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Black Hawk State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 79

Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Black Hawk State Park.

With a name harkening back to the defiant military leader of the Sauk Black Hawk, the southernmost glacially formed lake in the United States harkens back to a time well before American settlement. Although the Ioway (or Báxoje) and Dakota occupied the area in the centuries prior to American settlement, Iowa officials named the lake to honor Black Hawk during a period of extensive development during the 1930s. Prior to the renaming, the lake finds representation on early French maps as Boyer Lake, and in early American maps as Walled Lake and Wall Lake.

During initial Euroamerican settlement the lake quickly proved a popular recreational attraction due to clear waters and abundant wildlife. The first American settlers arrived on the lake during 1867, and Platt Armstrong and James Fletcher worked to develop a town originally named Fletcher during the late-1800s. Seven years later the town’s name changed to Lake View. By 1890, the park gained distinction through the construction of an amusement park, hotels, and other vacation-oriented features.

Drawing the attention of the Iowa Conservation Commission due to early State Board of Conservation Member from the area Dr. Everett Speaker, the parcel came into the public domain in three parcels during the 1930s. The initial parcels included a former gravel quarry, a 30-acre farm, as well as the Denison Beach area. Pairing with the town of Lake View’s earlier efforts to buy lakefront property during throughout the 1920s for a municipal park, the public lands provided a variety of access for Iowans from the park’s earliest inception.

With the lands in hand, development started prior to dedication with the help of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp VCCC 1776. A unit consisting entirely of military service veterans, the workers arrived during November of 1933 and quickly set about constructing many of the park’s amenities including stone shelters, a headquarters building, and other features. Aided by a CCC training company during June of 1934 and several Works Progress Administration transient units, federal workers helped to convert the former quarry into Lake Arrowhead while also providing for trail work, habitat management, and construction of fish rearing ponds. The workers also aided in the development of the municipal park, building the distinctive stone piers while the community pitched in to provide funding to commission the University of Iowa’s School of Fine Arts to construct a statue of Chief Black Hawk. The statue, designed by Harry E. Stinson, proved the focal point of an elaborate dedication and lake renaming ceremony which took place on September 3, 1934. By the time the CCC pulled out on May 16, 1935, the Black Hawk State Park stood as one of the best developed holdings in the Iowa State Parks system. By 1942, the park ranked fifth in attendance of all state held park’s throughout Iowa.

While crowds flocked to make the lake and park one of Iowa’s most popular summer vacation destinations, locals worked with state officials to ensure careful maintenance of the park. During the 1960s, facility upgrades helped to provide more numerous amenities throughout the park. Water quality, however, posed a serious issue over the decades to follow. During the winters of 1974-1975 and 1976-1977, as well as an extreme drought in 1976, left the lake largely devoid of game fish. Efforts came together to provide for aerator installation during 1978, and a massive restocking effort took place during 1979 and 1980 to reinvigorate the aquatic life at Black Hawk Lake. Additional land acquisitions in the form of wildlife refuge and wildlife management area lands helped to provide a buffer around the lake in the hopes of lessening impacts from the surrounding watershed. Also during the late 1980s, efforts came together to form one of Iowa’s most ambitious early rails to trails project on the abandoned Chicago & North Western right-of-way to connect Black Hawk State Park with Carroll County’s Swan Lake State Park.

During November of 1990, local and state efforts came together to provide federal designation for three of the park’s areas on the National Register of Historic Places. Including the stone piers, the ‘Witches Tower,’ and other distinctive features, the designation helped to ensure the continued preservation of the site’s historically significant features. During the early 2000s, a major project took place to upgrade and modernize camping facilities at the park.

Starting in 2007, local efforts came together to form the Black Hawk Lake Water Quality Project. Forming one group of governmental officials from city, county, state, and federal levels, as well as the Black Hawk Lake Protective Association, great efforts went into better understanding the possible options for helping ensure water quality at the site. Over the following years a detailed water management plan came together with nearly 11 million dollars in funding to implement twenty-four different practices aimed as reducing impacts from both agricultural and urban landscapes. Resulting in significant sediment and phosphorus delivery reductions, the lake won recognition as the recipient of the Iowa Outstanding Watershed Award in 2023.

Today, Black Hawk State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa. Connected to Carroll County’s Swan Lake State Park by the 33-mile long Sauk Rail Trail, the park features great opportunities for cyclists, hikers, and those hoping to enjoy a pleasant stroll along the lakeshore. Four boat ramps pair with numerous shoreline fishing opportunities for Iowa’s anglers hoping to test the waters for a variety of fish. Campgrounds adjacent to the lake offer great options for those hoping to spend the night. Open shelters, a disc-golf course, three historic areas, and other amenities offer a variety of opportunities for activities at the park.

Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Black Hawk State Park. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Black Hawk State Park shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.

Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Black Hawk State Park.

Make sure to subscribe to the Notes on Iowa website, subscribe on YouTube, follow on social media, and tune in each Sunday to explore the history of Iowa’s state parks, preserves, and other public lands.

I hope I’ll see you out there!


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