Class of 1918 Marsh
The Class of 1918 Marsh is a tiny remnant of a large wetland that formerly
covered all of the area now occupied by playing fields, parking lots,
and the Nielsen Tennis Stadium. Fifteen thousand years ago when the glaciers receded
from this part of Wisconsin, the marsh was connected to Lake Mendota;
later a sand bar built up that isolated it from the lake.
The university acquired the land in 1910 and began to experiment with
draining the marsh to grow crops, a difficult prospect given that the
area is lower than the lake. Tiles were laid and a series of pumps installed.
The experiment was considered successful, but by 1965 the tiles came loose
and the area reverted to wetland. At this point, the campus was expanding
and the university administration planned to use the area for playing
fields and parking lots. In the interim they used it as a landfill.
Restoring the marsh
Fortunately, in 1969 an environmental studies class chose the marsh as
its class project. After collecting a great deal of data and making allies
of the local press, they convinced the university administration to rethink
its plans and the land was saved as a wildlife refuge and teaching and
research area. It is named for the Class of 1918 because this class agreed
to reallocate money that they had donated during their 50 year reunion
for a Japanese pond to the new project of enhancing the marsh.
The 1970s saw dredging the marsh, building the trail around it, and the
addition of a series of interpretive signs, which since have been lost
due to vandals. There also were several attempts to establish prairie
around the edge.
Unfortunately, during the last 25 years little has been done to maintain
the marsh, in spite of the interest of a large number of people and the
development of several management plans. It suffers from runoff from nearby
construction sites, parking lots, and fertilized playing fields. In addition,
the field on the south side of the marsh is used by the plowing crews
to store snow (with its accompanying salt and debris) in winter.
video clips about the Class if 1918 Marsh projects. Go to video index
To learn more, read an articles by Roma Lenehan on "University Bay: Preservation and Change" and on "Saving a Marsh: an Environmental Success Story"
What the original restorationists sought to accomplish
One of the best descriptions available for the original restoration project
was produced by James H. Zimmerman, a naturalist at the UW Arboretum, who
with his wife, Elizabeth, helped spearhead the restoration of the Class
of 1918 Marsh. He produced a booklet in 1972 as a guide to the interpretive
walk around the marsh, and his discussions there remain an invaluable
guide to the marsh. Richard McCoy and Susan Slapnick of the Friends
of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve digitized Zimmerman's original booklet, and we have included
two key entries—describing the restoration project and the history of
Goals of the Class of 1918 Marsh restoration,
by Jim Zimmerman, 1972
The purpose of this small wet marsh—amid playing fields,
parking lots, and roads and buildings—is to foster an appreciation
of marshes and to demonstrate how wildlife and people can coexist. With
proper understanding and public cooperation, the similar needs of
man and of wildlife can be met side by side: living space, food,
protection from hazards and disturbance, and a clean environment.
The developments here, including earth-moving, the nature trail,
interpretation signs, and plantings, were made possible by generous
donations from the UW Class of 1918…
This marsh is noteworthy in five ways:
1) It is a man-made restoration; successes and
failures may be studied here for future understandings of the ecosystem.
2) It is an educational facility, bringing people and
the natural environment intimately together. Here man may also derived
recreational benefit, while wildlife may eventually become more
accustomed to man, like the chimney nesting storks of Europe.
3) It would be too small a marsh to hold much wildlife
were it not for its proximity to a complex of lakes in the Wisconsin
River flyway. Attracted to the waterway, and perhaps bound to it
by traditions handed down, large numbers of water birds expect
to find and almost desperately seek marshes for resting, food and
nest sites. So few marshes are left that every small one receives
abnormally intense use.
4) It is now in the early very weedy stages of development
following recent construction causing erosion and siltation. The
upland and lowland weeds are not being cut because: (a) they provide
important wildlife foods and immediate temporary cover; (b) natural
succession can be studied here. Stabilizing of the vegetation and
clearing of the water will come only with cessation of construction
and soil disturbance in the entire watershed.
5) Its existence is testimony to the sizeable body of
people in city and on campus who appreciate nature. We hope this
project will encourage marsh restoration and interpretation elsewhere…
the marsh, by Jim Zimmerman, 1972
This entire nearly level basin (some 80 acres) was once filled
with peat. It is bounded on the west and north by University Bay
Drive, and on the southeast by the Natatorium and Marsh Creek. On
the south it once graded up into prairies and fields about where
Marsh Lane is now.
