Site 3 Observatory Hill

Observatory Hill is presently undergoing restoration work by the DNR.  While it may look like it has been devastated, in truth, it is being restored to a habitat and landscape that will be much closer to what the early settlers saw when they moved here and closer to how the Native Americans managed the land with fires they set regularly. Wild fires were also more common before settlers came.  Today they are controlled, but before settlers, the fires burned themselves out and the prairie landscape with oak openings was what was here in Marquette County and much of Wisconsin.  So the Observatory Hill you might be used to seeing with invasive black locust, honeysuckle and buckthorn is gone.  The rhyolite hill with this open canopy today, is much more like what the Muir family and other early settlers would have seen. Read more about this restoration farther down and watch for red-headed woodpeckers as they return to the restored landscape. 

The Wisconsin oak openings were a summer paradise for song birds, and a fine place to get acquainted with them; for the trees stood wide apart, allowing one to see the happy home-seekers as they arrived in the spring, their mating, nest-building, the brooding and feeding of the young, and, after they were full-fledged and strong, to see all the families of the neighborhood gathering and getting ready to leave in the fall.                    John Muir

John Muir wrote in The Story of My Boyhood and Youth that many Sunday afternoons were spent “on the highest rocky hill in the neighborhood, called the Observatory….”   

Observatory Hill is an important historic and geologic landmark in Marquette County and was a favorite haunt of famed naturalist John Muir who grew up in Marquette County.  For generations, early settlers picked ferns to adorn their churches and held picnics on the beautiful land at Observatory Hill. 

            The hill is the highest point in the county, rising 300 feet above the surrounding land. It is 1500 feet above sea level.  Observatory Hill is made of rhyolite which is not really granite.  Both are formed from magma, but granite was cooled more slowly, forming larger grains while rhyolite, because it was extruded, cooled faster and the grains are much smaller.  Granite is made of intruded (in lay person's terms, underground)  magma.  Chemically, they are the same, but the smaller crystals are the telling trait of rhyolite. The rhyolite that makes up Observatory Hill is 1.76 billion years old.     The smooth rock surface is marred with striations made by the glacier over 12,000 years ago when it was receding back over the land.  Look at the next photo that shows some glacial striations. 

    The first people who lived in what we know today as Marquette County, are called Paleo Indians by anthropologists. They followed the receding glacier in search of food in the changing landscape.  Native Americans used the promontory of rhyolite, pecking a thunderbird and other petroglyphs into the rock over 5,000 years ago. This was during the Archaic culture which followed Paleo Indian culture.  The petroglyphs were recognized by Dr. Jack Steinbring, an archeologist and rock art expert,  in 1999. 

Dr. Jack Steinbring, Professor of Anthropology who identified the petroglyphs on Observatory Hill writes, “Solidly pecked and heavily weathered petroglyph at the summit of Observatory Hill, Marquette County, Wisconsin. Triangle with "x" is an elevation mark. It appears to have been made across an extremely weathered petroglyph. The larger petroglyph appears to be an  "anthropomorphic thunderbird," It has wing-like appendages and three-toed  feet. This specimen exhibits minute pecking, and most resembles those identified within early Archaic iconic traditions. The Observatory Hill petroglyph is similar to one reported from Washington State Park in Missouri.  Evidence is growing rapidly that this correspondence of mounds,  petroforms, trails, and other ceremonial or ritual features in Marquette County has probably  been ignored because petroforms are the most fragile and susceptible to  removal, and because associated mounds have been destroyed by cultivation    There is a potential in this slowly emerging pattern of a  very large scale and sophisticated system of cultural exploitation. It is uniquely suited to the archaeology of landscape.”

The petroglyphs are very hard to see, but below is a photo of the thunderbird identified by Dr. Steinbring.  In the lower center of the photo you can see three lines extending downward.  This is one foot with three toes of the figure. 

For many years in settler times, a light was kept on the hill to help night time travelers.   A memoir  in the archives of the Marquette County Historical Society tells the story of the tower and light.  It reads

I would like to share with you how my mother Mrs. Carrie J. Round placed the lamp in the tower on the Observatory Hill.

            The United States Government had a tower built on the east promontory of the Observatory Hill.  Another such tower was built on Rib Mountain.  The purpose of this tower was for a Government Survey which was being made by the United States Government.

            The huge timbers were placed upright and secured in place by large stones and cement.  An open board stairs extended from the ground to a small platform on top of the tower where one could stand.   It was from this platform she stood to put the lamp in place.

            Mrs. James Smith had a Government Contract to light the kerosene lamp each day and place it in the tower.  This necessitated a half mile climb from their home at the foot of the hill to the tower.  Because of ill health Mrs. Smith had her daughter Carrie do this for her.

