Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Remnants

Photo of Lake Mendota Drive by William Cronon.

The stretch of Lake Mendota Drive from the southeast entrance to Eagle Heights Apartments north to the Frautschi Point Parking Lot is arguably the best-preserved remnant of the famous carriage road developed at the turn of the twentieth century by the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association. A plaque commemorating the MPPDA can be found at Willow Creek Bridge.

This civic-minded group of well-to-do Madisonians were responsible for creating the city’s first parks-—among which the best-known are probably Vilas and Tenney parks-—and also for designing a series of scenic routes for horses and carriages to get out of the city to experience the beauties of rural nature. They represented Madison’s most noteworthy involvement in the great wave of park-building that reshaped the cities of the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century, inspired in large measure by New York’s Central Park and the nation-wide leadership of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.

Pay close attention to the design of this road as you drive, bike, or walk along it. For much of this portion, the road is divided, and mature trees completely overhang the drive to form a tunnel of green. Along parts the eastern margin are decorative stone walls that once delimited the wealthy estates that are now among the crown jewels of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve. Beautiful decorative trees have been planted along these walls, and in some places the trees are grown right into the structure of the wall.

Staff at University Houses tell of alumni who formerly lived in Eagle Heights Apartments saying that one of the things they remember most fondly about their time here is this tree-covered tunnel of a road. They have vivid memories of looking up at this green canopy as they made their way home after classes each day. Against the curbs and sidewalks, buried amid invasive plants that are yet to be removed, a few species of native wildflowers and grasses still persist on the margins of this drive.

We’re often in such a hurry as we race from place to place that we don’t even bother to look at the roads and walkways we follow. This genteel carriage road originally reflected a belief in the value of slowing down and paying attention on a route that has no other purpose but to celebrate the beauty of nature.

It is amazing that this stretch of road still survives. It wouldn’t take much to destroy it: just a little widening to make the road “safer” and more “efficient,” and it would be gone forever. The Lakeshore Nature Preserve exists to protect not just the wild nature of prairies, savannas, marshes, and forests, but the human experience of natural beauty in landscapes like this one. This little stretch of roadway is arguably even more fragile than the forests that surround it, and deserves our care as much as anything else in the Preserve.

The next time you pass this way, pay attention.