A Lesson From The Past

A Lesson From The Past

In part, Devil’s Lake State Park is the result of a group of people fighting to save the Baraboo Hills from outside corporations who wanted to destroy it for profit. It took the state government over 40 years to put an end to the blasting and extraction of quartzite inside Devil’s Lake State Park.

Often visitors to Devil’s Lake State Park will believe that the lake must have been part of a quarry because of all the loose rock that encircles the lake. Actually, the loose rock or talus is a natural formation that was created by extreme environmental forces during the Wisconsin glaciers over 10,000 years ago. While the talus fields are natural, all the exposed rock was certainly a temptation to quarry companies who were not only tempted by the super-strong Baraboo quartzite, but by the somewhat easy pickins!

On one of the tours I lead through Devil’s Lake Adventure Hikes, we explore what remains of an abandon worker’s village & processing area for the park’s longest running quarry on the southern side of the east bluff.

The land was originally sold to the Western Granite Company in 1882 and they moved quickly to exploit the property. Within a year the Northwestern Railway Company agreed to run a spur from their tracks to the new crushers to be built near the quarry. By 1893 the first rock was already being shipped! It was reported at the time that the facility, which also used water from Devil’s Lake to fill their boilers, was running “day and night” to keep up with orders. In 1897 the quarry was employing between 60 and 70 people!

By the early 1900s, some folks who owned property around what is now the park, saw a cash cow in the making. It was also around this time when the first suggestions of protecting the land began to be heard. In 1906 the Baraboo Republic published the first mention of the state purchasing the land to protect Devil’s Lake from “Eastern Capitalists”.

Group Explores the Quarry Loaders

Group Explores the Quarry Loaders

There is a long and winding storyline that takes us from the point where there was public concern about the land to the point in 1911 when Devil’s Lake became a state park. What many people don’t realize, is that even when Devil’s Lake became a state park, the quarry continued to operate unabated.

In 1919 that the Wisconsin State Legislature authorized (After 2 votes…) the Conservation Commission to remove the quarry from Devils Lake*. They were also authorized to purchase lands to exchange with the quarry company. Good news, right?

Amazingly the American Refractories Quarry didn’t actually close until 1967!! It seems the state would offer bargains occasionally that the quarry wouldn’t take, etc., The state then finally banned “blasting” within the park, but imposed fines that American Refactories could easily brush off. The blasting and shipping went for decade after decade until the quarry company finally packed it up in 1967, 40 years after the state voted to remove them from the park!  By one report, over a half a million tons of rock was removed from the East Bluff of Devil’s Lake State Park!

For folks concerned about the protection of our parks and public lands today, there is a warning in this story from Devil’s Lake State Park’s past. It says that once we give up our public land to private interests, it’s not so easy to get it back. And all the while, the damage continues. It seems a far better option to defend our parks and natural areas now then have to fight to get them back later.

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Side Note:

When you dig into the facts related to the quarry at Devil’s Lake, you find some oddly contradictory stories. One report of note says that the Amercian Refractories Company offered the state an opportunity to purchase their lease of the land in 1912, but the Wisconsin State Park Board refused.

The quarry location as “inside and outside” the park seem interchangeable depending on news reports. I would assume the intent of the reports meant “current boundaries” but that doesn’t fit the 1919 report or the banning of blasting “inside” the park as reported later.


* Baraboo Weekly News November 6, 1919

REF: Ken Lange various publications, Sauk Co. Democrat, Baraboo Republic, Baraboo News Republic. Historic quarry photo provided by the Sauk County Historical Society.

***Obligatory Disclaimer:  This website is NOT associated with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The views expressed in this blog are mine and do not represent the views of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

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4 comments

  1. maryw

    THANK U,,,I LOVE HISTORY,,,I LOVE GOING TO THE PARK TO HIKE,,,,and ,,jmo,,,it cool to know the true history of Devils lake,,,,Hey how bout that moon last night?!!!!!awesome,,,,,,,,maryw

  2. Pat Bullard

    When I was a grade school student in the 1950s and attended Chapel Hill School (now the Town of Merrimac Town Hall) students from the Quarry Camp (as it was called) attended our school. Several families lived there.

  3. Bill

    I well remember hearing (and feeling) the blasts from as far away as Prairie du Sac. It shook windows with no warning.

    When we drove into the park from the east, we went right by the quarry.

    The annual economic impact on Sauk County from Devil’s Lake State Park is $170 million; way more than a quarry could do by orders of magnitude. Not only that, tourism is non-consumptive, whereas quarrying uses up rock, and leaves a huge hole like at Rock Springs. All that part of Sauk County was dug up and sold elsewhere with virtually no benefit to us.

    Thanks for digging up the story.

  4. Joe salemi

    Thank you Derrick. The more I learn about DLSP, the more unique it becomes. Mining and blasting continued until 3-4 years before I discovered the place for myself.
    I thought, for some reason, that the mining operation had stopped in the 1920s. I am so happy to hear that mining was not allowed to change the story of this gem to something like; “the lake used to be surrounded by glaciated rock…….”
    This place must be aggressively protected.

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