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Steensland Bridge

Steensland Bridge (1906 ca.)

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-35795

East Washington Avenue

The current rebuilding of East Washington Avenue is the latest in a series of efforts to improve transportation on the east side of Madison reaching back more than a century and a half.

Leonard J. Farwell, a future Wisconsin governor, purchased most of the east side in 1847 and began improving it in 1849. Among his projects were laying out East Washington Avenue and draining the marshes between the Capitol and the Yahara River. In 1851 Farwell was nominated by the Whigs as chairman of the board of supervisors, and, as reported in the 1880 History of Dane County, “it was at once seen by the Democrats that it was a formidable name to run against. Andrew Bishop harangued a crowd, saying in substance ‘that if Farwell was elected he would put the town into $10,000 expense for ditching his marsh, while his opponent, Barnard, would be an eminently safe man.’ Upon this, an Irishman on the outside of the crowd, nudging another, thus expressed himself: ‘Pat, do ye mind that now? If Farwell’s elected he will spind tin thousand dollars a ditchin’ the marsh, and Barnard niver a cent. Bish says so. Farwell’s the man for us, be jabers.’”

On April 12, 1903, the City Council asked the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association to draw up a plan, at no cost to the city, to beautify East Washington Avenue. John Olin, president of the Association, provided the plan on June 12.

There was no action for two years, but in April 1905 the Council referred the plan, drawn up by Chicago landscape artist O. C. Simonds, to the street committee. It called for a boulevard from Butler to Baldwin streets, with a 24-foot wide road on each side of the boulevard. The boulevard was to be discontinued at the Yahara River bridge and railroad tracks, but would reappear on the other side of the tracks and run to the city limits. Eventually, the market and water tower in the block near the Capitol, both eyesores, were to be removed.

By September contractor George Keachie was macadamizing East Washington between Baldwin Street and the river.

As part of the beautification project, Halle Steensland donated a new bridge over the Yahara River in honor of his 50 years as a resident of Madison. A goatherd when young, he came to Madison in 1855 to work as a grocery clerk; his ability to speak German, Norwegian and English made him invaluable. He started a crockery and grocery business in 1859, and in 1871 was a founder of the Hekla Fire Insurance Company, serving as secretary-treasurer and later president. He also founded the Savings, Loan and Trust Company. In 1863 he purchased 175 acres in what is now Maple Bluff (his house, now on the National Register of Historic Places, was later owned by the La Follettes). He was one of the organizers of the Bethel Lutheran Church, and was a member of the city council. Steensland was vice consul in Wisconsin for Norway and Sweden for 33 years, and King Haakon of Norway made him a Knight First Class of the Royal Order of St. Olaf. Halle donated the library at St. Olaf’s College in Northfield, Minnesota. He was on the board of the MP&PDA. His house at 315 North Carroll Street is a Madison landmark.

On October 7, Steensland was the first person to cross the new bridge, driving across in his buggy. John Olin was the second, on horseback.

As for the water tower, it was not dismantled until December 1920.

Mark Gajewski