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Off Beat: Eagle Scout takes stroll down memory lane with path project

Eagle Scout unearths path connecting downtown Eau Claire, East Side Hill

posted May 17, 2015 12:00 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Eric Lindquist

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    Contributed photo | Enlarge
    - For his Eagle Scout project, Memorial High School junior Dan Ivankovic organized volunteers to unearth and clean up this historical brick path connecting South Dewey Street downtown to the top of the East Side Hill.

When Memorial High School junior Dan Ivankovic was looking for an Eagle Scout project last summer, he stumbled across an idea that helped him revive a key link to past Eau Claire residents — both human and bovine.

Yep, I’m talking about cows that once roamed the neighborhoods in what is now downtown Eau Claire.

As the story goes, residents in the mid- to late 19th century used to let their cattle follow a path from downtown to the top of the East Side Hill so they could graze at Forest Hill Cemetery. The “road” to the top of the bluff was built in 1865, or seven years before Eau Claire was incorporated as a city, according to “Sawdust City,” the Eau Claire history book written by Lois Barland.

In 1927, the path was paved with bricks taken up from West Grand Avenue and Barstow Street when they were paved with concrete, according to Barland’s follow-up history book “The Rivers Flow On.”

But eventually, after years of neglect, the nearly abandoned path lost its luster. The red bricks were buried beneath several inches of dirt and plant material, seemingly hidden from the world forever.

But the late Dave Duax, a local history buff and city councilman who died last month, refused to let this historical gem fade into the past. He called city engineer David Solberg last year and took him on a walk up the overgrown walkway, scraping away the organic blanket to reveal the hidden brick pavers. Solberg recalled Duax claiming the path also was used to take caskets up the hill to Forest Hill Cemetery before the route was replaced by the Harding Avenue hill to the south. 

An impressed Solberg, who previously hadn’t been aware of the path, considered applying for a transportation alternative program grant to help restore the cobblestone street but instead mentioned it to a friend with Scouting connections as a possible Eagle project.

That’s where Ivankovic entered the trail’s timeline, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

The ambitious Scout met with Solberg, Duax and city Parks and Forestry superintendent Todd Chwala to discuss the project. In addition, he researched the path’s history, rounded up more than 60 volunteers to help with the restoration and raised more than $5,000 to cover plantings and benches near the trailheads.

Ivankovic said he hopes one bench could be dedicated to Duax — the inspiration behind the project.

Path improvement

In two major work days, Ivankovic and his volunteer army devoted more than 350 hours to uncovering all of the brick pavers, cleaning up the path, removing invasive species and following Chwala’s advice by planting sumac, lilacs, staghorn and flowering crab trees to help control erosion and replace some shrubs and trees that had been vandalized in the area.

“It looks considerably different now,” Chwala said. “Before the project, unless you dug down through about 4 to 5 inches of mulch, you didn’t even realize there was a cobblestone path there.”

The trail looked about 2 feet wide before the project unearthed a sloping 8-foot-wide road that covers the equivalent of two city blocks as it curves up the hill.

“I was really happy with how it turned out. I think it’s beautiful,” Invankovic said. “Now you can see the road if you drive down Dewey Street toward it, and it kind of looks like the yellow brick road from the ’Wizard of Oz.’ ”

Solberg expressed admiration for Invankovic’s leadership.

“For zero dollars out of the city, we got an awfully nice project,” Solberg said.

A lingering shortcoming is the brick path ends at a curb about 3 feet above the road. Solberg said he hopes to address that obstacle along with a South Dewey Street reconstruction tentatively scheduled for 2019. At that point, he would like to use some leftover bricks from other city projects to extend the path to street level and build a more inviting trailhead. 

Linking past, future

The amazing thing to me is the path connects with downtown at the junction of South Dewey and Emery streets — right behind the Eau Claire Press Co. building where I have been reporting for duty most days for more than 30 years.

Some investigative reporter I am. I had no idea this buried treasure was practically right under my feet all these years.

That finally changed a few weeks ago when my son, Jackson, mentioned a friend (Ivankovic) was working on the path restoration for his Eagle Scout project. Now, thanks to Ivankovic’s unveiling efforts, I see the lower end of the trail every day when I go to work.

The other day I even stepped away from my desk — for just a few minutes, I swear — and followed the path to the top of the hill. With the sound of birds chirping, a woodpecker working on a dead tree and church bells ringing in the distance, the route offered a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the city I could see below through the still-budding trees.

Invankovic revealed it is his hope that the project will provide a walkway for generations of future residents at the same time it promotes a greater appreciation of the city’s history.

“I love history, and I’m all for having cities preserve their historical sites,” he said, “so I really connected with this project.”

So have others, as several residents have thanked him for his efforts and told him the project will have a meaningful impact on the community. A grateful Ivankovic pledged to continue to try to keep up the look and legacy of the road, even after he completes his Eagle Scout requirements.

“This is one of the things in my life that I’m going to be the most proud of,” he said. “This surpassed anything that I ever dreamed of doing.”

Lindquist can be reached at 715-833-9209, 800-236-7077 or eric.lindquist@ecpc.com.