Since Devil's Lake became a state park in 1911, admirable vision and planning from local landowners, state politicians, and DNR land managers has slowly and successfully returned Devil's Lake to a largely undeveloped natural playground. In fact, it's easy to imagine it's always been this way. But when you start learning about the Park's history, you quickly learn today's version of the Park is the LEAST developed it has been for over 120 years! Like many of Wisconsin's beautiful lakes, Devil's Lake attracted flocks of European settlers, who quickly built cottages, roads, train tracks, and hotels along its shores. Knowing the story of how Devil's Lake developed as a resort area, then returned to a publicly-held recreational gem, makes for a rich appreciation of the conservation movement and present-day Park resouces.
There are a number of great pages, articles, and books out there on Devil's Lake history, but I have not found a good resource tying them all together into a concise history. This is my attempt to do so. If you have anything to contribute or would like to set me straight on any part of this story, I'd love to hear from you. Thanks!
Wisconsin Glacier Leaves a New Lake Behind
Devil's Lake was created about 15,000 years ago, when the Wisconsin Glacier pushed down from the north, bulldozing megatons of rocky debris as it went along. The glacier stopped its progress just north of the present-day lake, wrapping around the East Bluff to plug opposite sides of the prehistoric river valley with hundreds of vertical feet of rock and dirt. When the glacier receded, the lake we now call Devil's Lake remained in the plugged-up river valley. So even though the glacier created Devil's Lake, neither the lake or its neighboring bluffs were glaciated in the last Ice Age. Make sense? For more geologic info, look here.[gallery link="none" type="square" ids="3037,3039,3038"]
After the glacier receded, native peoples visited Devil’s Lake regularly, making seasonal hunting/fishing camps, but there is no evidence of a long-term permanent settlement there. Evidence from Natural Bridge State Park suggests humans inhabited the general area at least 8000 years ago. The mound-building peoples who left the conical, linear, and effigy mounds at Devil's Lake are dated to approximately 1000 B.C.
In the modern era, the Ho-Chunk (aka Winnebago) tribe visited most often and had the largest influence on the land, animals, and local culture. Other tribes, including the Sauk, Fox, and Kickapoo also passed through the area.
What Did Native People Call the Lake?
Locals and historians have debated what native people called Devils Lake before European settlers arrived. The Ho-Chunk called the lake Tawacunchukdah or Sacred Lake, while another tribe called it Minnewaukan, or Spirit Lake. Regardless, historians seem to agree none of the tribes had negative associations with the Lake, despite numerous accounts that some tribes thought the place was haunted by evil spirits. One popular origin myth says the rocky bluffs were created during a fight between the Thunderbirds and the Water Spirits; I don't know if this is an authentic Ho-Chunk myth or a European fabrication, but it's the only myth I've found.
Europeans Visit Spirit Lake and Development Begins
The first European of record to visit Devils Lake was John De La Ronde in 1832. De La Ronde likely found it by paddling up the Baraboo River to Baraboo, then heard of the nearby lake from the local Ho-Chunk. Increase Lapham, the prominent Wisconsin scientist and naturalist, visited and circumnavigated Devils Lake in 1849, no mean task given the boulder fields that extended to the shoreline on three of three sides and the jungle of down trees and thick brush that likely protected the shoreline. As usual, it only took a few people to spread word widely about a cool place they found.
After the initial discovery of Devils Lake by Europeans, development quickly followed. The 1850s saw the first building (a bathhouse) erected on the lake’s shoreline, and increased attention in the media, including a Milwaukee Journal article highlighting the area. Local folks had already made Devil’s Lake a regular pleasure spot, visiting in fair weather for picnics, swimming, and exploring. In 1854, Noble C. Kirk purchased property on the South Shore and founded Kirkland, which eventually became a rustic resort open to the public. Over the years, Kirk cleared large areas of his property to install cottages, orchards, and picnic grounds to accommodate and entertain the growing crowds railroad service would bring.
Naming the Lake
Historical records show the name “Devil’s Lake,” along with other names, was still being debated as late as 1871. The earliest European name seems to have been “Lake of the Hills,” but other suggestions included “Wild Beauty Lake” (Kilbourn Mirror) and “Junita Lake” (Milwaukee Journal). In 1858, the Baraboo Republic officially opined “Spirit Lake” was best, but all these names fell to the more dramatic and illustrious “Devil’s Lake.” While some have linked “Devil’s Lake” to a misinterpretation or purposeful bending of the native name “Spirit Lake,” it is just as likely it was simply a catchy name popular at the time for ANY interesting lake or landmark. There are at least seven “Devil’s” lakes in Wisconsin, and scores more landmarks throughout the country named similarly.
The Arrival of the Railroad and Tourist Culture
After years of encouragement by the state legislature and business interests, the Chicago & North West (C&NW) Railroad finally completed a line along Devils Lake’s east shoreline in 1873. With the rail line in place, the flood gates opened on Devil’s Lake. Visitors from Milwaukee and Chicago began visiting in crowds, bringing with them demand for shelter, services, and recreation.
