Quickie Summary: State “Trunk” Highway 17 is a connector road between up North vacation and recreation hotspots, connecting U.S. 51 travelers to Rhinelander, Eagle River, and many of the myriad lakes in Vilas County. If you’ve ever camped, fished, snowmobiled or hung out in a lakeside vacation home in the North Woods, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve used Highway 17.
The Wisconsin Highway 17 Road Trip
The Drive (South to North): Although it starts on the outskirts of the town today at the interchange with U.S. 51 and Highway 64, prior to the late 1980s Highway 17 used to start in Merrill at the former U.S. 51 before the freeway was built. And since we don’t like to bypass towns on the State Trunk Tour unless we’re in a hurry, we’ll start at the former terminus.
Highway 17’s historical beginning is at the junction of County Highways K (the original U.S. 51) and G (the original Highway 17, also known as 14th Street). This is just north of downtown Merrill (pop. 9,364), which you can check out by going south on County K (Center Ave.) to 1st Street (Highway 64). Merrill lies along the Wisconsin River, “the hardest working river in the world.”
Merrill was originally called Jenny Bull Falls when it was founded in 1843. It was changed to Merrill in 1881 in honor of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad’s general manager, S.S. Merrill (yes, it sounds more like a boat, but he actually managed the railroad.) During this decade of Merrill’s history, they became a leader in Wisconsin for the number of those newfangled telephones put into operation, named its first mayor, cranked out a boatload of lumber – 150 million board feet of lumber and 86 million shingles in 1892 alone – and even introduced some transit.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
|Merrill was one of the first cities in the U.S. to make use of electric streetcars, introducing them in 1890.
Downtown Merrill is accessed via County K or Highway 64; it’s worth checking out. A pair of one-way streets mark Highway 64’s run through the heart of town, which features two beautiful government buildings: the original Merrill City Hall and the Lincoln County Courthouse. Merrill City Hall sits where Highway 64 forks into one-way streets downtown; completed in 1889, this Queen Anne-style structure held city offices until 1977. Today, it’s one of the most beautiful apartment buildings in northern Wisconsin. The Lincoln County Courthouse by the river features a prominent clock tower.
Along Highways 64 on the west side of Merrill right at the junction with Highway 107, you’ll find a beautiful triple arch bridge crossing, constructed in 1904, crossing the Prairie River right before it merges with the Wisconsin. Several sights are here as part of a city park. First is the bridge itself, whose striking design must be appreciated from the river level below.
Next is the T.B. Scott Free Library, which originally opened in 1889 inside City Hall but moved to its current “Prairie style” building in 1911. It was one of the first “traveling libraries” in the state and the first to offer English classes for immigrants, which they started back in 1905. In between the bridge and the library, a quirky statue known as the “River Rat” pays tribute to the loggers who rode logs and helped ensure the wood cut down in forests upstream made it safely to the mills downstream… often by riding on the logs themselves.
Commune with nature and get beautiful views of the Wisconsin River in Council Grounds State Park., on the northwest side of Merrill via Highway 107. This 508-acre park abuts the Wisconsin River on grounds that once held Native American encampments. The dense forests, hiking trails, fishing and hunting opportunities, and campgrounds offer a peaceful and fun place to hang out, along with some beautiful views of the Wisconsin River. In season, you can rent canoes to ply the river and Lake Alexander or launch your boat (just watch out for canoes.)
Okay – NOW we’re off on Highway 17!
From Merrill, Highway 17 makes a beeline northeast across the woods and farms of Lincoln County, past small hamlets like Gleason (where the 1983 horror flick The Devonsville Terror was filmed) and Parrish, part of a quick swing inside Langlade County before ducking into Oneida County for – in most cases – less than a minute. Then you’re in Lincoln County again, then back into Oneida County. You dizzy yet?
Finally, you reach the next city along Highway 17, which is all about the Hodag…and more.
Of course, we’re talking about Rhinelander (pop. 7,798), the Oneida County seat and metropolitan center of everything north of Wausau. The two cities even split the television market up here, with WJFW-TV (Channel 12) serving as the NBC affiliate for northern Wisconsin. Rhinelander is where NFL player Jason Doering, five-time PGA golf champion Dan Forsman, playwright Dan Wasserman, entertainment reporter Steve Kmetko and 2002 Miss Teen USA winner Vanessa Semrow, the only Wisconsinite to win the pageant, all came from. College coaching legend John Heisman, namesake of the Heisman Trophy, is buried in Rhinelander – because that’s where his wife was born.
Highway 17’s Rhinelander Bypass vs. City Route
Highway 17 traditionally ran right through downtown Rhinelander. In 2004, the 3.25 mile “Rhinelander Bypass” opened, carrying Highway 17 officially around the city to the south and then east (U.S. 8 and Highway 47 were re-routed onto the bypass as well.) You can follow it, but that kind of defeats the purpose of checking out the towns along the way unless you want a tour of big-box store parking lots. On the State Trunk Tour, we try to follow the original city routes!
