The Gorham Springs of Lake Wingra (aka Duck Pond Springs)

Gorham Springs (akaThe Duck Pond) University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. Photo by Stephen B. Glass

A natural flowing spring is both an event and a precise location.  A spring is an upwelling of groundwater and also the physical spot on the Earth’s surface where the sometimes ancient groundwater—a message from the past—meets the modern-day world.

A spring is an historic artifact in the landscapes’ memory bank;  a spot where one can catch a fleeting glimpse the undisturbed past—the primordial Earth—as it rushes out into the transformed world. 

One such spot in the Lake Wingra Watershed is the set of five springs, or springlets, located in the University of Wisconsin Madison Arboretum, at the bend in Nakoma Road south of the intersection where Nakoma Road and Odana Road become Monroe Street  (Noland, 1950) This set of springs has been known over the years as Gorham Spring, Spring Trail Pond, or the Duck Pond Spring.

This location may be familiar to long-time Madison residents as being across Nakoma Road from the old Spring Grove Tavern (now a private residence), a stop on an original stage coach line.  The tavern provided lodging and refreshments for travelers before they made the final, day-long trip into downtown Madison.

The Hydrology

The springs emerge from beneath a rock outcrop and flow into a widened area known as the Duck Pond (because of the year-round resident population of mallards) then over a small dam into Gorham Creek and through the West Marsh and into Lake Wingra.

The Lake Wingra springs have long been studied by hydrologists and the set of springs are thus known by the designations of various researchers as: 1) Sp 2a in the 1983 report by Pennequin and Anderson (1981) on The Groundwater Budget of Lake Wingra, Dane County, Wisconsin”, and 2) as Dn 6 Sp (Dane County Spring #6 in the 1975 report on the “Hydrology of the Lake Wingra Basin, Dane County, Wisconsin” by Oakes, Hendrickson, and Zuehls.

The history of the Lake Wingra Watershed, and it’s springs in particular, is recorded in an early history of the Arboretum (Sachse, 1975) and in W.E.Noland’s 1950 study of the “Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra.”


A non-migratory population of the common mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) has resided at the Duck Pond for many years, taking advantage of the warm spring water that keeps the Duck Pond open year round. Year-round residence of the mallards is encouraged also by area neighbors—especially one particular residence on Spring Trail Road—that believe they are doing the ducks a favor by providing food.  This feeding practice at the top of Spring Trail Road has led to the deaths by vehicle of numerous mallards as they cross busy Nakoma Road on foot; using a slow waddle instead of flight to get to the spread corn. The mallard parade across Nakoma Road also causes periodic rush-hour “duck jams” as traffic comes to a stop to allow the birds to get safely to the other side.

Other common, year-round resident bird species include species that frequent urban areas such as Northern Cardinal, Black-capped Chicadee, Kingfisher, White-breasted nuthatch, and Downy, and Hairy woodpeckers.

Social & Cultural History

According to Nancy Sachse (1974, page 47-48) early historian of the Arboretum, 

“The Mandan Realty Company had created Spring Trail Park from 1.5 acres which included one of the best natural springs.  The steam was widened to form a duck pond and Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design stone wall and entrance for this area as well as for the old Spring Grove Tavern, which remained (now a private residence) across Nakoma Road.”

Sachse (1965) goes on to recount how this original park plus 30 acres of adjoining marsh became one of the first parcels to become part of the Arboretum.  The donation made possible by the Madison Realty Company, whose president, Judge Edmund Ray Stevens sat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. Another member of the court, according to Sachse, was one Paul E. Stark, a Madison realtor and member of the Arboretum Advisory Committee.

The Lost Henderson Farm

An interpretive sign in the UW-Madison Arboretum explaining the story of the Henderson Farm and the murders of Walter and Allen Henderson. Sign is at the T5 Trail intersection in the NE corner of the Grady Tract.

Among Madison’s prominent citizens were many African American families who began moving from the southern U.S.  to Dane County and Madison as early as the 1850’s (Simms 2018).  Newly-arrived African Americans were small-business people, cooks, cleaners, barbers, and farmers.

Notley Henderson was part of the northward migration after the Civil War.  Henderson  moved from Kentucky in the late 1960’s (Simms, 2018).  Henderson worked as a farm hand and in the late 1880’s had earned enough money to marry Martha and buy a farmstead.  Henderson’s land was located on the northern portion of what is now the current Grady Tract of the UW-Madison Arboretum but was at the time on the southern outskirts of the Arboretum.   The Arboretum has installed an interpretive sign near the site of the Henderson farm.

Unfortunately, Notley Henderson’s son Allen and Allen’s son Walter were both shot and killed on March 5, 1927 by one Charles Nelson (according to both Simms (2018) and Arboretum research and interpretive materials.).  Walter’s body was found in a section of woods along Nakoma Road;  Allen Henderson was next and was shot at his farm. 

Charles Nelson, “a former mental patient and son of a local real estate developer, shot himself when approached by officials.” (Simms, 2018)  

The Henderson’s, unable to support themselves, lost their farm soon after the murders and moved into downtown Madison (Simms, 2018).

The Mystery of the Henderson Murders

The double-murder of the Hendersons is related to the springs only in so far as the body of Walter Henderson was tossed into the woods along Nakoma Road, at an unknown spot that was probably not too far from the Duck Pond Springs.

There are several unanswered questions about the Henderson murders.  One,  where exactly, was the Henderson body dumped?  Two, why was the body hauled three to four miles up Seminole Highway and Nakoma Road to dump it in a wooded area along Nakoma Road?   

I don’t know the answer to the second question but one possible answer to the first is somewhere near the springs and most likely the Duck Pond Springs.

This is just speculation but is a reasonable guess because Nakoma Road is not a long street; there are not many wooded lots along it; and an easily-accessibly spot with a wooded area, would have been the Duck Pond Springs—close to the road and all that.


Noland, W.E. 1950. The Hydrography, Fish, and Turtle Population of Lake Wingra. Wisconsin Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters, Madison, WI.

Oakes, E.L., G.E. Hendrickson, and E.E.Zuehls, Hudrology of the Lake Wingra Basin, Dane County, WI., U.S. Geological Survey, Madison, WI.

Pennequin, D.F. and M.P. Anderson. 1981. The Groundwater Budget of Lake Wingra, Dane County, Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Water Resources Center. Madison, WI

Sachse, Nancy.  1965.  A Thousand Ages.  Board of Regents of The University of Wisconsin.

Simms. Muriel.  2018.  Settlin’, Stories of Madison’s Early African American Families.  Wisconsin Historical Press.  Madison, WI

About Steve Glass

The blogger is a restoration ecologist, Certified Ecological Restoration Practitioner (#0093 SER) and writer living in the Midwestern United States.
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