Peat accumulates where waterlogging prevents access of oxygen so
that bacteria cannot feed on plant remains. Kept wet by runoff and
springs, the basin had been a soggy area for over 10,000 years,
although it was sometimes above the level of Lake Mendota . As the
last glacier retreated, damming the Yahara Valley with deposits
of mud and gravel, this basin was probably a bay of the lake at
a high-level stage. Study may show that the first peat to be laid
down was of sphagnum and wiregrass sedge, containing pollen of spruce
and fir; for most of our peat deposits began as floating bogs like
those of bays in our present northern lakes.
The lake may have backed up to higher levels at more recent times
because of dense vegetation and beaver dams at the outlet; but around
the turn of the century, it was getting lower because of erosion
of the outlet. This basin was probably a sedge meadow then. In 1912,
the Tenney Park Locks were installed, raising the lake above the
level of this peaty basin.
To put the peat meadow to use, a leaf was taken from the thrifty
Dutch: tile the fields, build a dike and use a pump. The filled
dike, built on an ice-push-up-ridge, became University Bay Drive
; the faithful pump in the metal shed nearby continually removed
seepage coming from the peaty field and from the lake for over 50
years. A sign on the pumphouse explained this pilot land reclamation
project. With proper fertilizer, the peat field yielded excellent
crops of corn. Unfortunately, not all lowlands had a lake to protect
them from summer frost damage; so following the University's advice
to drain and farm the lowlands did not always meet with such success
Farming had increased wildlife abundance because the field provided
abundant food - both waste corn and the weeds perpetuated by soil
disturbance. Shorebirds, ducks and geese that circled the lake would
drop in at the field in spectacular numbers. The adjacent and slowly
encroaching weedy University Dump (now Lot 60) and the marshy ditches
helped also, and together they attracted bird watchers from far
and wide to see rarities like pipits, snow buntings, snow and blue
geese, phalaropes, white crowned and Harris' sparrows, and short-eared
owls. Pheasants thrived on the corn also.
Wildlife use intensified in 1967 when progressive oxidation of
the drained peat deposit had finally caused the deeply-laid drain
tiles to appear on the surface, interfering with plowing and harvesting
machinery. The pump was turned off, and the flooded ripening crop
of corn was soon discovered by all of Madison 's mallards and teal,
which began commuting daily over the city. One could stand at Lot
60 and see hundreds of mallards descend from the sky at sunset.
Still more migrating waterfowl came in from the lake that fall,
and in the spring of 1968, many water birds stayed to nest as the
30-acre flooded field began to provide water plants for cover. This
became the spot to see, with ease, beauties like green-winged teal,
ruddy and shoveller ducks, and the elusive gallinules and rails
of the deep water marsh.
Argument arose over the use of the land, which was avidly sought
for parking space and athletic fields, as well as for wildlife habitat
accessible to biology classes and nature-lovers. The present compromise
divides this land between these three uses. To some extent they
overlap, since parking makes the area accessible to more wildlife
viewers for recreation, and the playing fields, when not in use,
provide quiet buffering open space around the present small marsh
for the flying, feeding and roosting needs of birds.
Plans for restoring the marsh again
In 2006, UW-Madison completed its first-ever master
plan for the Lakeshore
Nature Preserve. Included in an appendix to that plan was a detailed discussion
of goals for a major restoration of the Class of 1918 Marsh. We reproduce
those goals below.
Vision and Goals History
The Class of 1918 Marsh has long provided an exceptional site for faculty
and student research, and for class exercises in habitat restoration.
It also offers wonderful opportunities for marsh visitors to explore and
appreciate nature. Since 1997, instructors working there have informally
designated their collective venture "The Urban Marsh Field Station."
Vision - The Class of 1918 Marsh will provide:
- An important test of our ability to provide high habitat diversity
in an urban wetland.
- An opportunity to interpret wetland ecology, restoration, and management
for students and visitors, consistent with the educational mission
of the overall Preserve.
- A good quality wetland complex comprised of diverse biological communities,
each with its appropriate organisms.
This is a long-term vision that will play out over perhaps 50 years.
We anticipate repeated attempts to test alternative management policies
and biological communities. We anticipate creation of six zones of wetland
plant communities and open water areas, specifically:
- wet prairie
- fen (plan for at least 3 potential fens)
- sedge meadow
- emergent marsh
- floating and submerged aquatic vegetation
- open water
Goals – the marsh plan seeks to:
- Improve the overall quality of the flora, fauna, and hydrology of
- Facilitate appropriate visitor access to the marsh
- Compartmentalize marsh communities to facilitate controlled scientific
- Encourage multidisciplinary experimentation
- Control water quantity for experimentation
- Sustain high-quality water in and out of the marsh
- Test and promulgate techniques for effective wetland restoration
- Integrate marsh restoration with overall Preserve management
To achieve this vision, a reliable supply of high-quality water is required:
- Roof and ground water will supply the system. Roof water is suitable
so long as it has had the opportunity to cool. The system for delivering
roof water should ideally provide a way to divert from the marsh the
earliest rainfall falling on roofs, which tends to be undesirably warm
- Diverse water sources and multiple valves should enable control
of the amount, timing, and location of water delivery.