So how do you do that? When Highway 17 officially turns onto the bypass, go straight, which is Boyce Street. Follow that to Kemp (the former U.S. 8) and turn right. About 1/2 mile down, turn left onto Arbutus Street, which curves onto Pelham. At Rhinelander City Hall, angle onto Stevens Street, which takes you through downtown and leads you back to today’s Highway 17 on the northeast edge.
Rhinelander was originally called Pelican Rapids, but changed the name when the city was chartered to salute Frederic Rhinelander, who was president of the main railroad at the time. By 1882, the railroad was extended to the city from Monico (which Highway 47 touches on later) and lumber mills went crazy, exporting wood and wood products. Lumber today still plays a big role in Rhinelander’s economy.
|State Trunk Tour Tidbit:
|WJFW-TV, Rhinelander’s Channel 12, is the NBC affiliate for northern Wisconsin. When a plane crash took out its original tower in 1968, the rebuilt tower was the 7th tallest structure in the world and was the first in the U.S. built exclusively for color TV transmission. When it was sold in 1979 to Seaway Communications, it was the first VHF commercial TV station owned by minority interests.
The city also became a brewery town back in 1882, when Rhinelander Beer was introduced. The brewery pioneered and patented the 7-ounce “shorty” bottle and grew to become one of the more influential local breweries in the country. They closed in 1967, but the brands continued to be brewed under contract in Monroe, where the Huber (now Minhas Brewery) kept cranking it out. In 2009, the brands were brought back to Rhinelander when Jyoti Auluck became president of the “new” Rhinelander Brewing Company. They are in the process of bringing back the original formulas and labels to their brands and plan to build a new brewery in Rhinelander. Some of the brands, including the original Rhinelander beer, are now available in various bar and store locations around Wisconsin and upper Michigan. We’ll definitely do more research on this!
Following the traditional Highway 17 through Rhinelander involves jogging a bit from Boyce to Kemp Street (the original U.S. 8) and then heading left on Arbutus, which becomes Pelham Street. At Rhinelander City Hall in a triangular intersection, angle left onto Stevens Street. That’s when you’re officially into the downtown area. As the Oneida County Seat, Rhinelander’s downtown includes the beautiful Oneida County Courthouse, with its Tiffany glass dome serving as a visible landmark through the town. A host of local shops, bars and restaurants and sporting goods stores are ready to serve the healthy numbers of tourists who hang out in Rhinelander; many use the city as a launching point for taking in the recreational opportunities that abound across all seasons.
Yes, you’ve probably heard, Rhinelander is Hodag Country. So what is a Hodag? According to folklore, the Hodag was first seen in 1893 and had “the head of a frog, the grinning face of a giant elephant, thick short legs set off by huge claws, the back of a dinosaur, and a long tail with spears at the end.” Advanced by Eugene Shepard, who was known for pranks, the beast became something of legend when the “remains” of one was released to area newspapers. Later, he claimed to have overpowered a live Hodag using chloroform and brought it with him to the 1896 Oneida County Fair. Curious onlookers came from all over to examine the animal, which Shepard worked up and attached wires to, for the occasional tugging to make the creature move…sending audiences running. Apparently, it seemed pretty real: scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. announced they would be coming to Rhinelander to examine this Hodag creature…essentially forcing Shepard to admit it was a hoax.
Nevertheless, the Hodag came an indelible part of Rhinelander’s local lore. The Hodag is the high school mascot, the city’s official symbol, is commemorated with sculptures around town and even lends its name to the local country music festival, which draws some pretty big names (Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, Neal McCoy, Kellie Pickler and, in its inception in 1978, good ol’ Freddy Fender. Anybody up for a round of “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights“?)
You can find the biggest Hodag statue right next to the Rhinelander Visitors’ Center, along Kemp Street (the traditional U.S. 8) on the southwest side of town, just off the bypass.
Downtown Rhinelander is where the old Highway 17 (Stevens Street), U.S. 8 and Highway 47 all came together. The downtown area is still pretty vibrant, since Rhinelander is a major center for commerce and recreation in the North Woods. For shops, bars and restaurants, Brown Street is the main strip, one block west of Stevens in the downtown area. There’s even a 24-hour drive-through McDonald’s (rare for this part of the state) and plenty of sites to see, including:
– The Rhinelander Logging Museum (334 N. Pelham Street, 715-369-5004), a complex featuring a replica of an 1870s lumber camp, the original Soo Line Depot (built in 1892, in service until 1989), an extensive model railroad display in the basement and an outdoors display of early logging equipment, a narrow-gauge locomotive and steam-powered “snow snakes”. What’s a snow snake? Well, that’s why you have to road trip and discover stuff. For more, visit their website.