While Kirkland developed, other hotels sprung up to accommodate visitors. The Minniwauken House (1866) was the grandest affair, built on the lake’s north shore and able to initially accommodate 20 guests. The Minniwaukeen House was eventually expanded and renamed the Cliff House; in 1884 The Annex was added to the property, making room for up to 400 people. A full-service joint, the Cliff House offered a telegraph office, billiard room, barber shop, grocery, and even a bowling alley. Posh!
The Cliff House was the only accommodation in the history of the North Shore, but the South Shore saw further development over time. Kirkland became a fully-fledged resort, while the Sheldon House, located across the valley from Kirkland, was enlarged and renovated by E.T. Hopkins to become the Lake View Hotel. In the late 1890's, Lake View manager Oscar Messenger left and opened up the Messenger Hotel and Resort on the southwest shore.
In 1894, Arthur Ziemer began developing Palisade Park, envisioned as a summer resort atop the West Bluff.
Devils Lake Becomes a Wisconsin State Park
The early 20th century brought a groundswell of national concern for the conservation and preservation of valuable scenic and natural resources, and Wisconsin citizens joined the movement to identify and create protected parks for public benefit.
In 1906, Baraboo locals formed a committee to study tourist impacts on the area and the potential for a state park. Later that year, they published a 38-page pamphlet, “An Appeal for the Preservation of the Devil’s Lake Region,” which they sold for 50 cents. Written in lofty prose and appealing to a high sense of public and moral good, the pamphlet identifies the primary assets of the Devil’s Lake area, specifically explaining the geologic, forest, archaeologic, botanical, and avian highlights of the proposed park. The committee specifically aimed to remove hotels and timber and mining resource extraction from the area, as well as protect all the drainages leading to Devils Lake. The Milwaukee Journal later endorsed the Appel in an editorial, following with a lengthy story on the issue later in 1906. The state legislature put the proposal to a vote in 1907, but the bill failed by one vote.
Momentum was strong toward park-building, however, and the push to create a park at Devils Lake continued. In 1909, the state commissioned Boston landscape architect John Nolen to identify Wisconsin natural resources with the most park potential, and Devils Lake made Nolen’s “top five” list, along with Wisconsin Dells, Door County’s Fish Creek area, and the Wyalusing area near Prairie du Chien.
The State Park board began buying property around Devil’s Lake in 1909 and by 1910 had acquired 740 of the 1150 acres it needed for the park. These properties included the Cliff House, Kirkland, Lake View, and Messenger hotel properties, as well as numerous smaller cottage properties in the area. While some property owners resisted the park movement and refused to sell their property, many cottage owners cooperated, selling their land to the State for $1 in exchange for a 60-year rent and tax-free lease on their properties. The state also promised to build a proper road into the area and stop the quarrying that had been going on since 1906.
By 1911, the state controlled 1100 acres in the proposed park, making it easier to convince legislators to pass the bill create Devil’s Lake State Park, the third state park in Wisconsin. The first superintendent was ___ ____, who lived for a short time at the Messenger Hotel.
In 1919, the legislature authorized the Conservation Commission to buy the 110 acre parcel owned by the American Refractories Company to stop the blasting and quarrying on the East Bluff. The company moved a couple miles down the South Shore road and set shop up there, as it was then outside the Park boundary. In 1967, the Park expanded its eastern boundaries and quarrying ended in the area.
The CCC Years
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government initiated the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) as one of many programs intended to revive the economy, create jobs, and improve the infrastructure on public lands. Fortunately for us, Devils Lake State Park became a CCC project and hosted a camp of 200 "CCC boys" from 1933 to 1942. The camp was located at the present-day CCC Parking lot and Group Campground.
The CCC boys worked on a variety of building and trail construction projects in exchange for a small wage plus room and board. Whenever you see a beautiful stone building with ample character in the Park, you can bet it was CCC handiwork. Well-known examples include the Chateau on the North Beach, the Park Headquarters, and the pavilion just north of the Chateau. Other buildings include the park staff building along the railroad tracks and the bathhouse in the Northern Lights campground. All the steep trails up the bluffs, including the Potholes Trail, Balance Rock Trail, West Bluff, East Bluff and the epynomonous CCC Trail owe their quartzite steps to the CCC.
The Devil’s Lake Concession Company
In 1949, local Baraboo business people founded the Devil’s Lake Concession Company, a non-profit organization who shares its profits with the Park. The DLCC has since run both the North Shore and South Shore food and rental concessions, making groceries, meals, and boat rentals available to campers and visitors. The DLCC has raised over $2 million for Devil’s Lake State Park, contributing needed funds when the Park cannot runs into budget constraints for equipment, wages, or special projects. For example, the DLCC donated $164,583 toward remodeling the Chateau in 2012.
Devil’s Lake Expands and Naturalizes
1960 (?) - Park begins removing grandfathered cottages.
In 1962, the DNR decided to convert the golf course into the Quartzite Campground.
In 19__, the DNR tore down the old CCC cabins on the South Shore and replace them with the Group Campsite and CCC trailhead parking lot.
In 19__, the park added the Ice Age Campgrounds, effectively doubling the camping capacity of the Park.
Steve Schmelzer became Devils Lake State Park superintendent in 2010; he started as a Park ranger in 1992.
The following resources were invaluable in researching this article:
Devil's Lake State Park: The History of Its Establishment, by Kenneth Lange and Debra Berndt