- Where pumping is required, “green” energy sources should be considered
- A groundwater pump and the ability to deliver water for fen restoration
should be considered, though such a pump, if provided, should only
be used under drought conditions.
- Draw-downs should mimic natural hydrological conditions.
- The existing pumping system that removes water from the system should
- Periodic draw-downs should occur to expose mudflats in the marsh.
- During appropriate seasons, water from the wetland might possibly
be applied to adjacent recreational fields as a strategy for the draw-down
and filtration by surrounding plant communities of nutrient-rich water.
- Poor quality runoff should be treated or diverted away from the
- To accomplish this:
- The wet prairie encircling the marsh should be designed to absorb
water from the recreational field.
- Nutrient-rich surface runoff, including water from Nielsen Pond,
should be diverted away from the wetland.
- When possible, snow pile and snowmelt influences on the marsh
should be minimized. Although changes in campus transportation strategies
and parking will alter the amount and composition of snow cleared
from campus roads and walkways, there is likely to be an ongoing
need to pile snow in the vicinity of the marsh and University Bay.
Runoff from snowmelt should be monitored for salt and other pollutants,
and different strategies should be explored for minimizing the impact
of this meltwater on adjacent wetland ecosystems.
Principles for implementation of basin dredging and restoration:
- Allow dredging to deepen the open-water habitat.
- Create the deepest water on the east side of the site, to connect
with pumps to lower water levels.
- Remove invasive plants and seed sources from shorelines.
- Minimize negative effects on wildlife; in particular, make sure
there is sufficient open water distant from marsh margins to provide
adequate waterfowl habitat.
- Pay attention to seasonal patterns of use by birds in scheduling
- The upland-wetland-open water gradient should be gentle.
- Avoid steep slopes.
- Avoid armoring soil surfaces.
- Re-sculpt the bottom of the marsh.
- Allow some on-site disposal of dredge spoils.
- Recognize that dredge spoils will be nutrient rich and manage accordingly.
- Consider over-excavating elevations to be able to supplement surface
- Consider modifying soil texture, moisture, and nutrient levels,
but do not assume that such treatments are necessarily required for
- Do not assume that sedge meadow must be established on peat.
In manipulating water levels in the marsh, the following biological principles
(among others) should be kept in mind:
- Phosphorus in sediments is mobilized by stable water levels. On
the other hand, it can flow through this system and be flushed out via
- Standing water favors invasive hybrid cattails.
- Anaerobic sediment is valuable for denitrification.
- Nitrogen influx enhances reed canary grass, Wisconsin 's worst invasive
weed in wetlands.
This plan anticipates that the boundaries of Class of 1918 Marsh will
be kept at roughly their current locations. The open spaces of the recreational
fields will stay as they are so they can continue to provide valuable
educational opportunities and leisure activities for UW-Madison students
and others. Together, these recreational lands and the Class of 1918 Marsh
contribute to an attractive open space and an expansive vista on the western
margins of the campus.
The plan envisions an accessible trail from the south side of the marsh
to an observation area so that visitors of all abilities will be able
to enjoy the views, the wildlife, and the experience of the marsh.
Finally, this plan reaffirms the vision and values of the far-sighted
conservationists who restored and dedicated the Class of 1918 Marsh in
1972. We will continue to care for the marsh, learn what we can from restoring
and managing it, and share our knowledge to promote wetland restoration
Getting to the Class of 1918 Marsh is easy: hop on your bike, grab a
bus or jog on over!
bus #80 makes regular stops across from the entry gate of Picnic
Point on University Bay Drive or at the first stop on Lake Mendota
Take the Lakeshore Path from Oxford Road (west end of path) or Park
Street (east end of the path) to the Picnic Point entry or to near the
basketball court on University Bay Drive.
In addition to the main Lakeshore Path,
there are several easy walking
paths throughout this area—both gravel and paved. Make sure
to walk out onto the observation deck into the marsh boundary.
A small parking Lot 134 offers temporary parking near the Lake Mendota
Drive and University Bay Drive intersection.
See the campus
map for Lot 134.
Or alternately, use Lots 130 or 129 near
the Picnic Point entrance.
Text and Photo credits:
- Text: Bill Cronon. Nov 13 2006.
- Photos:: Aerial view, medical school view, observation
platform, Bill Cronon .