The Niagara Escarpment: Wisconsin's eighth natural wonder
Who needs the Great Wall of China and Chichen Itza? Wisconsin is full of wonders that are much closer to home. So pack up the car, fire up the GPS and get ready to crisscross America's Dairyland with OnMilwaukee.com as we travel to the Seven Wonders of Wisconsin this summer.
SHERWOOD – The upper Midwest doesn't often come to mind first when discussing the most geologically significant regions of the United States or North America.
The towering mountains along the East Cost and through the west; the amazing vistas, plateaus and canyons of the American Southwest ... these are the images that have kept the postcard and scenic photography industries churning for centuries.
But here in the Midwest, where we are a more subdued society to begin with, there are plenty of geological marvels to keep scientists, outdoors folks and those just looking for a good picture more than interested.
Few geological features, outside of the aforementioned regions, are as impressive as the Niagara Escarpment, a nearly 1,000-mile-long cliff that begins (or ends, depending on how you look at things), in east-central Wisconsin, running northeast along side Lake Winnebago, forming almost all of the Door Peninsula and continuing north east through Canada and into upstate New York.
It's the Escarpment that gave Niagara Falls its name – the river drops right off the edge along the United States-Canadian border. It's also a leading reason the Great Lakes exist.
Contrary to popular belied, the Niagara Escarpment is not a fault line or a result of glaciation on the North American landscape though the glaciers did play a part in exposing the natural feature.
"What you're essentially looking at when you look at the Escarpment as a whole is the outer edge of a circular basin; the Michigan basin which, 400 million years ago, was a shallow seat," says Eric Fowle, Founding Co-Chair of the Niagara Escarpment Resource Network. "The glaciers did come into play, in terms of helping to expose that outer edge.
"As they advanced from the north, the last glacier more or less split in half when it hit Door County. The west side of the glacier went along the Escarpment corridor, exposed that cliff face, dug out the Bay of Green Bay, Lake Winnebago and Horicon Marsh."
In short, and speaking geologically, of course, the Escarpment is a pretty big deal ... and much more than just a really long cliff. The Escarpment influences weather patterns along its length and thanks to a number of factors, even miles away from the cliff face, creates a unique environment featuring numerous plant and wildlife species not found anywhere else in North America or, in some cases, the world.
"Groundwater, for example, which seeps out through the rock face and creates the micro-climate and sort of a cooling effect that allows a variety of plant and animal species to exist," Fowle says. "A lot of people want to focus on the cliff face but we need to be broader with that definition."
It's also much, much more than just a geological formation. The Escarpment – both the Ledge and land running alongside it – have been a focal point for civilization dating back to the first human settlers.
"There is a lot of archeological evidence dating back to the Paleo-Indian period that the land surrounding the Escarpment was used for spiritual gathering places and the like,' says Fowle. "It provided a very good vantage point, sort of a natural path up and down that part of the state. An area like High Cliff State Park would have been very important not only for its prominence along the lake and the vistas that it offers."
Resources of the Escarpment continued to be utilized well into the 19th and 20th Centuries, from the French fur traders to the Industrial revolution. The limestone, especially, became a popular commodity and helped provide a foundation for the growth of urban Wisconsin.
Use of the Escarpment is found all along its length here in the state. The stone was used for building homes, churches and other structures. Within about two miles, on either side of the cliff face, there are approximately 500 designated historic sites and structures.
In the 21st Century, the Escarpment is still providing the basis for development and construction.
"It continues today," Fowle says. "It's still one of the state's top-rated resources for building stone in Wisconsin. We export a fair amount of stone, whether it's for landscaping, building or even certain Corps of Engineers needs like riff raff and other shoreline protection materials."
Today, much of the land alongside the Ledge, is protected land. High Cliff State Park, located on the northeast shore of Lake Winnebago is perhaps the best-known site. Within the 1,187-acre park is a 125-acre state natural area, protecting the cliff environments, forest area and more than a mile of Lake Winnebago shoreline. The park also contains effigy mounds and other important archaeological features.
Visitors can get an up-close look at the cliff by following the 3.7-mile Red Bird Trail, which runs along the top of the ledge or the 2.3-mile Lime-Kiln Trail, which climbs the cliffs and runs through the Niagara Escarpment State Natural Area and many historic lime kiln ruins.
There are also some examples in Southeast Wisconsin, even though the rocky cliffs of the Escarpment are buried beneath the ground. In Menomonee Falls, Lime Kiln Park surrounds the original falls of the Menomonee River and the remnants of historic lime kilns and a former limestone quarry.
The river flows through a small gorge of Escarpment landscape with 5-to-10-foot bluffs on either side. Even closer to home, you can catch a glimpse of the Escarpment on your next trip to Miller Park. The large cliff on the southwest side of the stadium, along the VA Center land is actually part of the Escarpment, too, and contains the remains of a prehistoric coral reef.
Along with High Cliff, there are several other state parks, wildlife refuges and natural areas running along the Escarpment corridor, all through the state. And at the same time, the Escarpment is still the bread and butter of many quarries and other industries.
Striking the right balance between preservation and production is an ongoing debate.
"We have to recognize that if we continue to live like we do and we want urban expansion, you need those materials,," Fowle says. "For every 20 miles you have to haul a truckload of gravel, it doubles the cost.
"If you look at the corridor and the urban areas located either side, they're relatively close proximity to those resources so it's of great value."
Finally, an article that's written like a pro. As a geologist (yes there are geologists living in the area) it's nice to read about geology from the area we live in. Oil, gas and oil shale ----- drill ahead!
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