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Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Early Tourism and Wisconsin Dells

How One Family Helped Build the Modern Tourist Destination

The Rise of Wisconsin Dells | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargePanoramic view from shoreline of the Wisconsin River in the Wisconsin Dells. A sandy beach area is on the right, and rock formations are on both sides of the river.

Jaws of the Wisconsin Dells, 1894

Panoramic view from shoreline of the Wisconsin River in the Wisconsin Dells. A sandy beach area is on the right, and rock formations are on both sides of the river. In the lower right hand corner are the words "JAWS OF THE WISCONSIN DELLS." Copyright 1894. by H.H. Bennett." View the original source document: WHI 64331

Traveling just for the fun of it is a relatively modern idea. For instance, Wisconsin's best-known tourist destination, Wisconsin Dells, only dates from the mid-19th century and Northwoods tourism is even younger than that.

Joseph Street

The first white people to see the Dells were probably Green Bay fur traders. Louis Beaupre wintered on the Lemonweir River in 1810-1811 as did members of the Grignon family in 1820. Jacques Porlier and Amable Grigon had posts further upriver among the Ho-Chunk later in the 1820s and all of them probably passed through the Dells on their way north.

The first text mentioning the Dells appears to be an 1832 note communicating a famous moment in Wisconsin history. On August 27, 1832, an Indian agent at Prairie du Chien named Joseph Street wrote that "at 11 o'clock today, Black Hawk and The Prophet were delivered to Gen. Joseph M. Street by The One-eyed Decorri and Chaetar, Winnebagoes belonging to this agency" and then quoted the latter as saying, "Near the Dalle on the Wisconsin, I took Black Hawk."

EnlargeExterior view of Dell House with two women posed in front.

Dell House

Exterior view of Dell House with two women posed in front. View the original source document: WHI 7982

The Dell House

Five years later the first frame building erected at the Dells, was built by Robert V. Allen. It was called the Dell House. It served as a tavern and inn for visitors who began to learn about the remarkable scenery of the area. One of their sources were guidebooks such as Increase Lapham's 1844 "A Geographical and Topographical Description of Wisconsin," the first book printed in the state. It devotes nearly a page to reports of the Dells.

Lapham got a chance to visit them personally five years later and his notes on the trip record his excitement: "Our eagerness to see the dreadful Dells induced us to leave our beds at 5 o'clock." He also visited Devil's Lake on this excursion.

The first bridge over the Dells was built in 1850, and after the railroad reached the village a few years later its future was assured. "We conclude," wrote the town's newspaper editor in 1856 "that the wild, romantic scenery of the Dells will always make them a place of resort for seekers of pleasure." At the time the town consisted of eleven houses and the newspaper office.

Tourists

But the tourists came in such numbers that steamboats were needed to carry them up the river and through the gorges while local residents guided them downriver with the current. In 1858 an anonymous tourist described his visit to the Dells this way:

Here a river of hundreds of miles in length, that has leaped cataracts and rushed almost unchecked over rapids, spreads at will over plains, and piled up in its playfulness sand-bars of acres in size, suddenly finds itself contracted; high walls of rough rocks, built up layer upon layer, until they attain at some places fifty and even a hundred feet in height, have prescribed its limits. As if maddened beyond control, in the height of its anger, apparently, it dashes into the jaws of the rocky monster that appears to swallow it. Here the fun begins in earnest, and is kept up for, I suppose, about two and a half miles, when the river again expands and the rapidity of the current is lessened.

Just after the Civil War, the photographs of Henry Hamilton Bennett began to circulate throughout the country's major cities and tourists flocked to see the natural wonders of the Dells.

Learn More

See more images, essays, newspapers and records about Wisconsin Dells.