I have never been to the lost city in Madison, Wisconsin. In fact, I didn’t know the city of Madison contained a “lost city” until a friend recently made me aware of the location. To my surprise, a little research on the topic showed the remnants of a failed 1920s residential development in what is now the University of Wisconsin Arboretum still exists among the overgrowth of forest and plant life that makes up the expanse of wilderness at the heart of Madison. Interested to experience such history firsthand, I decided I would make time to find Madison’s lost city before winter’s grip took hold and blanketed the arboretum in snow. As a result, I rose with the sun this morning and made the short trip to the Lost City Forest in the University of Wisconsin Arboretum. The trip would ultimately prove to be a unique experience with some nearly forgotten history of the city I call home.
When I arrived at the arboretum this morning the sun had yet to break the clouds clinging to the eastern horizon. Guided by the subdued light of a prolonged dawn, I parked my car in a small, hidden parking lot bordering the arboretum’s eastern edge and made my way past a metal gate blocking a main passage into the forest. As I walked down the wide, silent trail I periodically looked through the covering of fallen leaves scattered across the ground for some signs of old structures and concrete. My efforts to search in the thick of the woods made me oblivious to the fact that old stretches of concrete were resting beneath my feet along the main path leading into the forest. Several hundred yards into my journey, I finally noticed a broken slab of jagged concrete angled toward the sky through the leaves.
The discovery stopped me dead in my tracks and caused me to start kicking leaves away from the space around me. Unbeknownst to me, the first trace of the lost city had been resting beneath my feet since I first entered on the forest trail. Astonished, I took a moment to weigh the possibility of the concrete being the remnants of an old road that once ran through the lost city. A quick check of an old map of the area on my phone revealed in fact that was the case, which immediately raised my hopes I would discover the buildings and walkways that once accompanied the remains of the street under my feet. As a result, I gathered my bearings and pressed deeper into the woods, knowing I was on the right trail to finding the lost city.
As I walked deeper into the forest, I came upon several bends in the trail that led around a wooded are marked as “Lost City Forest” on my map of the area. Realizing the area likely gained the name for a reason, I slowly paced the edge of the forest until I came upon an opening in the thick, overgrown underbrush covering nearly every inch of the forest floor. Without hesitation, I plunged into the opening and began dodging fallen trees and branches on a northern trajectory into the center of Lost City Forest. The resistance posed by the shrubbery and entangled bushes made progress slow, but my drive to find the remains of the lost city helped me power through the onslaught pokes, prods, and scratches coming at me from every angle in the forest.
|Wandering through the woods in search of a forgotten place|
Eventually, my path took me to the top of a small knoll cleared by the recent collapse of a massive tree that met it demise in the movement of time. I stopped briefly to look at my surroundings in hopes of catching a glimpse of the lost city from the higher vantage point. Discouragingly, my efforts proved fruitless as the density of the brush on the forest floor prevent any long distance visibility through the forest. As I was about to turn back and cover the ground I had previous traveled, my eyes caught the sight of a incredibly narrow path hidden behind the fallen tree. Hopeful the path was more than a game trail, I decided I would follow it through the forest in my continued exploration of the space.
Still determined to find more signs of the lost city, I quickly traversed the fallen tree and began the slow trek down the little-used trail leading deeper into the forest. I carefully worked my way through walls of brush and interlocked branches of yearling trees as I pressed on, which eventually led me to another obscure opening among the otherwise dense forest. Confused, I looked around the area surrounding the opening, which led me to discover an odd stretch of raised earth running a straight line through the woods. With trees sparsely populating the mound’s surface, I took a closer look down the length of the mound, which quickly tapered off into the familiar sight of dense forest. “That can’t be natural,” I said out loud as I stood before the mound attempting to discern the source of the raised shape. In an effort to get a better view of the feature, I took a step backward across the forest floor with a low movement through the leaf cover. As I moved the unexpected sound of a hard object running over concrete broke the air, which caused me to immediately snap my head toward the ground beneath me. With a quick sweeping motion of my leg across the ground beneath me the recognizable texture of aged concrete emerged, leaving me stunned at my discovery.
|Circa 1920, the pavement now barely breaks |
through newly fallen leaves
In response to my unexpected find, I rapidly kicked leaves away from the earth around me until several feet of concrete slabs sat exposed before me. In my effort to find the lost city in the thick of the arboretum forest, I had stumbled upon the obvious sight of a sidewalk running through the middle of the forest. At once, a haunting and exciting feeling rushed into my system as the realness of the history beneath my feet settled in. Acknowledging the walkway likely provided me the best opportunity to track down the ruins of the homes that once occupied the lost city, I followed the line of the concrete through the forest and plotted a course to travel further into the woods. Although the thickness of the undergrowth provided its routine resistance, I pushed on down path until my eyes met the sight I had been seeking in my first experience with Madison’s lost city.
|The crumbling foundation of a house|
Some distance to the east of the Lost City Forest’s center, low jagged concrete walls jutted out of the soil around an unnatural depression in the forest floor. At one end of the rubble a small set of concrete stairs rested at an angle on the slope of one side of the depression. There was no mistaking what I had come across. I was looking at the remains of a 90 year old foundation for a house that was once intended to be a part of a new Madison suburb. Excited by the discovery, I immediately climbed down the smoothed turf rolling over the remaining walls and walked into the middle of the standing foundation. There I found signs of old plumbing and clear divisions in the structure, which gave me direction to visually reconstruct aspects of the building that once stood on the location. As I ran my hand across the aged, crumbling walls of the lost city ruins, I thought about the hope of expansion that once occupied the space and the veil of earth cast over that stifled dream by the progression of time. The absence of permanence hung in the air as I stood in the silence of Madison’s lost city. That moment left an impression I won’t likely forget, and it reminded me stories are the only true vehicle to carry forward the experiences we have in our lives.
Although it took me several minutes, I ultimately broke out of my thoughts to continue my walk through the woods. My path took me through the thick of more brush and past a well several dozen feet from the deteriorating house I had discovered moments earlier. Eventually, I found myself back on a worn path detailed on my map that led back toward the arboretum entrance. In response, I began the trek back to the gravel lot where my car was parked to make good on my outstanding obligations for the day. In my final moments in the Lost City Forest I paused briefly and looked at the towering autumnal trees breaking up the morning sun and scattering leaves across the ground. I did my best to imagine them replaced by winding streets lined with rows of houses in a town absorbed by the city of Madison, but the beauty and peace of the forest promptly scrubbed the thought from my mind. “It is better this way,” I said to the open air as I kicked my feet back into motion and walked around the arboretum fence toward my car. It was a comment I knew I meant, but the truth is I didn’t know if I was talking about the forest around me or the life I’ve been living these past six months.