Odd Wisconsin Archive
When Lake Delton disappeared on June 9, 2008, questions naturally arose about where it had come from. This lake around which much of Dells tourism revolved was man-made, not natural, and has its own unique story.
The town of Lake Delton was originally named Norris, after the surveyor who laid it out back in 1849. The village was soon re-christened Delton, and over the next decade the inhabitants became well-known for making wagons, buggies, cast-iron plows, and other implements. These were all hand-made in small shops, and the stamp or label "Manufactured in Delton, Wis." came to stand for high-quality craftsmanship. Delton sent its portion of soldiers to fight in the Civil War (recalled here). But after the War, wagons and agricultural equipment began to be made more cheaply in larger factories elsewhere. When the railroad by-passed the town, business owners followed it down the line, and the village withered. A visitor in 1924 described deserted Delton as "only a name, utterly meaningless to the thousands who may pass through it during the [tourist] season..."
But the very next year an imaginative Chicago millionaire named William J. Newman decided Delton had great potential. He had started life as newsboy about 1880 and used his savings to start a construction company. By the 1920s he was one of Chicago's better-known contractors and thought to be worth $30,000,000. He claimed that he'd always been too busy to take a vacation until he saw the beauty of the Dells, so he decided to spend his later years making tiny, overlooked Delton into an ultra-modern vacation resort.
Newman began by circling Dell Creek on a map and instructing a local agent to "buy up all that land within my pencil line." He brought in a crew of engineers and laborers from Chicago who built a 30-foot high dam where the creek entered the Wisconsin River, piled a 1,000 foot long dike alongside the dam, and sculpted 1,000 acres of artificial shoreline into prime tourist real estate. On July 27, 1927, he let the pretty little valley fill up with lake water and at a banquet that night said he had invested $600,000 in the resort, and expected to put in another $400,000 before he was through.
By then his state-of-the-art Dell View Hotel was also ready for occupancy. It included a bathing beach, golf course, trout pond, fish hatchery, hiking and horse trails, baseball diamond, amusement park, family cottages, and a nightclub with one of the best and largest dance floors in the state. All the vegetables, milk, cream, butter and eggs served at the hotel were raised on its own farm. For as little as $2.50 per day, or $20.00 per week if one wanted an entire cottage, visitors could have comfortable modern accommodations and explore the entire Dells region. A lock was built to enable small motorboats and canoes to travel into Lake Delton from the Wisconsin River, an airport was created for the convenience of wealthy tourists, and "almost numberless" summer cottages and substantial homes were soon going up along the lakeshore.
Newman's bubble burst during the Great Depression, when tourism spending declined and his income from contracting decreased. His resort company filed for bankruptcy and transferred its remaining assets to a group of associates called the Lake Delton Development Co., in exchange for assuming its debts. They kept it barely alive until the economy revived after World War Two, when the Dells turned into Wisconsin's premier tourist destination. Tommy Bartlett arrived a few years later and the rest, as they say, is history. Newman didn't live to see his dream reborn, though; he died in Chicago in 1943.
The disaster of June 9, 2008, was not caused by the failure of his dam but rather by the collapse of County Highway A, along the 80-year-old earthen dike. Once breached by the swollen creek, its banks melted away and were swept downstream, carrying three houses and portions of two others along with it.
View historic pictures of Lake Delton and of Wisconsin floods in our online collection, Wisconsin Historical Images. Stories of other Wisconsin floods can be found through our online Dictionary of Wisconsin History.
[Sources: Besides the articles linked in the text, we relied upon Michael J. Goc's excellent book, The Dells: An Illustrated History of Wisconsin Dells (Dells Country Historical Society and Michael J. Goc, 1999) and local newspaper accounts.
:: Posted in Curiosities on June 12, 2008