The Wisconsin Dells: A History Told in Sandstone

Julie Royce's picture

The trip from our condo in Lexington, Michigan, to the Wisconsin Dells was a short 551 miles. Every one of those miles spared me the indignities of flying and renewed my love of road trips.

The Wisconsin Dells: A History Told in Sandstone

The steep sandstone cliffs and narrow canyons that flank the Wisconsin River began drawing tourists to the Dells in the mid-1800s. Today, chatchke shops, fast food joints, go-carts, zip-lining, and water parks vie for the tourist dollar, but the grandeur of the area remains its natural beauty.  

Spectacular Scenery, Wisconsin Dells

Spectacular Scenery, Wisconsin Dells

Wisconsin Dells

Chimney Rock, Wisconsin Dells

Chimney Rock, Wisconsin Dells

In 1931, the small town of Kilbourn changed its name to Wisconsin Dells, and in its reincarnation it continues to draw visitors eager to navigate the waterways traveled by early explorers, American Indians, and fur-traders.

I’m currently writing Ardent Spirit, a fictional biography about Odawa-French fur trader Magdelaine Laframboise, who lived from 1780 to 1846. I relished a chance to see the river that serviced the famous Prairie de Chien fur post.

Father Jacques Marquette first wrote the river’s name as Meskousing, which is what it was called by his Indian guides. After several variations of the word, Ouisconsin became accepted and Americanized to Wisconsin. According to the Wisconsin Historical Society, the most likely meaning is River of the Great Rock, which is fitting since some cliffs soar over a hundred feet.

The shape of the riverbed and the cliffs are believed to have been formed in the time span of a few days when a large ice dam gave way, letting loose a huge glacial lake. That event registers on the historical time-line 15,000 years ago, give or take a century or two. The actual bedrock—the oldest exposed bedrock on earth—has been around much longer. It is more than 510 million years old.

The sandy looking water of the Wisconsin River isn’t dirty. It’s colored by tannic acid, a harmless substance that comes from the roots and bark of tamarack and oak trees. It is the same substance Native Americans used to preserve animal hides.

The sandy water of the Wisconsin River

The sandy water of the Wisconsin River (above and below)

The sandy water of the Wisconsin River

Witches Gulch is an easy trek on wooden boardwalks that lead into a magnificently carved canyon. I was frustrated because I couldn’t find out why it was called Witches Gulch. Native Americans share a story of giant sea serpents carving the landscape, but I heard no mention of witches. The Dells Boat Tours offers Friday and Saturday nights excursions after dark through October. What a great way to get your Halloween thrills. The place was hauntingly beautiful during daylight, and a nighttime trip would be awesome. If anyone goes, and hears the story of how the area got its name, please share.  

Witches Gulch, Wisconsin Dells

Witches Gulch, Wisconsin Dells (above and below)

Witches Gulch, Wisconsin Dells

Witches Gulch, Wisconsin Dells

Witches Gulch, Wisconsin Dells

Thanks to photographer H.H. Bennett, Stand Rock is the most famous formation in the Dells. Bennett captured a stop-action photo of his son leaping from an outcropping along the shore to Stand Rock. The photograph became famous. Today a dog is trained to repeat the feat. It’s a good thing, because I doubt that even Lloyds of London would provide liability insurance for a human to repeatedly perform the trick. The dog does it for a biscuit.

Stand Rock, Wisconsin Dells

Stand Rock

Stand Rock, Wisconsin Dells

Ready

Stand Rock, Wisconsin Dells

Set

Dog jumping, Stand Rock, Wisconsin Dells

Jump!

 

 

 

Julie Albrecht Royce, Travel Adventures Editor, is the author of Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast and Traveling Michigan's Thumb, both published by Thunder Bay Press. She writes a monthly column for Wandering Educators.

On her blog, Julie is currently writing two weekly series.

On Mondays, she posts in her series entitled, "Ugly Shoes and Boomer Do Europe."
This series captures the humor and adventure of her rail trip from Amsterdam to Budapest and then return river cruise back to Amsterdam.

On Thursdays, Julie writes about PILZ, the legal thriller novel she has written.

 

Log on to www.jkroyce.com/blog to follow along.

 

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Julie and Bob Royce

 

 

 

 

 

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