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Merrick State Park History

The history of the park is closely entwined with the history of the upper Mississippi River.

The changing river

In the early days of the United States, the river was characterized by a series of relatively deep pools separated by sand bars and rapids. Rocks and snags obstructed the channel. It was navigable to St. Paul, but not by barges as large as you see today.

In 1845, grain producers from the five adjoining states organized the Mississippi River Improvement Committee to clear the channel of snags and wrecks and fund major navigation projects.

Work began in 1878 on a 4.5-foot channel between Minneapolis and St. Louis. The United States Congress authorized deepening of the channel to 6 feet in 1907, then 8 feet and finally 9 feet. In 1930, Congress authorized construction of the locks and dams on the upper Mississippi. This created the present series of pools each 15 to 30 miles long.

The dams slowed the current and silt covered the gravel essential to fish species. However, new sand bars were useful for spawning mussels, insects, crustaceans and other organisms important to fish. The Mississippi changed from a river to a lake habitat, good for some species and bad for others.

John Latsch, donor of the land

In the early 1900s, virtually all of the Mississippi River bottom land was viewed as public property, even if it was privately owned.

One day, a wealthy grocer from Winona, MN, John A. Latsch, was canoeing on the river when a storm blew up. He quickly paddled to a landing called Camp Glory, overturned his canoe, crawled under it and planned to wait out the storm. But farmer John Shamong, his dog barking at his side, confronted Latsch and ordered him off the land. The merchant complied.

Photo portrait of John Latsch
John A. Latsch

Latsch was deeply shaken by the incident. The next morning, he ordered his business agent to buy all the land on which the incident occurred. That agent did and a conservation career was born.

By the time Latsch died in 1934 at age 73, he had bought more than 18,000 acres valued at more than $2 million. Basically, he bought most of the bottomland from Whitman to Homer, MN, a distance of about 20 miles.

Latsch became southeastern Minnesota's greatest conservationist, donating land to Minnesota, Wisconsin and the City of Winona. These lands eventually became parts or all of John A. Latsch State Wayside and Whitewater State Park in Minnesota and Perrot and Merrick state parks in Wisconsin. He said he gave the land so that the boys of today and tomorrow would have a permanent place to play.

The 266 acres Latsch gave the state of Wisconsin in 1919 and 1921 formed the core of Merrick State Park.

George Merrick, patron of the park

Latsch requested that the park be named for George Byron Merrick, a famous steamboat cub pilot and historian of the bygone days of heavy steamboat traffic on the upper Mississippi River.

Photo portrait of George Merrick
George Byron Merrick

Merrick was born in 1841 in Niles, MI and moved to Prescott, WI on the Mississippi River with his family when he was 12 years old. In 1856 he began working as a cabin boy aboard the Kate Cassell. He later worked as a cub engineer, mud clerk and cub pilot aboard other steamboats.

After serving in the infantry in the Civil War, Merrick returned to Wisconsin and worked in a variety of clerical jobs. In 1881 he became a newspaper proprietor and developed an interest in the railroads. He wrote a book, "Old Times on the Upper Mississippi: The Recollections of a Steamboat Pilot from 1854-1863."

The state park

The state park was established in 1932. In past years, the park had a golf course.

Last revised: Friday October 17 2014