Muir Knoll, a small knob of land on the northern edge of Bascom Hill, is a lovely spot to enjoy a view of Lake Mendota or to access nearby Muir Woods or the Lakeshore Path. The site is named for John Muir, the indefatigable conservationist and one-time student at UW-Madison.
It should not be surprising that a spot such as Muir Knoll, with its long views across Lake Mendota, would also have attracted Native Americans here thousands of years ago. An archaeological survey in 2003 confirmed that the knoll indeed had ancient visitors. Chert flakes, the rock waste left behind by someone crafting a tool or perhaps a spearpoint, were recovered here—just below the lawn surface. There is even evidence that this spot had spiritual significance. Somewhere nearby, between North Hall and Lake Mendota, a sacred burial mound was once reported, though its exact location is not known today.
In the 1910s the knoll was the location of an “Open Air Theater.” This use only lasted a few years before a more elaborate outdoor theater was constructed in 1916 at the corner of Charter and Observatory Drive. During this period people referred to the knoll as “Story-Tellers Hill,” since it served as the gathering place for university summer session “Folk Lore” meetings led by Charles. E. Brown. As you stand here, you might try imagining a quiet summer evening with Brown, a prominent archaeologist and the State Historical Society’s museum director, as he shared vivid stories of the local Native American people and the early European-American settlers.
The site was renamed Muir Knoll in June 1918 at a formal dedication ceremony attended by Judge Milton S. Griswold—a schoolmate of Muir’s who provided the future naturalist with his first lesson in botany under a black locust tree near North Hall. A red granite boulder engraved with the words “Muir Knoll” was placed at the site by the John Muir Walking Club at this time.
The Muir Knoll boulder is not the only stone marker at this site. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was common for senior classes to erect memorials bearing the year of their graduation. Several of these markers can be seen near the edge of Observatory Drive. Over the years, some have complained that the assemblage of markers makes the area look a graveyard. Indeed, pranksters once planted a stolen tombstone here!
At the north end of the knoll are several other memorial boulders, testaments to beloved professors and university supporters, notably Rasmus Bjorn Anderson and Thomas E. Brittingham Jr.
The Ski Jump
In addition to serving as a gathering place for story-telling and lake viewing, Muir Knoll once played a vital role in an unusual university athletics program: ski jumping!
In 1919 UW Athletic Director Tom Jones helped a group of students build a wooden ski jump atop Muir Knoll with the landing slide extending down the hill onto the lake (see photo below). The sport gradually gained popularity among students, but the jump’s deteriorating condition necessitated its removal in 1931. (The wooden planks from the first jump somehow made their way to a homecoming bonfire in 1930.)
The newly-formed Hoofers Club promptly launched a campaign to replace the old jump with a permanent steel structure. Students volunteered their labor to regrade and improve the hill; the Memorial Union Board and the Class of 1932 between them contributed $1,000; and the Hoofers raised the balance through various money-raising projects and solicitations. The result was a professional ski jump 56 feet high and 108 feet long that was dedicated before 4,000 spectators in an impressive ceremony on February 11, 1933, followed by a competition between 50 of the best ski jumpers in the middle west.
The Muir Knoll ski jump thereafter became an iconic symbol of the campus, much used by student jumpers and for hosting regional ski meets in the winter and, importantly, as a popular lake-viewing and nocturnal trysting spot throughout the year.
Can you image the wonderful view of the lake enjoyed by the jumpers as they launched themselves off the 108 foot ramp? With any luck the jumpers would land on the slope beneath the overlook and glide effortlessly onto the frozen lake. At least, they hoped the lake was frozen…
The ski jump served an additional function during WWII — ROTC cadets used it as a mock military objective in training exercises. In 1942, the Wisconsin Alumnus reported the “spectacular maneuvers” during which:
“…two platoons of infantry successfully stormed the ski jump hill under conditions resembling actual warfare, two planes of the civil air patrol ‘machine-gunned’ marching troops, and engineers set up barbed wire entanglements and ‘land mines’…”
The platoons attacked the objective from two directions, one platoon advancing through the underbrush of the heavily wooded Muir Knoll woods west of the ski jump hill and the other from the less protected area of Lincoln terrace.
The ski jump was removed from Muir Knoll in 1957. It was re-erected and used for a time in the city’s Hoyt Park, but is now only a distant and happy memory of early student activism.
To learn more about the human history of Muir Knoll…
Read a pamphlet written by Charles E. Brown for his summer session students on Lake Mendota Indian legends…“Lake Mendota Indian legends: prepared for the use of students, University of Wisconsin summer session.” Madison, Wisconsin: The Museum, 1927. 6 p.
