A gift of the Class of 1918: The Class of 1918 Marsh

As their jubilee reunion year of 1968 neared, members of the Class of 1918 had been aware of a successful and inspiring student protest just a few years earlier. The students had achieved something quite remarkable, but the job was incomplete.

A red-winged blackbird perches on a cattail in the Class of 1918 Marsh.
Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison.

Draining the wetlands

The story had its beginnings much earlier, back when the Class of 1918 was enjoying student days on the UW campus. When they were in school (and while World War I raged in Europe ), a great marsh extended westward from the entrance to the then privately owned Picnic Point. The marsh covered about 40 acres and was a westward extension of the remnant we know today as University Bay Marsh.

This was a time when what one did with a marsh or a swamp was to drain it! Unused “waste” land, so the thought ran, could be made productive.

The task was proposed and undertaken by the College of Agriculture. Trenches were dug, drain tiles laid – members of the class helped with that task – and a pumping station (still standing today) was installed. For years, this starkly transformed land was used to demonstrate to Wisconsin farmers how they could turn their marshes into cropland.

New attitudes toward wetlands

As the years went by, we discovered our folly; hard lessons were learned. The marshes we were draining were not at all useless land. They were, in fact, of extraordinary importance to the environment and to all of the life that depended on it…including, quite notably, human life: us!

Marshes protected the land from erosion. They were the homes of myriad small creatures essential to the web of life; they provided habitat for waterfowl and all manner of birds. They were breeding grounds for the fish in our lakes (and on our tables). And marshes had the extraordinary capacity to filter pollutants, even agricultural run-off, from what would become our drinking water.

While our intentions in draining such wetlands were good, even noble, we had for years been destroying one of our most valuable resources.

A student protest to bring back the marsh

The University had a new plan. No longer in need of cropland at this location, but with the marsh already drained, why not build athletic fields? But a group of students had a different idea. “Restore the Marsh,” was their rallying cry. Let’s reverse this process, they said, and bring back the marsh.

The result was a most remarkable protest that came at a time when the environmental movement was still in its infancy. The students won, at least in part, and a portion of the land nearest to Picnic Point was allowed to return to marsh. But “allowed to return” would not be enough for this drastically transformed land.

Enter the Class of 1918

Impressed and moved by what the students had accomplished, leaders of the class took up the challenge to “restore the marsh.” Their class gift, the first to address the UW’s natural environment, made possible the restoration work that provided a timeless treasure to the UW, the “Class of 1918 Marsh.”

Read more about saving the marsh here. 

Learn more about the marsh here.

Just as importantly, this first gift to what we now call the Lakeshore Nature Preserve by the Class of 1918 has become an inspiring example for other alumni in subsequent years. Because Wisconsin taxpayers will never contribute everything we need to sustain either the University or its extraordinary Lakeshore Nature Preserve, this special place continues to depend on visionaries like the members of the Class of 1918 to provide the support it needs to survive and flourish for all time to come.

Learn how you can contribute to the Preserve here.