Devil's Lake as it appeared 100 years ago.
Devil's Lake State Park centennial
100 years and hundreds of stories.
A Guide at Your Side
It is a cold but sunny December morning as I sit down at Devil's Lake Nature Center to begin my day's work. How do I summarize 100 years of history of an area that seems older than history itself? My fingers are poised at the keyboard. I'm saved by a phone call.
A frequent park visitor, Kathy, calls wondering if today would be a good day to show her where the stone ring of William Canfield's early 20th Century "tree house" is located. I'm thinking that today might be the last chance for awhile if tonight's six-inch predicted snowfall materializes, plus it would give me a chance to check on some other historical sites I've been trying to locate. So, I agree to help her and her husband, Dave.
Don't trip on the tree house
The first stop is William Canfield's tree house, a site that I only recently located. After parking the car and bushwhacking a short way, we arrive at the site at the southwest end of the park. We find a 15-foot diameter circle of rocks, which surrounded the tree house. Canfield, born in New York in 1819, was one of the earliest settlers to arrive in the area. He came from Madison in 1842 after following his way by marked trees. After living in a dry goods box for six weeks, Canfield and his wife settled in a log cabin near the park. He worked as a civil engineer, being Sauk County's surveyor for many years, and he was the local historian having written an early history of Sauk County.
Canfield was a guiding force in the formation of the "Old Settler's Association." He bought three acres southwest of the lake and built a log cabin assembly hall and a tree house where he lived for certain periods. The tree house floors were supported by timbers attached to the trees. It stood about 30 feet high. The state acquired the land and now all that remains to remind us of the presence of one of Sauk County's earliest and most colorful characters is the circular rock foundation of the old tree house.
Cottages and hotels – you're kidding!
As we walk along the roadside, we pass a stone pillar with "Wildwood" marked on it. Dave mentions that when he was young, this site was a large summer house, one of many summer residences and cottages that dotted the lake and surrounding areas both before and during the early years of the park. While four cottages remain, there once were nearly 100 located within the park's boundaries. Most of the cottages were removed by the late 1960s.
Since we were so close to the location of Messenger Hotel, I thought that Kathy and Dave might like to see where the Messenger barn once stood along Messenger Creek southwest of the lake. This is one of the few visible remnants of the "Grand Old Hotel Era" of Devil's Lake.
The lake's beauty, which includes imposing 500-foot bluffs on three sides, made it a popular destination for tourists seeking an escape from city life in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Four hotels sprang up along the shores of Devil's Lake to provide a "place where tired brain workers may rest and get strong."
The Minniwauken House, later known as the Cliff House, was the first to be built in 1866 at the northeast corner of Devil's Lake, catering to the genteel. Three hotels, the Kirkland, Lake View and the Messenger, were built on the south shore to provide more modest but comfortable accommodations.
A letter from a former cottage resident in the area describes the Messenger Hotel as "built flat on ground with a porch around, two stories, bedrooms and a parlor on the ground floor. It had a lawn where people sat, played horseshoes, lawn tennis and croquet." Rates were $1.50 a day or $7 to $8 a week.
The Messenger Hotel was sold to the state in 1910 and was used for a short time as a residence for the first park manager. In 1920 it became the site for the University of Wisconsin summer survey camp. As we walked about the site, we were able to find the foundations of the Messenger barn which became the camp's classroom and mess hall, and we discovered several concrete slabs marking the trailers for instructors and other odds and ends of the surveying camp, which closed in 1956. Today, vegetation has reclaimed the site where hundreds of young men were trained as future engineers.
A posh park project goes kaput
Kathy and Dave had to leave so, being reluctant to return to office work and keeping the upcoming snow in mind, I decide to head up the West Bluff Trail to find the remnants of what could have prevented a state park here: the Palisade Park project. Ken Lange, former Devil's Lake naturalist, once wrote that, "Devil's Lake would most likely be another private resort development, probably like Wisconsin Dells" had this project succeeded.
Palisade Park was Arthur Ziemer's brainchild in 1893 when all of the land around the lake was privately owned. Ziemer was on a geology class trip to Devil's Lake when he envisioned the possibilities for commercial development. The idea came from similar projects along the Hudson River in New York. After acquiring 90 acres in the summer of 1894, the area was plotted for over 200 lots, a road was built and a tower 85 feet high was constructed from which, "the dome of the capital building at Madison can be seen." Ziemer's cottage was built on the choicest lot overlooking the lake and several cottages were completed.
One could say that fate intervened when Ziemer died in 1895 of typhoid fever reportedly from drinking water from a nearby spring. The word was out and the area that was to become "the most prominent resort in the northwest" quickly became a ghost town. Afterwards, local boys would climb to the site to play in the abandoned cottages.