            As Carrie started out one late afternoon she noticed in the north a few dark clouds appearing, but the sun was still shining.  She couldn’t hurry because she was carrying the lamp.

            If you have ever carried a lamp from one room to the next you would know the reason for being especially careful in a trip out of doors up a steady incline with a kerosene lamp in your hands.

            After entering their wood lot she passed by the water hole which had been made by her father for the stock to drink from.  Then started the rough path to the tower.  Finally reaching the tower she climb the steps to the platform to light the lamp.

            In her apron pocket were three matches and the side of a match box for lighting the match.  She had set the lamp on the platform and with the chimney off was kneeling on the top step.  By this time the wind was blowing fiercely and the match was blown out as soon as it ignited.  She took the second match and cupped her left hand to protect the flame, but just as she put it to the wick again the flame was blown out.  Now she knew she must protect and save the last match for its purpose.  She got on the platform, turned her back to the wind, with the lamp in front of her (I do believe she asked God to help her.) With the third match she lit the lamp and placed it in its place and descended the steps.

            As she started down the path toward home the sun had disappeared, and the sky had turned black.  The wind blew harder and harder with every step she took.  Branches of the trees and bushes whipped in her face.  A large bird, perhaps an owl flew across, striking her.  Small birds were twittering on all sides.  They, too, were concerned of the oncoming storm.  Hurrying carefully lest she would fall, she finally reached the gate that led from the wood lot.   She paused for a moment under a large oak.

            The lightening flashed and a clap of thunder drove her quickly on her way.  The rain came in sheets and beat against her but she finally reached the porch.  She was greeted heartily by her mother who was holding the door open for her.

            During the night Carrie relived her trip to the tower. The next day was bright and sunny as she went up the hill to get the lamp to prepare it for the evening.

            Trees were uprooted and blown down across the path.  When she reached the tower, it too had blown down.  She carried the word back to her mother.

            Mrs. Smith wrote and told the Government Office of what had happened.  The tower was never rebuilt.  The timbers lay upon the ground.   Years later when a fire swept over the hill it burned part of them.  I can remember seeing the blackened timbers.     


At the start of quarrying in Montello,  another interesting company formed in Marquette County also with the goal of striking it rich through rock.  May 26, 1882, the Montello Express reported interest in the rock on Observatory Hill in the Town of Buffalo. More newspaper reports followed.

November 10, 1883  The Observatory Hill Granite Co has formally organized and filed its papers in the Register of Deeds Office, with officers as follows:  Pres, Geo Murison; VP, R W Hume; Sec-Treas, C L Dering; Directors, Geo Murison, C L Dering, R W Hume, Guy Whitney and D C Mainer.  The company has opened the quarry and has already for shipping 5,000 paving stones.  They are satisfied that they own as good a paving quarry of stone as there is in the State, of a quality second to none.

November 24, 1883  Chairman Robert Hume, of Moundville, brought in a fine specimen of granite from the Observatory Hill, this week.  Mr. Hume informs us that the rock is of much finer quality and more of a pink color than was at first supposed to be.  Mr. Hume and others interested with him in this rock, have struck a bonanza, and no mistake. 

            For whatever reason, and to the benefit of people over the years who have found the view from the highest hill in Marquette County breathtaking and a place of wonder, the new quarry company did not make a success of removing the rock.  Perhaps it was the distance the rock would have to be trucked to a rail station or perhaps the owners business acumen was not up to the rigors of quarrying successfully, but history loses sight of what happened to the quarry there until some years later despite the report in 1885, by the Portage register that the curling stones were being made of Observatory Hill Rhyolite.

Then, in 1903, Stella Carey initiated a lease with two men from the Milwaukee area to develop Observatory Hill as a quarry. Again, no major quarrying was done, although there were reports of bringing a rail spur to Observatory Hill for the transportation of the rock.  Today, all that can be seen of the quarrying efforts on Observatory Hill are some rock piles and evidence of cutting the rock.  There were days, however, when people had dreams of Observatory Hill rhyolite becoming another Montello granite success story. 

Above is a photo of quarried rock at Observatory Hill.  You can find the square cut rock along the hillside. 

There is a survey marker made in the rock on top of Observatory Hill. We believe it to have been made in an 1889 Geodetic Survey.  An early settler diary reads: When I was either 14 or 15, one day a well dressed, bearded man came and said that he was employed by the geological department of the U.S. Government and that his immediate job was mapping the country in regard to the results of the glacial era....  His name was Ira M. Buell. He wished to hire a team, rig, and driver. The upshot of it was that he made our house his headquarters and I became the driver of our team with the surrey. I became Mr. Buell's assistant. He was a good teacher. He explained his work and how he was going about it. He was making a contour map of the whole region. He had a staff and level, and to get the changes in the level he had an aneroid barometer. There were established points.

