer called Jorge, which does a great job offering up the flavor of a jalapeno pepper without the heat. How do they do that? Something about not using the inner ribbing of the pepper. Regardless, it’s good. If you’re eastbound on Highway 16, just follow the Oconomowoc exit to “old” Highway 16/Wisconsin Avenue. About one mile down, follow Division Street south to Industrial Road. It’s a residential area going into a light industrial area, just follow the signs – because nobody “happens” across the building where Brewfinity is located. But inside, you’ll find a great Tap Room with a food menu and a good variety of craft beers.

Oconomowoc does a lot of things, including baking bread that goes all over the country: the Brownberry Ovens plant, home to delicious baking bread smells since Catherine Clark opened her first bakery there in 1946, can create some nice smells near downtown. Brownberry Ovens is now a subsidiary of Canadian conglomerate George Weston Limited, the same company that provides Entenmann’s, Thomas’ muffins and Boboli pizza crust. You can buy it at the source in the store along Summit Avenue right in front of the factory.

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Once the city’s main connection to the rest of the world, Oconomowoc’s old depot on Collins Street is now a restaurant and bar featuring a nice array of railroad memorabilia.

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In the spring breeze, a pier into Lac La Belle offers views and access to one of the area’s most beautiful lakes.

Along Wisconsin Avenue into town, you cross Main Street, the old Highway 67. The headquarters of five-state pizza chain Rocky Rococo is also at this intersection, though you have to go down to 1075 Summit Avenue to imbibe in their deep-dish slices. The main shopping district for the city is east along Wisconsin and further north along Main, where you’ll find old timers like Boelter’s Shoes. Plenty of boutique shops, antique stores, bars, restaurants, and more flank both sides of Wisconsin Avenue; Lac La Belle and then Fowler Lake are just to the north by a block or so.

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A roundabout now circulates traffic heading into the Main Street strip in Oconomowoc. You’ll encounter it following 16’s “city” route. The city’s “five O’s” make for a nice centerpiece, especially at night when they use a variety of colored lights.

Continuing east as Wisconsin Avenue, Highway 16’s mainline re-joins on the east side of town and begins its stretch as a freeway, which it stays as until it terminates. But the historic route offers some great things to check out along the way!

*** Drive-In Alert ***
The Kiltie (262-567-2648), along old 16 just south of the Highway 16/County P interchange, dates back to 1946 and serves up great burgers, sides, malts and more on the old fashioned window tray. As a resident of Oconomowoc during my toddler years, I believe the burger I ever ate was at the Kiltie. There have been many, many more since.

The Kiltie, one of our classic Wisconsin drive-ins

At the exit for the Kiltie (Highway P/Brown Street), you can follow the old, old original Highway 16 through Okauchee, a nice little burg nestled within the multiple arms of Okauchee Lake. Go just north of the freeway along P, turn right along Wisconsin Avenue and follow it through town; you’ll be able to hook back up with the freeway on the east side of town. While Okauchee doesn’t have anything “touristy”, there are a lot of beautiful views on the streets around and plenty of good places for food and drink. Highly recommended for a nice dinner is the Golden Mast (1270 N. Lacy’s Lane, 262-567-7047), which has been there for over five decades and offers beautiful lake views and tasty German fare, brunches, and fish fries. Other great stops include Bertrand’s Point Comfort Place (N52W35002 Lake Drive, 262-569-9700), Foolery’s Liquid Therapy (N52W35091 Lake Drive, 262-912-6777), which can get wild at night and offers deck seating along the lake), and a slew of other bars and restaurants in the area.

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Okauchee has been a solid settlement since the 1840s. Its namesake lake is extremely popular with boaters and a variety of homes, restaurants and bars line the lakeshore, as well as the main street through town. A clock tower in the roundabout is where you can follow Wisconsin Avenue back towards the freeway; the historic marker gives you some interesting details about Okauchee’s past.

Since the mid-1970s, the rest of Highway 16 has been a four-lane freeway. The original road went through Okauchee, Nashotah and Hartland, charming lake villages and towns winding past Waukesha County’s Lake Country. This area combines hills common to the Kettle Moraine area with lakes that surround the towns. Jumping off Highway 16 along this stretch, including past the interchange with Highway 83, makes for a series of pleasant rides. County C, which runs north to Chenequa and Stone Bank and south to Delafield, is part of the Kettle Moraine Scenic Drive. The exit at County E, which takes you into Hartland, is also part of the Ice Age National Scenic Trail.

Eventually, Highway 16 turns south for the final stretch to I-94. Way back when, Highway 16 followed Capitol Drive (now Highway 190) all the way into Milwaukee. Later, it followed Blue Mound Road (now U.S. 18) into Milwaukee and followed a car ferry across Lake Michigan to Muskegon, then as part of the Grand River Road across Michigan into downtown Detroit. Today, it ends at I-94 on the Pewaukee/Waukesha boundary in the heart of a booming area with plenty of things to do.

Pewaukee (pop. 13,195) surrounds the eastern end of seven-mile long Pewaukee Lake. It can be accessed from the Ryan Drive exit to follow the old 16 road, or via the Highway 190/Capitol Drive exit (Exit #187) – heading west from the interchange will lead you to the lake. The main street fronting the lake was recently rebuilt with a series of storefronts that feature everything from a bike shop to a sub shop to salons and a blend of restaurants. The beach bustles with swimmers and sunbathers all summer, and lake homes – both new and old – stretch along the north and south shores of the lake. The boating theme is appropriate; Pewaukee holds the world headquarters of Harken, Inc., a leading manufacturer of sailboat hardware and accessories.

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Next to the beach, across from stores and restaurants, a pier juts out into Pewaukee Lake. Plenty of people enjoy fishing on this particular summer day. Extending east from this area is Capitol Drive, where Highway 190 begins just west of the freeway junction with today’s Highway 16. This stretch is where the original Highway 16 came through.

Today’s Highway 16 bends around the north and east sides of Pewaukee as a freeway. It’s bypassed Pewaukee since the 1940s, when this stretch was built as a 2-lane road bypass before the freeway upgrade in the 1970s. After junctions with 190/Capitol and County JJ, which connects to Waukesha County Technical College and a major complex for GE Healthcare, Highway 16 ends on a flyover ramp on its way to join eastbound I-94 for the ride into Milwaukee.