Read an archaeological survey report for Muir Knoll…Amy L. Rosebrough, “A Phase I Archaeological Survey of Muir Knoll, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dane County, Wisconsin,” 2003. Madison WI: Office of the State Archaeologist, Wisconsin Historical Society, 2003.
Read an article about the steel ski jump at the time of its removal, “Historic Campus Ski Slide is Only a U. Memory Now”.
After the retreat of the last glaciers some 12,000 years ago, the Wisconsin landscape was left scoured and reshaped by the deposition of countless tons of rock and gravel. One geological feature of the post-glacial landscape are drumlins-oval shaped, streamlined hills made up of till (small rocks and gravel) left behind by the flow of glacial ice. Bascom Hill and its small extension at Muir Knoll are good examples of the drumlin form.
Today the knoll includes several tree specimens marked by short posts topped with a small red sign detailing its scientific name and native range. These signs were installed for a tree walk route established as a university sesquicentennial project in 1998. Unfortunately, the accompanying tree walk brochure is now out of print.
John Muir and the Black Locust Tree
The tree adjacent to the red granite “Muir Knoll” boulder, at the sidewalk entry to the knoll, is part of the tree walk route. Some people believe that this young tree may be a clone of the original John Muir black locust.
The campus tree walk brochure relates the following story:
It was beneath a black locust tree, which stood near North Hall, the first building on campus, that John Muir, famous naturalist and preservationist, had his first botany lesson delivered by a fellow student in 1863. Here is Muir’s account of the incident from his autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood Home and Youth:
I received my first lesson in botany from a student named Griswold… One memorable day in June, when I was standing on the stone steps of the north dormitory (North Hall), Mr. Griswold joined me and at once began to teach. He reached up and picked a flower from an overspreading branch of a locust tree, and handing it to me said, “Muir, do you know what family this tree belongs to?”
“No,” I said, “I don’t know anything about botany.”
“Well, no matter,” said he, “what is it like?”
“It’s like a pea flower,” I replied.
“That’s right. You’re right,” he said, “It belongs to the Pea Family.”
“But how can that be,” I objected, “when the pea is a weak, clinging, straggling herb, and the locust is a big, thorny hardwood tree?”
Griswold went on to teach Muir about the interconnectedness of all plants. Muir was deeply moved by this revelation, saying later, “This fine lesson charmed me, and sent me flying to the woods and meadows in wild enthusiasm.”
The black locust at North Hall, which came to be called the John Muir Black Locust, was cut down in 1953. However, a young black locust on Muir Knoll across from North Hall, recalls this inspirational forbearer.
Some tree experts suggest that since black locust trees are notorious for spreading asexually and sprouting new trees at some distance to the parent tree, that the tree on our walk is the “rebirth” of the original Muir Locust. What do you think?
The story of the John Muir Black Locust has interest for us not just because of its association with a famous person. There is a lesson to note here about the many informal teaching and learning opportunities that occur on our great campus. Recall that young John Muir received his lesson from a fellow student-outside of a formal classroom setting. While great lecture halls and advanced technology are essential to the academic experience, we should not forget that students can—and do—learn in many ways, from many teachers, in many places. The Preserve offers us one more place where teaching and learning, both formal and informal, can happen.
To learn more about the natural history of Muir Knoll…
Read about the John Muir Black Locust, at the time of its removal in a feature story from the University of Wisconsin News Service. (Source: UW News Office, UW-Madison, Communications Office folder labeled, “Muir Woods,” Oct. 1, 1953.)
Visiting and Recreation
Muir Knoll is just a few steps off the busy core of campus activity on Bascom Hill. Although the knoll no longer offers the thrills of a ski jump, visitors may still enjoy a pleasant stroll among the mature oaks, basswoods, and European larches that shade the lush lawn on the knoll. On any given day you’ll usually find people lunching at the overlook or relaxing under a tree.
Just to the left of the overlook you’ll find a rustic staircase and trail that will lead you to network of smaller trails throughout Muir Woods. If you follow the main path all the way down the slope, you will reach another set of stairs that lead to the eastern terminus of the Lakeshore Path. At the bottom of the stairs you will find an information kiosk with a detailed map of the entire Preserve.
Muir Knoll is among the easiest places in the Preserve to reach for even a brief respite from the bustling central campus.
Campus bus #80 makes regular stops at the Observatory Drive entrance to the Muir Knoll.
Muir Knoll is adjacent to Observatory Drive. Bicycle parking racks are available at nearby Bascom Hall.
You can reach the knoll from the Lakeshore Path by ascending the stairs located on the wooded slope just to the west of the Hasler Limnology Lab. Alternatively the knoll can be reached by crossing over Observatory Drive on sidewalks leading from Bascom Hill.
Metered visitor parking stalls are available in the underground lot beneath Helen C. White Library (Lot 6) off Park Street. Please do not park in lots designated for permit parking.