Observatory Hill is a special place in all seasons.  In the winter, springs that flow from the rock outcropping form frozen waterfalls. 

“...in spite of hard work and hard frost to enjoy the winter beauty—-the wonderful  radiance of the snow when it was starry with crystals, and the dawns and the sunsets and white noons, and the cheery, enlivening company of the brave Chickadees and    Nuthatches.  The winter stars far surpassed those of our stormy Scotland in brightness, and we gazed and gazed as though we had never seen stars before.” 

John Muir, My Boyhood and Youth

     Above is an Opuntia cactus that can be found on Observatory Hill.  Yes, there are cacti that grow in Wisconsin.  John Muir's sister wrote to him that she had a cactus she took as a specimen growing on her window sill.  Please DO NOT take any plants from Observatory Hill.   There are many special plants that grow on Observatory Hill. 

    Observatory Hill recently had major restoration begun on it by the DNR.  When the first settlers arrived here, the hill would have been pretty much bare of trees.  The Indians burned the vast prairies and fires that started from lightening were not stopped like they are today.  The land was much more open with only oak openings, a term that means small groups of oak trees located far from each other.  Oak trees are one of the only trees that can survive fires.  So the recent restoration is meant to return Observatory Hill to its pre-settlement condition. 

The timber work being done on the site will, the DNR said,  “fulfill the objective of more open woodland  by removing a portion of the hardwoods that are present on the property and open up the tree canopy to allow more of the native pre-settlement plants to become re-established in the understory on the site.  The understory plants will be maintained in the future through periodic controlled burning.”

The change in habitat on this State Natural Area should entice certain bird and animal species.   The DNR said, “Because the timber harvest will create more open grown conditions and the site will be maintained in the future through periodic prescribed controlled burning, native, pre-settlement plant and animal communities should occupy the site in the future.   The habitat will change from being nearly the same as every woodlot in Marquette County to an area where species that do best in savanna conditions can thrive. The site will still have white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and squirrels. The post- harvest habitat should provide ideal conditions for many species that are not commonly found or are declining in the county such Red-headed Woodpecker, Whip-poor-will, Western Glass Lizard, and Eastern Red Bat.”  

    People have long loved Observatory Hill.  Above is a list of plants that an early settler family, the Hulls, recalled growing on Observatory Hill. 

Observatory Hill tells us many stories of the past and continues to create more stories for the visitors who come to the Observatory. 

Timber work and restoration on Observatory Hill:          

The timber work being done on the site will, the DNR said,  “fulfill the objective of more open woodland  by removing a portion of the hardwoods that are present on the property and open up the tree canopy to allow more of the native pre-settlement plants to become re-established in the understory on the site.  The understory plants will be maintained in the future through periodic controlled burning.”

Native Americans often burned the land which kept thick forest growth in check and naturally occurring fires which are suppressed now, also kept the landscape much more open than it is today.  

The change in habitat on this State Natural Area should entice certain bird and animal species.   The DNR said, “Because the timber harvest will create more open grown conditions and the site will be maintained in the future through periodic prescribed controlled burning, native, pre-settlement plant and animal communities should occupy the site in the future.   The habitat will change from being nearly the same as every woodlot in Marquette County to an area where species that do best in savanna conditions can thrive. The site will still have white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and squirrels. The post- harvest habitat should provide ideal conditions for many species that are not commonly found or are declining in the county such Red-headed Woodpecker, Whip-poor-will, Western Glass Lizard, and Eastern Red Bat.”  

            Observatory Hill, is an important historic and geologic landmark in Marquette County and was a favorite haunt of famed naturalist John Muir who grew up in Marquette County.  For generations, early settlers picked ferns to adorn their churches and held picnics on the beautiful land at Observatory Hill. 

            The hill is the highest point in the county, rising 300 feet above the surrounding land.     

      The DNR said, “The timber harvest is part of a 3-phase plan to restore the site from a dense oak forest to oak savanna, i.e. scattered oaks that allow wildflowers and other native plants more sun to grow. Oak savannas are a globally and state imperiled landscape, so this restoration will help make sure this kind of natural community remains a part of our natural heritage and will benefit the rare plants and animals oak savannas support.”         

            High risk, low vigor, less desirable trees will be removed in favor of large, healthy trees, preferably white oak, along with scattered black oak, hickory, and cherry.  The trees that will be retained will act as a seed source for wildlife, provide den and nesting opportunities for wildlife, and also provide a seed source for future seedlings that will replace these large, mature trees in the future. Cedars at the top of the hill will also be thinned in the future. 

            About 125 acres will be logged, but the main area will be the oak forest on the hillsides of the hill as well as the thinning of a three acre red pine plantation on the north side of the property.