Photos by Greg Seitz, St. Croix 360
The confluence of the St. Croix and Willow Rivers, on the border between Hudson and North Hudson, Wisc., is a storied site. Local trail advocates are now trying to write a new chapter. They have an idea to put a historic railroad trestle back in service for a new purpose, opening up the special spot where two rivers meet.
If successful, a new paved path for bicycles and pedestrians would cross the nearly 150-year-old train bridge at the mouth of the Willow, next to the dam that makes Lake Mallalieu. The trail could then connect to downtown Hudson by going under an active rail bridge, and down an existing path to Lakefront Park.
In the other direction, entering North Hudson, the trail would make possible a key connection all the way to Stillwater. The ultimate goal is to link all the communities along this stretch of river with safe off-highway trails.
“That’s what we’re looking at, building a bridge between two communities and connecting the two bridges,” says Mark Gherty of Hudson. Gherty is a board member with the St. Croix Bike & Pedestrian Coalition, a seven-year-old group working to develop trails throughout the western Wisconsin county.
Connecting “the two bridges” means linking Stillwater and Hudson. The popular five-mile Loop Trail that opened in May of this year, crossing the new and old Stillwater bridges, would ideally offer an option to head south all the way to Stillwater’s sister city on the other side of the St. Croix.
The proponents have no illusions it will be easy project. The site’s land ownership is a tangle of multiple municipalities, St. Croix County, and the Union Pacific railroad. The trail would have to go under an active rail line. But the group thinks it’s worth the effort.
“It’s like the idea that you plant a tree that you’ll never sit under, or enjoy its shade or fruit,” Gherty says. It’s a long-term vision that he sees eventually ranking with beloved Birkmose or Prospect Parks in Hudson. He sees it drawing visitors from around the region.
Hudson and North Hudson are currently connected for all vehicles by a busy bridge on Highway 35 (which shares Second Street in Hudson and Sixth Street in North Hudson). Creating a pedestrian and bicyclist crossing on the railroad bridge would separate the traffic, and be the focal point of a park.
From 1872 to the 1970s, trains regularly crossed the sturdy trestle to access repair shops in North Hudson. The facilities employed 500 people at peak in the early 20th century — many of the employees were Italian immigrants who continue to give North Hudson much of its cultural identity.
The shops closed in 1957, and the last train reportedly crossed the trestle in the 1970s. Since then, the timber structure has sat unused. The people and bicycles who might cross it in the future would be a stark contrast to the steam engines that pulled cars across it a hundred years ago.
If the railroad trestle can be purchased from the Union Pacific, project proponents say the span could be the key to a new park that also provides shorefishing, birdwatching, and more. It would open up access to a wild area in the heart of the community, a place occupied by Dakota people since at least 1640.
“We have the potential for a wonderful thing here,” says Susan Heuiser, also a board member for the St. Croix Bike & Pedestrian Coalition.
Lake Mallalieu is 289 acres of what was once wetlands and stream meanders as the Willow joined the St. Croix. Today, the last mile-and-a-half of the river is inundated, forming a beloved body of water for people who live, boat, and fish on it.
The site is not only where early European explorers recorded the habitation of indigenous people, but also where the first white immigrants to what’s now Hudson built their home in 1840, a key to the community’s existence. Since then it’s been dammed for mills and electricity, seen countless trains cross it, and developed into a scenic waterfront neighborhood.
Today, pelicans stop off during migration as they might have for millennia. Thousands of ducks swirl around in spring and fall. Anglers catch bass and pike, sunfish and bluegills. Kayakers glide along the shorelines. Kids splash in the water. Trumpeter swans return each winter to the mouth of the river where the water stays open all year.
In the future, a new park and bridge could bring people up close to these magical sights.
“It has the ability to be a gem of the valley,” Gherty says.
Discussions are underway between the coalition, the village of North Hudson, the city of Hudson, and St. Croix County. The bridge has been appraised between $120,000 and $250,000, and Union Pacific is willing to sell it. That’s the first page of this latest chapter.