Take Some Unexpected Steps With These ‘Hidden’ Pathways

Tom Giffey, photos by Tina Ecker |

The Eau Claire County Courthouse stairs, now at Lake Eau Claire County Park.
The old Eau Claire County Courthouse stairs, now at Lake Eau Claire County Park.

History is often hidden in plain sight – sometimes right under our feet. In recent months, many of us have found ourselves taking a lot more walks than usual (for obvious reasons). If you’re sick of circling the same block for the umpteenth time, use this summer as an opportunity to explore some off-the-beaten-path paths. Here are a few hidden stairways and trails you and your family can explore:


Surprise! These courthouse stairs aren’t actually at the Eau Claire County Courthouse – at least not anymore. They’re miles away at Lake Eau Claire County Park outside Augusta. A pair of curving iron staircases were added to the exterior entrance of the old courthouse in 1875, and an iron railing (made by Eau Claire’s Phoenix Manufacturing Co.) was added in 1894. During a renovation in 1937, County Board Chairman Will S. Kelly bought and rescued these architectural features, repurposing them for use at the park, where you can find them today behind the clubhouse. The stairs outlived the courthouse, which was razed in 1973.


Putnam Trail (a.k.a. Putnam Drive) is a popular route for walkers which winds its way through the C-shaped strip of green that encircles the Third Ward. If you’ve enjoyed this trail and want to try something new, follow the branch that goes up the bluff and emerges by the UW-Eau Claire track behind the McPhee Center. (The easiest way to get on this path is where it branches off the main trail just west of the State Street underpass.) Alternatively, pick up the trail after it crosses Garfield Avenue (at the foot of UW-Eau Claire’s infamous hill) and stroll west through the woods along the south bank of the Chippewa River. You’ll pass Little Niagara Falls and plenty of other scenery. Go far enough and you can walk uphill through a treeless ravine to reach a small prairie restoration area across University Drive from HSHS Sacred Hospital. Here you’ll find the remains of the long-gone Hendrickson Hill Ski Jump.


If you look carefully where Emery and South Dewey streets meet in downtown Eau Claire, you can hop a low wall and stroll up a brick path that traverses the steep slope of the Eastside Hill. According to the Chippewa Valley museum, the path originally dates from the 1860s and was paved in 1927 with bricks taken from West Grand Avenue and Barstow Street when they were resurfaced with concrete. The brick path intersects with a more direct pedestrian route up the hill: the stairs that descend the slope from the end of Newton Street to behind the Park Tower Apartments.


OK, so these steps aren’t accessible to the general (i.e., non-trespassing) public, but they’re still there, and there’s a good story behind them. In the 1932, a changing house was built on Starr Avenue overlooking Dells Pond, with a long set of steep concrete steps for swimmers to reach the water. The steps were funded by a local Kiwanis Club, and the names of members are emblazoned on them. The beach was closed in 1946 because of pollution, and a few years later VFW Post 305 bought the changing house. The building has been expanded since then, and now is home to the VFW post as well as a bar and restaurant. Check out the VFW bar, step outside, and see if you can spot the stairs.