Arriving at the former location of Palisade Park, only the trees seem to mark the location, showing the resiliency of nature. It wasn't too hard to find the remains of the observation tower: eight large rectangular stones arranged in a square. It was a little more difficult to find the concrete steps and the rubble of a chimney, which heated a double cottage. Nature has quickly reclaimed the land as its own. I'm thankful that today, Devil's Lake is a land for all people and not just a rich person's paradise.
The glacier got its way
I stop for a break at one of the memorial benches that over looks the lake. The cold December temperatures make the rest brief but the sun is shining and the lake commands a stunning view. It's hard to imagine that over 20,000 years ago, before the coming of the last glacier, I wouldn't have been seeing a lake but an ancient river coming from the north and taking a sharp bend to the southeast where the south beach is now located. And I wouldn't be looking 500 feet down to the water, but rather nearly 1,000 feet into a rather impressive canyon.
But 12,000 years ago, the Wisconsin glacier reached its maximum height. It came from the northeast creating a terminal moraine that blocked the north entrance of the river. It wasn't able to span the east bluffs so it wrapped itself around the back of the east bluffs coming in from the southeast leaving another terminal moraine to plug the river there.
The cold weather makes it hard to imagine swimming the lake as I had many times this past summer training for an open water swim: 1.4 miles across and back again. But the lake has been tackled by many a distance swimmer. Friendly competition between the visitors of the Kirkland and the Messenger shores in the early 1900s involved seeing which patrons could swim across the southern end of the lake the fastest. One long-time park volunteer and former cottage resident reminisced to me earlier this year that, "one summer a good looking young man with an Irish brogue impressed us young girls by swimming all four corners of the lake in one shot!"
Upper and lower worlds collide
I make it back to the nature center ready to get some work done. The phone rings again. A college professor returns my call for information regarding the Native Americans who built the mounds in the park and surrounding areas. He gives me some information and references on Devil's Lake mounds.
Native Americans have been at the park since the glaciers receded over 10,000 years ago. The Ho-Chunk name for the lake is Tawacunchukdah or Sacred Lake, which may have been mistaken for an evil connotation and translated as Devil's Lake. The Ho-Chunks maintain that the bluffs were created during a fierce battle between the thunderbirds and the water spirits. Mound locations seem to confirm this belief. A 150-foot bird mound on the southeastern shore of the lake represents the upper world. Bear and panther mounds on the north end of the lake, represent the opposing lower world.
By now, it is late afternoon and my hope of completing desk work vanishes as the sun wanes on the western horizon. I decide to try to find one more location: the site of the quarry workers' homes on the southeast end of the park. A quarry originally existed on the north end of the east bluff from 1906 until it was ousted to outside park boundaries on the southeast end in 1922. I vaguely remember hiking the East Bluff Trail on my first camping trip to Devil's Lake as a child in 1965 and hearing quarry blasting booms in that area.
Once, a park volunteer told me stories of growing up in the quarry workers' homes. Her grandfather and father both worked at the quarry. One of my favorite stories was about a blasting that surprised one family when a huge boulder crashed through their living room window! The quarry closed in 1967 when the park expanded its eastern boundaries, but remains of the quarry activities can still be found. I get into my car and drive along South Shore Road to an abandoned gated road in the former quarry area. The leafless trees and leaf littered ground make the walk pleasant. "Stick season" is what the Vermonters call the season of late fall and I really enjoy hiking during this time of the year. Perhaps it's because I can see the relief of the land so much better and get a good feeling for the terrain.
Fallen trees sidetrack me, allowing me to find the remains of the railroad spur to the quarry. Getting back on the old road, I find signs of the dump: bottles, tires and rusted cans. Finally I locate a house foundation, then another and several more as the road circles around a neighborhood. BINGO! Mission accomplished! And just in time as the sun sinks behind the bluffs and the light becomes more muted.
I briskly walk back to my car enjoying the quiet and solitude of the moment. I reach my car and just as I am about to get in, I glance down to find a rusty mailbox on the ground. It is a poignant reminder of the people who lived and visited here, and of the stories they have told and will continue to tell of this enchanting place known as Devil's Lake.
100 years in 360 minutes
Driving home along County Highway DL, part of the northern boundary of the park, I pass the area called Steinke Basin. While it doesn't have the breathtaking view of the bluff and lake area, it nonetheless is one of my favorite parts of the park. Maybe it's because I cross-country ski here almost daily in the winter; maybe it's because so many signs of the last glacier: erratics, kettle ponds and terminal moraines to name a few, can be found here. Maybe it is because of the stories I have heard and read of the farmers of this area: the Johnson's, the Marquardt's, the McIntyre's, simple people making an honest living who have lived here for generations. Whatever the reason, the warm, red glow of the nearly setting sun further endears this area to me.
I think to myself how in about 360 minutes, I have gone through more than 100 years of history of Wisconsin's most visited state park, Devil's Lake. This year I invite you to take time to experience the park, participate in its centennial activities and make your contribution to 100 years and more of stories!
Diane Pillsbury is an assistant naturalist at Devil's Lake State Park.