While doing Frank Lloyd Wright thing, see Tower Hill State Park
Smelter house a reminder of Wisconsin's mining history
The famed Wisconsin architect's home and apprentice school, Taliesin, looms large over the small town, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the small valley tucked along the Wisconsin River.
While a tour of the sprawling, 600-acre estate is a must for even casual Wright fans, the surrounding countryside features another small, lesser-known natural and historic site worth a side trip: Tower Hill State Park.
The 77-acre park is perched on a bluff alongside a small creek that feeds the Wisconsin River and provides beautiful panoramic views of the rolling Driftless Region. Two miles of trails — some steep — wind through the park, and 15 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
But the park's centerpiece is a re-creation of an 1830s smelter house that was used to create shot, complete with a 60-foot wooden shaft along the bluff and a 90-foot tunnel carved into the sandstone.
In 1830, Green Bay businessman Daniel Whitney spotted the bluff while traveling along the Wisconsin River. Southwestern Wisconsin was a major lead mining area at the time, and Whitney thought this was a prime location to build a tower for turning that lead into shot.
At the time, shot was produced by pouring molten lead through a slotted ladle over a vertical shaft. As the lead dropped, it cooled and hardened into pellets. A shallow pool of water at the bottom of the shaft helped finish the cooling process and break the pellets' fall.
Whitney hired Thomas Bolton Shaunce, a 22-year-old lead miner from Galena, Ill., to build a 120-foot vertical shaft in the sandstone cliff below the 60-foot bluff, and a 90-foot horizontal tunnel to reach the bottom of the shaft.
It took Shaunce, with some help from another miner, 187 work days to build the two tunnels, primarily using hand tools.
A smelting house was built at the top of the bluff and a finishing house at the bottom. The operation produced lead shot beginning in 1833 and helped grow the nearby town of Helena, so much so that its name was floated as a possible capital for the Wisconsin Territory in 1836.
The panic of 1857 and a bad economy led to the tower's closing in 1861. That, combined with a railroad built on the opposite side of the Wisconsin River, led to the decline and virtual disappearance of Helena.
In 1889 a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones, bought the land for $60 and built a religious and educational retreat called Tower Hill Pleasure Company. Vacationers came for respite and religious inspiration from Jones.
Does that name sound familiar? Here's a hint: Wright's mother's name was Anna Lloyd Jones. Jenkin was Wright's uncle, and a young Wright helped design the nearby Unity Chapel for his uncle to serve as a family chapel.
After Jenkin's death in 1918, his widow sold the land to the state for a park that was created in 1922. The DNR reconstructed the smelter house and wooden shaft on the bluff in the 1970s.
Route: From the parking lot, follow the paved path east and then north to the top of the bluff. It's less than one-quarter of a mile, but the steep grade makes for a more challenging walk. At the tower, a short trail leads around to the base of the shaft, where windows provide a glimpse inside.
A rocky staircase leads up to the tower, a simple wooden building with a few signs explaining the history of the site. A metal cage and warning signs prevent visitors from dropping things down the shaft, but you can still look down into the dark abyss.
A steep, rocky trail at the base of the shaft was blocked off when I visited recently, but it leads to the tunnel entrance along the river at the base of the bluff.
For a safer — and longer — route to the tunnel, follow the Old Ox Trail southeast from the shot tower and continue hiking south until you reach a spur trail that cuts back east and then north.
The trail meanders down the bluff then along a marshy wetland and Mill Creek. Protected by the bluff to the south, the wetland is a playpen for birds — and mosquitoes. Bring bug spray and binoculars and listen and watch for red-winged blackbirds, Canada geese, indigo buntings, American goldfinches, Baltimore orioles and cliff swallows. We even spotted a family of hawks circling overhead.
At the end of the trail, the 90-foot-long tunnel is open for exploration. It's dark and the floor is a bit rough — remember it was built with hand tools — so tread carefully.
A metal gate now blocks the filled-in bottom of the shaft at the end, and at about 6 feet in diameter, the tunnel is fairly narrow. As we walked through it, I couldn't help but recall the low ceilings in Wright's home. (At 5 feet 8 inches tall, he saw no need to build certain ceilings higher than was necessary for him to fit through.) Even in the depths of a sandstone bluff, Wright lives on in Spring Green.
While you're there:Taliesin offers a variety of tours daily from May 1 through Oct. 31 (and one tour on the weekends in April and November). Since the estate is privately owned, tours are the only way to get close to and inside the buildings. The Highlights Tour gives a nice overview of the estate, with an hour spent at the Hillside Studio and an hour at Wright's home. Advance reservations are recommended. Call (877) 588-7900 or see taliesinpreservation.org.
For sustenance, Freddy Valentine's Public House, 134 W. Jefferson St. in Spring Green, serves up tasty food in a cool atmosphere. The building used to be a bank, and stately columns, elegant marble and tiled floors still greet visitors. Even the safe remains, now standing guard over a table guests can reserve. Call (608) 588-0220 or see freddyvalentines.com.
Getting there: Tower Hill State Park is on County Highway C about two hours west of Milwaukee via I-94 and U.S. Highways 12 and 14.
More information: For more on Tower Hill, call (608) 588-2116 or see dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/towerhill.
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