Creating State Parks for Wisconsin

A month or more ago, I wrote a Monday Morning blogpost about a lovely late fall day in Peninsula State Park, and I knew then I’d be writing again about that wonderful Wisconsin resource before long. I wanted to share some of the facts and figures about this park – Wisconsinites’ favorite place to camp – and some of its history.

Thousands of words can be found online celebrating the Door Peninsula, and in particular the peninsula-shaped park which balloons out to the west and north from the larger peninsula. I think the very best description of the area, the one that is the most fun to read, was written more than a century ago by John Nolen, landscape architect and city planner from the East. Nolen’s description is in his 1909 report, State Parks for Wisconsin, published by Wisconsin’s first State Park Board. (The quotes that follow here are from an online facsimile of that report, at The Wisconsin Historical Society’s “Turning Points in Wisconsin HIstory; I quote from Section IV, pp 32-3.)

Looking at Peninsula State Park to the north; from the water. In Door County, WI, Sept. 5, 2015. On Lake Michigan: Near Peninsula State Park, Door County, WI, Septe

Looking at Peninsula State Park to the north; from the water. In Door County, WI, Sept. 5, 2015.

Nolen could hardly contain himself as he recommended this site: “. . the finely situated peninsula between Ephraim and Fish Creek. . . including some 3,000 acres, more than eight miles of shoreline with a number of deep water harbors . . .” as a future state park for Wisconsin.

“Would it not be worthwhile for Wisconsin to have such a park?”

Nolen said this site was “wild and as yet unspoiled;” that with nearly every step new vistas opened, alternating between woodland, cliff, land, and water. He also said this: “Reminding one constantly of the coast of Maine, the shore is a never-ending delight. It sweeps from point to point, here a beach of fine sand, there of gravel, then, in contrast, precipitous limestone bluffs. . . the purest of air laden with the fragrance of balsam and pine, with unexcelled facilities for sailing, boating, fishing . . .”

At the Eagle Panorama in Peninsula State Park. (Photo taken in November, 2015)

At the Eagle Panorama in Peninsula State Park. (Photo taken in November, 2015)

This was a place, he continued, that “might easily become a famous pleasure resort of the highest order,” comparing it to Mackinac Island State Park in Michigan, which, he asserted, was “not one whit more attractive than the proposed Door County park might easily be.” He further noted that the Michigan park contained only 1,000 acres, yet was valued at two million dollars and was visited annually by 200,000 persons. “Would it not be worthwhile for Wisconsin to have a state park with such a record and to secure such a tangible return?”

As we know, the Wisconsin lawmakers of the day said “yes!” The rest, as they say, “is history.” Today a million visitors a year enjoy the use of the same deep harbors that Nolen talked of. They enjoy those same vistas he hoped the state would protect. In other words, John Nolen’s proposal for creating that state park, has worked out perfectly for us, the citizens of the future he envisioned.

John Nolen’s Good Idea

In addition to fishing, boating, and sailing, as Nolen suggested we might do, we also go hiking and birding in the park, and kayak off its shore line. Many have family traditions involving an annual ride on the Sunset Bike Trail (“Whatever you do, don’t miss the sunset,” advises the Travel Wisconsin website.) And we fill its five campgrounds: Weborg Point, Welker’s Point, Tennison Bay, and Nicolet Bay South and North.

Other things we might do there? Work on our game at the park’s 18-hole golf course. Enjoy performances under the stars by the professional actors of the Northern Sky Theater; or revisit the past at the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse and Museum. Until recently, a large percentage of visitors – on at least one of their park visits – climbed it’s 75 foot observation tower, (now closed; see more information about this below the tower picture). In the winter the park is a top destination for cross-country skiing within the state; sledding and snowshoeing are other options.

The observation tower at Peninsula State Park: closed in May 2015 because of disrepair. Hopes are high for its repair or speedy replacement. (Photo taken in November 2015)

The observation tower at Peninsula State Park: closed in May 2015 because of disrepair. There seems to be  strong sentiment for its speedy repair or replacement. (Photo taken in November 2015)

It All Started with Madison’s Park and Pleasure Drive Association

Here is just a little more history about “noted landscape architect John Nolen.” Who was he? What brought this city planner from Massachusetts to our north woods in the early 20th century?

In 1908 the leaders of Madison’s Park and Pleasure Drive Association (the forerunner of today’s City of Madison Parks Division) contacted Nolan for help with their vision for improvements in their city. Nolan would eventually become known as “the eminent city planner.” But this was early in his career, and his most notable commissions were all in the future. Nolan had recently graduated from Harvard’s new School of Landscape Architecture (in 1905), where he studied with Frederick Law Olmsted. Nolan had returned to school for this opportunity, having earlier earned a degree the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

An information board on the Eagle Terrace includes a picture of John Nolen and the story of the origins of this park. (Photo taken in November 2015)

An information board on the Eagle Terrace includes a picture of John Nolen (on the right) and the story of the origins of this park, and some of its history that followed. (Photo taken in November 2015)

With the help of the Madison civic visionaries who had recruited him, Nolen received at least 3 commissions in the state, including one to draw up a plan for Madison as a Model City. According to this 2011 article in Madison Magazine, this Nolen plan has been “pretty much followed for the last 100 years.”

He also received a commission from the University of Wisconsin, and from the State of Wisconsin – the one which resulted in Nolen’s recommendation for a state park system. Among the four new parks that Nolen suggested, three were established by 1917. Peninsula State Park was established in 1909 , the same year Nolen’s State Parks for Wisconsin was published.

Devil’s Lake State Park was established in 1911. Wyalusing State Park was established in 1917 (originally as Nelson Dewey State Park and renamed in 1937, after a second park was established in honor of Dewey, Wisconsin’s first governor).

Looking across at Horsehoe Island, from the top of the bluff on the Eagle Panorama. (Photo, November 2015)

Looking across at Horsehoe Island, from the top of the bluff on the Eagle Panorama. (Photo, November 2015)

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2 thoughts on “Creating State Parks for Wisconsin

  1. seems like every time you hear about parks, somehow the name Frederick Olmsted comes up in the conversation, either as advisor, consultant, or actual planner. Same story here – Wisconsin was lucky to have a guy with Nolan’s vision and skill..

  2. So true, Judy! What a legacy Nolen & the Madison civic leaders created here – I really wanted to talk about that. So we don’t forget. And the genius of Olmsted – you’ve seen so many parks – I bet you find stories of his influence over and over again. Thank you so much for the visit here! Happy trails to you and your Fireball crew. I see you just started and exciting new trip.

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