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Pattison State Park History

Over millions of years, geological forces, miners, lumberjacks, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Wisconsin state park system have shaped Pattison State Park into what it is today; a place of natural beauty where people from around the world can come for relaxation, fun and learning.

The unique geology of Pattison State Park and the surrounding area brought about many different types of land uses. The dark brown igneous rock found throughout the park, called basalt, is a solidified remnant of ancient lava flows which extended across the entire region about a billion years ago.

Once the lava cooled, great oceans covered the area and deposited sand, silt and sediment forming the light colored, sedimentary rock known as Lake Superior sandstone. Sandstone was a popular building material during the 1880-1890s and local quarries sent it to larger cities. You can still see buildings in Superior made from local sandstone.

The Douglas Fault runs though the park and can be seen downstream of Big Manitou Falls. This movement of earth caused the southern section to rise at a 50 degree angle. With the heat and pressure of the rock mass, new rock called breccia [exit DNR] was formed. In addition, fractures formed and filled with a variety of minerals. Some were valuable metals, such as copper, gold and silver. The Native American Indians were the first to mine the copper. When the Europeans arrived, larger scale mining operations were developed.

Another great force that shaped this area was a series of glaciers. The effects of the glaciers can be seen in many ways. They helped remove the sandstone above the fault, exposing the hard basalt. As the glacier retreated, water drained from Glacial Lake Duluth [exit DNR], changing the land's drainage to flow north instead of south. As the lake drained, clay sediment was left behind. This clay has very poor drainage and is easily eroded, resulting in serious problems for farming, housing and other developments.

Pattison's Native American heritage

Since the last glacier retreated, many groups have lived in the area we now call Pattison State Park. Nomadic hunters passed this way, following the retreating ice mass 9,000 years ago.

With the ice gone, Native American Indians known as Archaic Culture hunted on the shores of glacial lakes and lived in this area from 5000 BC to 500 AD. At the same time, Old Copper Culture Native American Indians lived here and searched the rocky outcrops for copper to make their tools.

From 500 AD to the arrival of the first Europeans, Woodland Native American Indians hunted the forests and fished the Black River. The Ojibwa (also called Chippewa) were here when the first European settlers arrived.

In the tumbling waters of Big Manitou Falls, the Ojibwa believed they could hear the voice of the Great Spirit, Gitchi Monido. The rapids below the falls were called Bohiwum Sasigewon, meaning Laughing Rapids. Little Manitou Falls was known as Cacabeeca Bunghee, or Little Waterfalls.

Near the base of the Big Falls they quarried sedimentary rock, called conglomerate. They removed fist-size balls of quartz, brought them to top of the falls and flaked them into knives, spear points and other tools.

In the 1800s a trading post is reported to have been located at the Big Falls, a well known landmark and gathering place for the Chippewa. The park area is rich in Native American lore and artifacts are occasionally found.

In the Ojibwa language, the Black River is called Mucudewa Sebee, meaning "black" or "dark." The root beer tint of the water comes from decaying leaves and roots of vegetation along the river.

Pattison's copper rush

The rock outcroppings on which Pattison State Park is located were once the scene of aggressive copper explorations.

Copper mining took place here long before the arrival of European settlers. G. R. Stuntz, a surveyor in the early 1850s, found a broken stone hammer and work sites where Native American Indians shaped the metal near Little Manitou Falls. In the northeastern corner of the park he discovered areas where Native Americans mined the mineral.

The first record of European-Americans' copper exploration in northwestern Wisconsin was below Big Manitou Falls and in the Copper Creek (northeastern) section of the park in the years 1845-47. Here the prospectors opened crude holes in the rock, but their lack of mining skills, difficult transportation problems and limited success caused them to abandon the work.

Geologists still believed the rock formation in Douglas County to be similar to that which existed in copper rich northern Michigan. With the growing demand for copper during the Civil War, interest again turned to northwestern Wisconsin. Experienced miners from Michigan arrived in great numbers and "copper fever" became an epidemic. Prospectors brought in rock samples, which according to assay reports, contained high copper content and even gold and silver. Before long, mines were opening all across Douglas County including what is now Pattison State Park.

After the Civil War, copper prices fell and the mines were abandoned. At the turn of the century, copper prices were again high and old mines were reopened and new ones established. The copper deposits never proved to be of sufficient value to make mining successful.

Test holes, pits, trenches, tunnels and shafts are scattered throughout the park as reminders of our "copper rush" days. The triangular opening at the base of Big Manitou Falls is an old mine site. A shallow cave on the left side of Little Manitou Falls is further evidence to the park's copper mining heritage.

Martin Pattison, the man behind the park

Pattison State Park is named for Martin Pattison, an early lumber man and miner. He began work in his first lumber camp in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. By the age of 25, he was a full partner in the company. The company moved to the Upper Peninsula and then, in 1879, on to Superior. For three years, Pattison and his men logged along the Black River. The remains of their camp can still be seen along the Logging Camp Trail.

Pattison sold his lumber interests and began exploring for iron ore on the Vermilion Range in Minnesota. His success there made him a wealthy man. He became one of the largest individual holders of iron lands in all of Minnesota. In Superior, he purchased an entire city block on the harbor and built a 42-room Victorian mansion, now known as Fairlawn Mansion and Museum. The house is open daily and is well worth a visit.

In 1917, Pattison learned of a plan to build a power dam on the Black River which would have destroyed Big Manitou Falls. To block the development, he secretly purchased 660 acres along the river from a number of landowners including James Barden. With the donation of the land, in 1918, Pattison saved the waterfall and property surrounding it.

Old postcard view of falls
This postcard view of Big Manitou Falls was published between 1913 and 1949.
From "Genuine Curteich-Chicago 'C.T. Art-Colortone' post card (Reg. U.S. Pat. Off.) for Zenith Interstate News Co., Duluth, Minnesota

"In being able to grant this site to the public, I have accomplished one of my chief ambitions. For years I have spent much time amid the surrounding of the falls and have received so much enjoyment there that it gradually became a part of my life."

With his generosity, the waterfall that had attracted people for thousands of years would not be lost. With this donation of land, Wisconsin dedicated its sixth state park on January 20, 1920.

Camp Pattison

Until 1935, facilities at Pattison were modest: a small picnic area, some wooden overlooks, pit toilets and a ranger's cabin. Visitors camped on the lawn and parked along the road. A dam formed in 1928 had enlarged Interfalls Lake, causing a muddy and weedy shore.

One of the programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's plan to end the Great Depression of the 1930s was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) [exit DNR]. Young, single, unemployed men were put to work on conservation projects. On July 25, 1935, Camp Pattison Company 3663 of the CCC was established at what is now Little Manitou Falls picnic area. For the next seven years, thousands of men labored to transform the landscape into what is now the main park area.

The CCC put in sewer and water systems, removed old roadbeds and abutments, planted trees, landscaped and built three miles of foot trails.

During the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps quarried rock and chiseled it into blocks to create the park shelter building, nature center, bathhouse and former office building.

The CCC members began work on the campground and pedestrian underpass. One of the most ambitious projects was draining Interfalls Lake, rerouting the river channel and hauling sand from Lake Superior's shore to make the beach.

Once World War II was underway, the labor shortage ended the CCC program. Many CCC veterans often return to Pattison and reunions have been held at the park. The CCC left a legacy of beautiful buildings, practical facilities and a changed landscape in its wake. A booklet detailing the history of Camp Pattison is available at the park office.

Last revised: Friday October 17 2014