Wisconsin Dells History

History of Wisconsin Dells

Eons ago, when an enormous glacial lake broke free from its dam of ice, a catastrophic flood of violent waters carved the rock formations that we call “dells” today—and the noise was likely so loud that it could be heard six states away! French explorers referred to those rock formations in their language as dalles, literally meaning “slabs.” Over the years the name became Anglicized to “dells.”

Native Americans hunted buffalo and raised crops on the nearby plains. They also fished in the river they called “Meskousing,” which means “where the waters gather.” The French spelling of this Native American term was “Ouisconsin,” from which the modern word “Wisconsin” evolved.

Wisconsin Dells is one of the oldest sites to appear on maps of the western Great Lakes region, as well as being one of the first resort areas in the state. The “city” was initially established in 1857 at the point where a new railroad crossed the Wisconsin River. At that time the editor of The Wisconsin Mirror newspaper, Alanson Holly, opined that, “… the wild, romantic scenery of the Dells will always make them a place of resort for seekers of pleasure.”

The “city” consisted of eleven houses and one commercial building and was initially named Kilbourn City—in a nod toward the railroad’s president. But everyone continued to call the area “The Dells,” and so the City of Kilbourn officially changed its name to Wisconsin Dells in 1931.

History of Wisconsin Dells as a Family Vacation Destination

The Tommy Bartlett Show. The Wisconsin Dells resort area as we currently know it can arguably trace its roots to the first iteration of the Tommy Bartlett Show water-skiing exhibition. Its popularity and location on Highway 12 influenced other tourist attractions to establish themselves nearby. This effectively shifted tourist development to that portion of highway between Wisconsin Dells and Lake Delton, now known locally as “The Strip.”

The Wisconsin Ducks. Another attraction that is a part & parcel part of the Wisconsin Dells family experience is Wisconsin Ducks. Purchased out of surplus immediately after World War II, these US Army amphibious vehicles were first brought to Lake Delton by Mel Flath in 1946. Passengers enjoyed an exhilarating ride through breathtaking woods, up-and-over hills & dales, splashed into the waters near Echo Point, into Lake Delton, and eventually returned to their point of departure through woods and canyons. The Wisconsin Ducks ran on Lake Delton until 1952, when new owners moved the operation to Mirror Lake.

The H. H. Bennett Photography Studio. Another hallmark of Wisconsin Dells is the world-famous stop-action photo of Ashley Bennett leaping to Stand Rock. It was taken in 1886 by his father, H. H. Bennett, when photography was in its technological infancy. His photography studio—founded 21 years earlier in 1865—had been continuously owned and operated by successive generations until being acquired in 1999 by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. A priceless collection of prints, negatives, and antique equipment came along with it. Beautifully restored and open to the public, it’s believed to be the oldest family-owned photographic studio in the country.

Noah’s Ark Waterpark. America’s largest waterpark—and probably the world’s—Noah’s Ark Waterpark is nowadays one of the biggest family attractions in Wisconsin Dells. Amazingly, the waterpark uses & recycles over 2-million gallons of water on its rides. One of the “newer” attractions in Wisconsin Dells, it was established in 1979 when the Waterman family purchased 205 feet of frontage property on U.S. Route 12 to create a bumper boat-ride and go-cart track. Noah’s Ark Waterpark was initially named “Noah’s Incredible Adventure.” In 1994, the Gantz family purchased Noah’s Ark and added the “OctoExplorer”, a yellow submarine with moving periscope, water guns, and soft-surfaced waterslides. In 2012, after 33 years of successful operation and becoming a premier Wisconsin Dells destination, the waterpark was purchased by Palace Entertainment, an amusement & entertainment company that has upgraded the waterpark and its operations.

Modern Wisconsin Dells

Today, along with being The Waterpark Capital of the World ®, an astounding array of natural wonders, attractions, restaurants, live entertainment, festivals, sports venues, and year-round activities make Wisconsin Dells one of the nation’s premier vacation & resort areas. Just a partial list:

  • Restaurant options include fine dining and ethnic venues; bars, lounges, and night clubs; kid-friendly establishments; as well as a host of concessions and snack bars
  • The Crystal Grand Music Theatre is a 2,000 seat venue showcasing national musicians, comedians, and family shows
  • Besides fields for softball, football, soccer, or lacrosse, The Woodside Wisconsin Dells Center
  • Dome is host to many indoor sporting events and can accommodate up to 16 volleyball courts, 10 basketball courts, and 32 wrestling mats
  • Wineries, breweries
  • Fishing and sports shops
  • Big Sky Twin-Drive is an old-fashioned drive-in theatre
  • Horseback riding tours & stables
  • Municipal parks & picnic shelters
  • Snowboarding at nearby Cascade Mountain
  • Zip-line adventures & tours
  • Christmas Mountain Village skiing, snowboarding, tubing, and summertime golf
  • Circus World in nearby Baraboo is “a kaleidoscopic feast of stupendous attractions” with numerous different shows daily from May 20 – August 28, 2016
  • Country Bumpkin Farm Market, offering fresh berries, fruits, and vegetables picked daily—and Lil’ Bumpkin Play Village, featuring a pedal tractor corral, pedal kart raceway, a kid-size zip line, and other attractions to keep the youngster busy.