Devil's Lake State Park 100 Years of Stories
This article and more historic photographs were published in the 2011 centennial edition of the park newspaper:
“Mom! Look at the elephants in the lake!” Would you believe it? Devil’s Lake State Park, founded in 1911, has hosted a wide range of improbable events and remarkable people. The Ringling Brothers, of circus celebrity, owned a summer home, icehouse and garage with chauffeur quarters on the lake shore. An 85-foot tall lookout tower was built on the west bluff.
Ulysses S. Grant visited. There was a race between an “oarsman” and a hiker. A man won $5 in a greased pole climbing contest by putting sand on his arms and legs. Abraham Lincoln’s wife toured the park. A dog was bitten by a rattlesnake. Devil’s Lake had its own Post Office, train station and jail. A bluff-top resort failed because the public was alarmed when the manager died of typhus. In the depths of winter, gung-ho adventurers have chopped holes in the lake ice to go swimming. There was a vineyard and winery at the south shore. And yes, elephants did bathe in the lake.
Devil’s Lake has always been a place that has easily given rise to superlatives, to grandiose stories and to rumors. Sometimes it has been difficult to sort the fact from the fiction.
Wisconsin state parks were begun in 1900 with the creation of Interstate State Park along the St. Croix River, followed in 1909 by Peninsula State Park and then Devil’s Lake State Park two years later.
How long ago was that? New Mexico and Arizona were not yet U.S. states. The hull of a new luxury-liner called the “Titanic” was just launched in England and the first 500 mile race was won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at the death-defying speed of 74 mph. During the same era, a man named Theodore Roosevelt used his bully pulpit to push for new national parks and monuments during his presidency. In fact, today Devil’s Lake State Park hosts well over a million visitors per year – more than 85% of the National Park Service’s individual properties.
The first people at the lake probably date back more than 10,000 years; clear evidence shows prehistoric people using the shelter at what is now Natural Bridge State Park and at the Durst rock shelter soon after the last ice age. Both are within a day’s walk of Devil’s Lake. The first irrefutable evidence of people at the lake points to a fascinating enigma: the mound builders of about 1000 years ago. They left effigy, linear and conical mounds behind. To this day, the speculation of historians is widely dispersed among several theories about their long lost culture. Historic era Native Americans frequented the lake, but did not inhabit the valley on a long term basis. In 1832, John De La Ronde was the first non-Native American known to visit the lake. In 1849, naturalist and scientist Increase Lapham noted the lake: “a large body of broken fragments have accumulated along the edge of the water rendering it very difficult to walk along shore: yet two of our party made a circuit of the lake, jumping from rock to rock as best they could.”
More recently, European immigrants and settlers took note of the lake in the mid-1800s. With the routing of a rail line through the lake valley, tourism began booming.
The first of several hotels was built in 1866 and the railroad was completed in 1873. The transportation and accommodations went hand in hand to provide the adventurous with a well-appointed glimpse into the wilderness world. In some ways, travel to the park was more akin to a voyage than a vacation. The men wore hats, coats, button-collar shirts and bow ties. The women wore long skirts and tall lace-up shoes. After arriving via a steam train from Chicago or Minneapolis, visitors would alight with bags and trunks from behind the hissing soot-spewing locomotives.
The hotel era was an extravagant era at the park. Train passengers arrived by the hundreds – even thousands – sometimes. Most stayed for the day and then returned by train exhausted in the evening. But many remained for days or weeks. They checked in to a gabled wooden hotel with three tiers of balconies. Food was served in the dining room.
In season, fresh fruits and vegetables from nearby orchards and gardens nourished diners. You could stay at the Kirkland Resort, the Minniwauken House, the Lake View Hotel or the Messenger Hotel and Resort.
The hotels were all at the south shore except one – the Cliff House and its Annex. Amenities included a telegraph office, billiard room, barber shop, grocery and a bowling alley. Then, in the early 1900’s, Americans fell head-over-heels in love with the automobile.
Lifestyles changed, recreation changed, travel changed and it was just a matter of time until the Devil’s Lake hotels vanished.
Amusements of the late 1800s and early 1900s are anachronistic from today’s view point. Ladies in ankle-length dresses played croquet on shaded lawns.
One could attend a “band picnic” or listen to records on an Edison phonograph. You could take a whirl on the dance floor, attend a masquerade or enjoy a horse-drawn hay ride or go ice skating. There was a footrace between a democrat and a republican. A church service was held on the lakeshore with the pastor and choir on boats. Some attended “an interesting exhibition of mind reading.” One enchanted evening was spent enacting the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Two side-wheel wood-burning steamers, the Capitola and the Minniwauken, took people on excursions around the lake. Even in those days, conflicting complaints arose about suitable uses of the park: the Capitola’s steam whistle could be heard in Baraboo – three miles away.
You could visit a zoo with a bear, a deer and a raccoon named Rastus. In the summer, there were sculling regattas on the water and in the winter horses raced on the frozen lake. You could play golf in the park from 1922 to 1961.
The boom of dynamite explosions echoed throughout the Devil’s Lake valley in the late 1800’s. Quarries operated within a stone’s throw of the lake and another location about a half mile past the group camp area.
Work camps sprang up and trains hauled the shattered quartzite away. The quarries were last put to use in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corp used quartzite stone to build the park headquarters, the Rock Elm shelter and the ranger headquarters.
During the hard times of the 1930s depression era, a Civilian Conservation Corps (C.C.C.) work camp was established inside the state park. From 1934 to 1941, about 200 young men worked on many projects that continue to benefit the park even to this day. They built trails in some of the most rugged parts of the park, removed invasive species, guided visitors onto the bluffs, built tables, signs and benches, built a reservoir, relocated roads, patrolled the bluffs as fireguards and built at least three stone buildings.
During these same years, the boisterous big bands of the era performed regularly in the Chateau at the north end of the lake. Sound carries the length of the lake at night. Certainly the provocative sounds of the bands performing in the Chateau at the north end of the lake reached the ears of many a C.C.C. boy, conjuring up visions of dancing, drinking and women. One speculates about secret schemes put into play by young men just to get into the magnetic vivacity of the Chateau! You can still attend a live big band concert and dance at the Chateau some Saturday nights in the summer.
In 1919, park attendance was recorded at 100,000 for the year. In 1924, it had increased to 200,000. By 1952, attendance was over one million per year and has slowly risen to the current estimate of 1.3 – 1.7 million per year. Camping, similar to how we know it, began in the 1920s and 30s at the northeast corner of the lake. Visitors set up campsites, which sometimes were improved into plank-floored summer shelters and even cabins. In the 1930s Northern Lights Campground was laid out and put into use.
In 1962 the golf course was converted into Quartzite campground. In 1984-85, the south shore camping was defunct and the Ice Age campground was constructed.
During the history of Devil’s Lake State Park, remarkable things have happened here. But throughout the decades, most of the activities have remained remarkably alike: hiking the bluffs, camping, taking pleasure in the vistas, picnicking with family and friends, enjoying the beach, fishing and boating.
You and your family are tomorrow’s history! Enjoy the park!