in Wisconsin History
Travel and Tourism
In the mid-nineteenth century, traveling for recreation became increasingly popular in the United States. Advancements in transportation, especially railroads and steamships, coupled with romantic conceptions of the nation's landscape helped encourage the growth of domestic tourism. People who would have earlier balked at the inconvenience of traveling began to take journeys for spiritual renewal, physical regeneration, freedom from social constraints, or simply to "see the sights." By the middle of the century, many enterprising Americans were ready to serve the needs of this new class called tourists.
As industrialization and urbanization transformed American life, many middle and upper class Americans sought refuge from the bustle of city life in the countryside. U.S. tourists developed a domestic version of the Grand Tour across southern Europe, routinely visiting Niagara Falls, Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Hudson River in large numbers. Combining natural beauty with historic or symbolic significance, these tours were a kind of education for well-to-do Americans about their own land.
Wisconsin Dells was one of the first resort areas in Wisconsin to try to meet this demand, thanks largely to the efforts of Henry Hamilton Bennett. His evocative photographs of exquisite rock formations along the Wisconsin River brought thousands of people from around the country to Wisconsin, eager to see the wonders he captured through his lens.
But even before Bennett's photographs were widely known, the area had already attracted visitors. Hearing stories of the unique features of the river, Increase Lapham had led an expedition there in 1849, producing a diary that described the geologic formations and vegetation in detail. The arrival of the railroad in 1856 brought more travelers, and Kilbourn City, as Wisconsin Dells was then named, became easily accessible from many points around the state. Kilbourn City was not even a year old when the editor of the Wisconsin Mirror, Alanson Holly, wrote, "We conclude that the wild, romantic scenery of the Dells will always make them a place of resort for seekers of pleasure."
Until the 1860s and 1870s, when Bennett's photographs were published in national magazines, the lack of hotels, guides, and other services prevented tourism from becoming a major industry in The Dells. Bennett's images quickly changed that, drawing large numbers of people to Kilbourn City from the industrial cities of Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. New hotels, parks, and other attractions began appearing at a record pace, transforming Wisconsin Dells into the state's most popular vacation destination.
At the end of the 19th century, Northern Wisconsin also attracted tourists eager to reconnect with nature. Many people believed that the problems associated with city life could be cured through interaction with pristine landscapes. The Northwoods, as the area came to be called, was seen increasingly as one of the last vestiges of the vanishing frontier. In the early 20th century, as more and more Americans moved from farms to cities, they looked nostalgically back on frontier pastimes such as fishing and hunting, and the tourist industry began to grow in Wisconsin's Northwoods.
As affluent Americans began to acquire automobiles and trunk highways made recreational driving popular in the 1920s, northern Wisconsin's post-logging depression began to lift. A 1922 highway census revealed that more than 3000 automobiles had passed through Rhinelander from other regions. That fall, businessmen organized the Northern Wisconsin Resort Association to encourage tourists to come to the area and to improve the available services. By 1923, over 2000 members from various businesses had joined and the organization changed its name to the "Wisconsin Land o' Lakes Association" to better represent the broad range of services its members offered. The association established tourist bureaus in Chicago and Milwaukee, estimating that advertising would reach at least two million people a week. They even dared to believe that tourists might find their experience so enjoyable that they would settle permanently in northern Wisconsin.
Other parts of the state endowed with natural beauty, such as the Apostle Islands and Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior, Door County in the northeast, and Lake Geneva in the southeast experienced similar growth as summer vacation destinations for motoring tourists.
With increasing numbers of people traveling by car, new patterns of vacation behavior began to develop. Before, when vacationers took the train, they expected to find a resort or hotel waiting for them. Freed from the strictures of railroad schedules and stops though, tourists began to set up camp along the sides of the road, creating a new nuisance for farmers and communities left with the refuse of a night's stay. Communities began to provide free campgrounds with ovens as well as community houses with bathrooms. The better the campground though, the more likely tourists were to overstay their welcome, incurring considerable municipal expense. By the late 1920s, most cities began charging fees, though soon, private campgrounds overtook municipal sites in both number and range of services.
Tourism continues to be a major industry, especially in northern Wisconsin. Wisconsin Dells remains one of the top tourist destinations in the Midwest, drawing almost three million people in 2003.
[Sources: The History of Wisconsin vols. 3 and 4 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin); Kasparek, Jon, Bobbie Malone and Erica Schock. Wisconsin History Highlights: Delving into the Past (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2004); "History and Origin of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin!" Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau (online at http://www.dells.com/dellshistory/)]