– ArtStart! (68 S. Stevens Street) an arts and cultural center that established itself in 2011 inside the historic Federal Building – which they bought for $1 from the feds (no wonder the government is broke!). As of our last trip, they were still getting things together, so check out their Facebook page to keep up with the latest developments.
– For outdoor adventurers, Mel’s Trading Post (105 S. Brown Street, 715-362-5800) has been outfitting residents and visitors alike since 1946.
– If you need to catch the game or imbibe in some bar food and sandwiches, Bucketheads Sports Bar & Grill (46 N. Brown Street, 715-369-5333) is a good stop. Check out the sweet potato fries and brewery equipment in the front.
– For fancier fare, check out the White Stag Inn (7141 State Highway 17N, 715-272-1057), a little north of town via Highway 17, closer to Sugar Camp…look for the – creatively enough – white stag out front.
– Since the State Trunk Tour is a big fan of pasties, we have to recommend Joe’s Pasty Shop (123 Randall Avenue, 715-369-1224) . Opened in 2004, it’s a sister shop to the original Joe’s up in Ironwood, Michigan. Tasty!
The ride on Highway 17 north from Rhinelander takes you through the best of Wisconsin’s North Woods on your way to Eagle River. The only settlement to speak of is the tiny burg of Sugar Camp, a town spread along Indian Lake that actually does host a number of camps. After a snowfall, the clingy snow that stays on the tree branches makes for a beautiful drive, especially when the sun emerges afterwards.
After Highway 17 comes in from Rhinelander and joins Highway 70, you get into Eagle River (pop. 1,443), one of Wisconsin’s most popular vacation towns. It’s nicknamed the “Snowmobiling Capital of the World“, and competitions are held here throughout the winter months. Extensive trails stretch for miles from the town and around the multitude of lakes in the area. In warmer months, boating is very popular on these lakes… so many area lakes (28), in fact, that the Eagle River/Three Lakes Chain compose the largest number of interconnected lakes in the world. These lakes are frozen a good chunk of the year, obviously, and on the weekend closest to New Years’, area firefighters and volunteers cut 3,000 foot-thick blocks of ice from nearby Silver Lake to build the Ice Palace. The Ice Palace has been constructed almost annually since the 1920s and usually stands about 20 feet high, lit up at night with a multitude of colors. Tourists are welcome to check it out and take pictures; just don’t build a fire nearby or chip off any ice for your beverage.
Okay, back to this snowmobiling thing. Home of the annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby, Eagle River’s Derby Track hosted its first race on February 9, 1964 – about 40 years after Carl Eliason of nearby Sayner invented the first model that was comparable to today’s snowmobiles (and, that evening, The Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show). The races since have drawn participants and spectators from far and wide – tens of thousands, regardless of the weather. The races are held in mid-January, meaning it can be sunny and near 40, the typical cold of 6 above zero, or wind chills of -50 – as it was in 1994. There’s plenty of room to watch around the track, and luxury boxes are even available. Additional races and attractions have been added over the years; you can read a pretty comprehensive history right here. Eagle River averages 53 inches of snowfall each year – nothing too crazy, especially when areas closer to Lake Superior average over 100. But with hundreds of miles of trails and the invention of the snowmobile having taken place in the area, this is the epicenter of the sport. Bottom line, this is a place to road trip to in the midst of winter’s grasp!
Highway 70 through town is also joined by U.S. 45 and Highway 32. Restaurants and motels line the route, and Wall Street – one block north through the heart of town – is where most of the action is. Lining the Wall are shops, confectioneries, bars, restaurants and the Vilas Theater, a five-screen cinema that dates back many decades.
Just down is the Country Store, a confectionery with numerous fudge choices, candy, chocolates and ice cream where a “scoop” is half the size of Rhode Island. Plenty of other treats are available too, whether it’s 20 below or 95 above outside.
Eagle River is named after the – you guessed it – Eagle River, which flows out of the Chain O’Lakes and into the Wisconsin River. The Wisconsin’s source in Lac Vieux Desert is only about 15 miles north along the Wisconsin-Michigan border, and it’s still pretty small as it flows past Eagle River. Of course, it gains significant size and strength as it flows nearly 400 miles and drops over 1,000 feet on its way to the Mississippi!
Heading north out of Eagle River, Highway 17 branches off from Highways 32 & 45 a few miles north of town. From there, Highway 17 dives deep into the forest, winding through Nicolet National Forest property and past more lakes before reaching tiny Phelps.
Can connect immediately to: Federal Forest Highway 16 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Can connect nearby to: County roads in Vilas County; also Highway 32 & U.S. 45, about 20 miles southwest