Top Ten Plaques at UW-Madison

By Rob Heimbruch

It goes without saying that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a historic place.

From UW-Madison’s history as a proponent of academic freedom at public universities, to the turbulent series of protests during Vietnam war to the plethora of discoveries both scientific and otherwise, UW’s history forms a vibrant tapestry that makes the university so special.

One of the best ways to take stock of these historical events is simply to take a stroll around campus. Around seemingly every corner seems to be a plaque commemorating something.

Those who don’t have time to traipse around the Madison area are in luck, for this humble journalist and (self proclaimed) expert on UW historical plaques has chronicled the top 10 plaques in Madison.

But first, let’s set some ground rules. Plaques are by definition an ornamental tablet, typically of metal, porcelain, or wood, that is fixed to a wall or other surface in commemoration of a person or event. As such, only plaques that fit that criteria are eligible to be on this prestigious list.

10) Rock plaque

The most interesting thing about this plaque is that it is on a rock.That is especially fitting seeing as it’s named after renowned geologist and university president Thomas Chamberlain.

Chamberlain also was the one to discover that the rock on which the plaque is embedded (and Observatory Hill where the rock is located) used to be located in Canada until continental glacial drifts sent it to Wisconsin.


9)  Effigy Mound, across the street from the Oscar Rennebohm Library

Way out past Vilas Zoo lies the only Native American based plaque to make the list.

It commemorates a bird shaped effigy mound that the indigenous people of Southern Wisconsin sculpted into the shapes of the animals they observed around them. There are approximately 4,000 such mounds that still exist in Wisconsin.


8) Otis Redding Plaque, Lake Monona

Nicknamed “The King of The Soul Singers”, Otis Redding and his band were tragically killed as their plane crashed into Lake Monona. Days after his death, Redding received his one and only Billboard single for (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.

The Plaque lies on a scenic overlook of Monona Bay in remembrance of the site of the crash.


7) Confederate Rest, Northernmost Confederate Cemetary

The northernmost Confederate cemetary in the nation, there are 140 numbered graves at Confederate Rest. Although there was no military action in Wisconsin during the Civil War, the graves are belong to prisoners of war that were shipped to Camp Randall wounded, malnourished and diseased.

A controversy arose about whether or not the Confederate flag should be allowed to fly at Confederate Rest, which is a part of Forest Hill Cemetary in Madison.


6) North Hall Plaque, Bascom Hill

The first building ever erected by the University, North Hall’s first three floors were originally built as dormitories, divided into twenty-four suites with a study room and one or two bedrooms. The fourth floor consisted of the first classrooms built for UW. North Hall currently serves as offices for faculty and administration of the UW-Madison Department of Political Science.

As difficult as it is to imagine North Hall being the only university-owned building on campus, the plaque commemorates where the University of Wisconsin-Madison all began. The exterior of North Hall has retained its original appearance and the staircases are the same as when the facility opened in 1851.


5) Oldest Station in the Nation, Vilas Hall

The status of 9XM-WHA as the “Oldest Station in the Nation” is more disputed than one might think. Three stations claim that title, all with murky claims as to who deserves to be deemed the oldest radio station in the country.

Either way, radio broadcasting at UW-Madison goes back to 1917, when weather reports were transmitted via Morse Code. In 1920 the university began voice transmissions, and in 1922 the station received new call station letters (WHA) which to this day remains the callsign for Wisconsin Public Radio.

The plaque was originally placed on Science Hall, where the radio station was originally located. It made the move with Wisconsin Public Radio over to Vilas Communications Hall.


4) “In Memoriam” Plaque, Sterling Hall

At 3:40 AM on August 24th, 1970, renowned physics professor Dr. Robert Fassnacht was working on a project when a bomb exploded in Sterling Hall.

Dr. Fassnacht was killed and three others were injured in the Sterling Hall bombing. The bombing, which was an act of protest by four young people in protest of UW-Madison’s research connection the United States military during the Vietnam War.

The plaque stands on Sterling Hall as a reminder of the bombing.


3) “Lest We Forget” plaque, Camp Randall Arch

As you walk down Dayton Street towards the stadium, the Camp Randall Arch dominates what pedestrians see.

The arch marks the entrance through which over 70,000 soldiers passed through during the Civil War. Camp Randall’s Civil War roots (link to video) are well documented, and the arch is one of the iconic locations on campus.

The plaque in interest was erected by the state of Wisconsin as a reminder that Camp Randall was once much, much more than a football stadium.


2) Elvis Presley Fight Scene plaque, East Washington Avenue

Coming from a show in Iowa, the King stopped his limo to come to the aid of a youngster being beaten. Quickly diffusing the situation, Elvis got the kids to promise to stop fighting, and went on his way.

One of the more interesting tidbits of Madison history, the incident happened 52 days before Presley’s death on August 16, 1977.


1) “Sifting and Winnowing” plaque, Bascom Hall 

Most UW students should recognize the famous phrase “sifting and winnowing”. It is the unofficial University of Wisconsin motto in regards to academic freedom. And if you look closely at Bascom Hall, often considered the center of campus, you can learn what it means.

The plaque commemorates a landmark statement from the Board of Regents where they affirmed that the university should never censor or limit its members’ quest for knowledge. The following quote is inscribed on a wall outside of Bascom Hall:

“Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state university of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” It  presents the university as an environment where ideas are to be presented, challenged, analyzed and advanced.

In short, this plaque encapsulates what it means to go to the University of Wisconsin.

Honorable Mentions

Vitamin D Plaque

Union Troops CR Plaque

Greenbush Plaque

Reform and Revolt