Nicolet National Forest
Snaking through the Nicolet National Forest is Highway 77. Dubbed the Great Divide Scenic Byway, it rides a ridge that separates water headed north to Lake Superior and that headed south to the Mississippi. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/On^ste82)

Picnic in the center of the Western Hemisphere, align yourself to the Poles, and cruise the Subcontinental Divide, all without leaving Wisconsin.

Wisconsin can indeed claim to be the very center of the universe. Okay, maybe not the whole universe, but at least the center of the northern half of the western hemisphere. Or the western half of the northern hemisphere. Actually, there are a few interesting quirks of geography that you might see when traveling about the state.

You are Here: Halfway Between the North Pole and the Equator

Back in the 1930s, the editor and publisher of the Marinette Eagle, Frank E. Noyes, wanted people to know where they were, so he erected a series of road signs that tell you that you are at the “Theoretical Halfway Point” with arrows pointing north to the North Pole and south to the Equator. Noyes corresponded with the National Geographic Society for several years before erecting three signs in Marinette County, including one along Highway 141 a few miles north of Lena. The 45th parallel bisects Wisconsin from just north of Jacksonport in Door County on the east to near Hudson on the Mississippi. The reason the 45th parallel is the “theoretical” halfway line is because the earth bulges at the equator and is flattened at the pole, making the halfway point off by a few miles.

Halfway-to-the-North-Pole
A marker in Marinette lets travelers know just where they are in relation to the North Pole. (Photo by Susan Lampert-Smith)

Poniatowski’s Claim to Fame is Being the Center of the Hemisphere

Another local booster, tavern owner John Gesicki realized that his little Marathon County community of Poniatowski was not only on the 45th parallel, but also where the 90th West Meridian intersects, marking the spot halfway between the Greenwich Meridian and the International Date Line. This made tiny Poniatowski the center of the northern half of the western hemisphere. There are only four of these spots on the globe, and Poniatowski is the only one you can visit because the one in China is high in remote mountains and the two in the southern hemisphere are under the oceans. 

Back in the 1990s, before the tavern closed, Gesicki kept a log of people who visited the exact center of the hemisphere and sold lots of “45 X 90 Club” bumper stickers, a sure way to identify the cars of geography geeks. The tavern is gone, but you can visit a tiny county park on Meridian Road that shows where you can picnic in the exact center of the hemisphere.

‘Point of Beginning’ Marks the Birth of Wisconsin

Another interesting geographical marker is near the southwest Wisconsin village of Sinsinawa. A stone mound marked the “Point of Beginning” that led to Wisconsin (then Michigan Territory) being mapped starting in 1831.

Surveyor Lucius Lyons began mapping what would become Wisconsin at the point where the fourth principal meridian crossed the northern border of Illinois. The drive to start mapping in the southwest corner of Wisconsin was driven by the lead rush, and the desire to begin selling these mineral-rich properties.

Of course, the Sac and Fox Tribe was already lead mining in the area, so the survey was also part of evicting the Indians from their land. The Blackhawk War the next year was the result. Every property abstract description in Wisconsin refers back to this “Point of Beginning.”

Subcontinental Divide Cuts Across The State

If you live in a boring state—like Iowa for instance—all the rain that falls on your state is headed to the same destination. But thanks to the St. Lawrence River Divide, which snakes across Wisconsin from Duluth to Kenosha, our state contributes to both the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River.

As a sign in the Nicolet National Forest east of Eagle River points out, a raindrop falling on one side of the sign will head down the Pine and Menominee rivers to Lake Michigan, while a drop on the other side will make its way down the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers to the gulf.

Highway 77 between Glidden and Hayward is known as the Great Divide Scenic Byway, as it rides a ridge that separates water headed north to Lake Superior and that headed south to the Mississippi.

Further south in the Milwaukee area, Sunnyslope Road divides the watersheds. This has political implications, as communities to the west in Waukesha County would like to tap into Lake Michigan water to replace their groundwater supplies plagued by naturally occurring radium. 

Why Isn’t The Upper Peninsula Part of Wisconsin?

Let’s face it, anyone outside the Upper Midwest probably thinks we’re all the same state. There’s an entire website devoted to “Upper Peninsula Maps Gone Wrong.” And the Upper Peninsula Twitter account sometimes joins Wisconsin if our football teams are beating their teams.

But the real reason goes back to before Wisconsin was even a state. Michigan was mad about losing “The Toledo Strip” to Ohio and got the U.P. as a consolation prize when it became a state in 1837. It seemed like a much better deal for Michigan when valuable minerals were discovered there later.

Why is There a Town Named Cornell in Wisconsin?

Yes, the Dairy State has a town named after its bitter rival in collegiate dairy cow judging competitions (that’s another story) and yes, it is the same Cornell.

Land grant colleges like the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Cornell University were set up by the Morrill Act to teach practical skills to the populace and were funded by selling federal property. But the property that funded Cornell University in upstate New York was timberland in Chippewa County, Wis. 

Ezra Cornell, the owner of Western Union telegraph company, owned vast quantities of virgin timber in Wisconsin, and when the land was sold on his death, the money endowed Cornell and the university was named after him. Cornell is the only land grant university in the Ivy League.