Taking on Tower Hill’s Trails

By Paul and Jude Kuenn

What goes up must come down. That is exactly what was happening to the shot tower trails at Tower Hill State Park due to frost heaving and erosion. Why the Civilian Conservation Corps built the terraced trail in this way will never be known as it doesn’t follow the dry-stacking norm in other parts of our state. Here they decided to retain the uphill side of the trail with vertically cemented pieces of sandstone instead of the usual horizontally (and significantly stronger) laid stones. Gravity always works, especially on such a steep slope. 

Parts of Tower Park’s trail system, especially those facing the Wisconsin River, closed years ago due to deterioration. It directed hikers from the mid-level trail above the cliff, to the bottom of the wooden section of the drop tower shaft, then onto the top trail. This trail ascends steeply laid sandstone steps and was dug deeply into the slope. Much of that slope had slumped into the trail, pushing the CCC side wall into the trail. Most of the steps are now down sloped, which makes for dangerous footing. 

Where do we start to make improvements? Of course, let’s call Ellis Pifer, who actually lived on the land in his youth. He recently unearthed many of the overgrown projects of the CCC that he played on as a kid. When we started the big dig last October after the park officially closed, we heard a friendly shout from above: “Hey, you’re working on the wrong trail.” That was Park Ranger Pat Kraska, who thought we would begin by starting repair work on the short stone steps near the top by the shot tower’s main entrance. But we like to take on more significant projects first. 

To give us elbow room and remove the large stepping stones, we wanted to take out the retaining wall first. For protection, we pounded in 5-foot rebar into the lower slope next to the low side of the trail to prevent anymore shifting. A safety rope ran between trees to keep us from sliding down to the lower trail. While disassembling this wall, you could see there were no keystone rocks used to tie the wall into the slope above. A few taps of the sledgehammer had it break into pieces, many of which were cemented vertically together with an old lime and sand mix. To show how stable the old cement was, most of the wall broke at the stone, not the joints. Small pieces were used as fill on the downhill side of the trail. 

We removed about 25 feet of the wall and began digging up the stepping stones. Some of these weighed a few hundred pounds and were lifted with our long pry bars and lumber from the collapsed railing. Once these “flagstones” were vertical, we could roll or walk them a few feet to their new location on the newly leveled trail. Of the two October weekends we were there, the first showed us just how much more work was needed. At least the weather was nice! 

We celebrated Halloween braving much cooler and wetter weather; working hard kept us warm. We used most of the retaining wall for the dry-stacked lower side of the trail. We also wanted to preserve what was left of the sagging deck for those who like to view into the shaft. Using the lumber of the old railing, and a car jack, we were able to lift the corner of the deck 10” for a proper level and stop the bouncing. While Jude and Ellis filled and leveled the new upper section of trail with gravel, Paul went to the bottom of the steps to begin demolition and investigate just how it was built. At the end of our efforts, a “trail closed” sign was reposted. It had been thrown into the woods by delinquents.

What’s next? As we ran out of on-site sandstone to continue the dry-stacked retaining wall, and replace broken tread stone, the future is somewhat unknown. We decided to write this story before spring, when we want to get back to Tower Hill to continue the trail repair. We are desperately in need of local sandstone to continue the project. Also, we wouldn’t mind some physical assistance. This volunteer project is a labor of love, but we certainly wouldn’t mind sharing time with others if we do it wearing masks and following proper distancing, considering the COVID-19 pandemic. Think of the shape you could be in after moving or lifting stone and carrying bags of cement up and down a trail. Anyone interested in locating some good local flagstones and/or helping us directly? Please contact Paul at KuennLLC.com.

Paul and Jude Kuenn live in Appleton and belong to several “Friends of” nonprofit organizations that support our treasured state parks. They are very active with Friends of Plum and Pilot Islands, part of the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They’d like to see a Friends group for Tower Hill State Park! For previous stories on the Kuenns’ work at Tower Hill, see the July 2016 and January 2019 issues of Voice of the River Valley.