Activities, Services

History of the Wisconsin Dells

The Wisconsin Dells area is known for its sprawling waterparks, tourist attractions, and beautiful landscapes… but how did all of this come to be? Surely the explorers weren’t riding the latest Mt. Olympus attraction!

The winding canyons, sparkling waters, and lush woods of what is known as The Dells were first described by French explorers in the 1700s! Exhausted explorers named the area “Dalles”, a name that stuck even after the French moved on. Many years later (in 1857), the booming railroad made its way to The Dells area. Wisconsin Dells was originally named Kilbourn City in honor of the railroad’s president. But, the locals and visitors never stopped referring to the area as The Dells and it prompted a city name change in 1931, giving birth to the Wisconsin Dells we know today!

The stunning bluffs and rocky cliff faces of the Dells were formed in the last ice age (over 15,000 years ago). The Wisconsin Dells landscape, as a part of the “drift less region”, remained untouched by the glacier’s sheets. It wasn’t until the great glacial lake of Wisconsin gave way that the Dells stunning scenery was created! Did you know that it’s hypothesized that the noise of the rushing water breaking loose from the lake may have been heard up to six states away?

Many Native Americans believed that the canyons were carved by a large serpent-like being slithering down from the north, creating the Wisconsin River with the immense grooves he left behind. Long before the Europeans arrived, many of the native tribes had created an international fur trading network. Native American tribes such as the Winnebago, Chippewa, Menominee, and Ho-Chunk played a large role in the making of The Dells.

Timber! Long before the resort-style Dells was born, the majority of the state was forested. The dense forests coupled with the long, wide, wandering Wisconsin River created the perfect mix for a booming logging industry. The idea of “rafting” the logs downstream was a dangerous business, especially in the Dells area where the river narrowed and gained considerable turbulence. Portage, Wisconsin is home to the first recorded logging expedition in Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin Dells is known as one of the oldest resort areas in the state. Since one of the most exciting draws to the area was the stunning scenery, many of the initial Dells visitors were avid sightseers.

H.H. Bennett Photography

Pictures are worth a thousand words. In 1875, H.H. Bennett started a small photo studio in The Dells. He was one of the first people to focus-in and capitalize on the Dells area. He hoped to capture the majesty of the area and share it with others with his dramatic landscape images. His photos reached across the United States and had visitors spilling into the area to catch a glimpse of the strange landscapes they had previously only seen on paper. In perhaps his most famous stop-action photo, Bennett’s son Ashley can be seen leaping to Stand Rock.

Dells Duck Tours, Inc.

The amphibious DUKW model was brought to the Dells in 1946 by Mel Flath after he purchased the vehicle on impulse in California. Mel developed a stunning 90-minute DUKW tour to show off the breathtaking sandstone scenery. The tour took off from beneath the dam at the presently located Mexicali Rose, not far from where the tours launch today! After several years of changing ownership and names, the tours operate a fleet of Dells Army Ducks. The Ducks haven’t changed much, but photography sure has! Take a peek at “Ida”, a long running Wisconsin Dells Duck!

Tommy Bartlett

The early 1950s gave way to one of the longest running shows in The Dells history, the Tommy Bartlett Show. Lake Delton was only the second stop on the Tommy Bartlett Thrill Show tour, but the success of the show had Bartlett planning to plan his roots in The Dells area! In one of the first Dells advertising campaigns, he gave away free bumper stickers to visitors to promote the show.

The Attraction/Waterpark Era

The 1970s began the attraction/waterpark era of The Dells. The Dells is now home to nearly one-hundred different attractions! Noah’s Ark opened its doors back in 1979 and is still considered the largest outdoor waterpark in the world! Winding go-kart tracks, speedy waterslides, adventurous mini-golf courses, wild roller coasters, laid-back horseback tours, lush golf greens, relaxing spas, canopy ziplines, exciting arcades, museums, magic and more. What doesn’t The Dells have to offer?

Bennett’s photography, the DUKW, and Tommy Bartlett’s water shows paved the way for a booming business in the present-day Dells! Photos and postcards of the area have been collected and restored over time. A portion of these images are highlighted in this blog, but countless other photos offer a unique peek back in time to a Vintage Wisconsin Dells.

This is just a short snippet of the expansive history of The Dells. If you’re a history buff and are looking for more information on the history of The Dells, a stop at the Dells Country Historical Society is a MUST. The beautiful Bowman house has been restored, and is home to the Society’s many Dells artifacts that will make you feel as if you’ve been transported into years past! The museum is open Thursday-Saturday during the summer season. Admission is free, donations are encouraged, and cameras are welcome.