Located alongside the Des Moines River just south of Fort Dodge in Webster County, a 595-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Dolliver Memorial State Park.
A geological wonderland featuring sites tying into Iowa’s deep past, the Floris Formation, Pennsylvania age sandstone cliffs, crystalline melanterite deposits, and other features of the park have drawn visitors from a time immemorial. A significant site for Iowa’s earliest Indigenous peoples, Woodland period mounds dating back to 800 BC sit atop bluffs overlooking the Des Moines River in the southern portion of the park. Iowa’s native peoples also used unique minerals found in the Copperas Beds of the park for paints and dies. The legendary Bone Yard Hollow in the park’s northern section represents a noted buffalo jump utilized by early Iowans to drive bison over the ledges and into the canyon during hunts. Native inhabitants of the site also constructed small riffle in the Des Moines River near the park’s southern boundary to pool waters and aid in fishing. Historically tied to Siouan language peoples including the Ioway and the southernmost portions of the Dakota (commonly known as the Sioux), the park stands as one of the most significant and well-preserved representations of Iowa’s Indigenous past.
As Fort Dodge opened the area to American settlement during the mid-1850s, the park continued to draw visitors interested in the unique features of the site. During 1912, a picnicker discovered a lead tablet in Boneyard Hollow, allegedly tying French Missionary Father Hennepin to the site. Although the famous Frenchman did not visit the site in 1701 as alleged by the tablet, the investigative team which uncovered the first certified the artifact before later uncovering it as a hoax included state officials Edgar Harlan and Louis Pammel. When Pammel found himself heading the fledgling Iowa Conservation Commission later in the decade, he remembered the significant site in Webster County and advocated for the formation of a State Park at the location.
As early as 1919, local papers reported the state squabbling over land prices related to sites along the Des Moines in Webster County, and by 1921 local citizens banded together to offer a solution. A donation of $10,000 from the Dolliver Memorial Fund toward an initial land $48,500 purchase for roughly 400-acres at two closely located sites: Boneyard Hollow and Woodman’s Hollow. To sweeten the pot, Webster County agreed to construct a road to the site near Lehigh from Fort Dodge. Named to honor Iowa politican and member of the United States Congress Jonathan P. Dolliver, the park features a bronze tablet memorializing the man who left the necessary funds for the park’s creation.
With the lands in hand, initial work started at the site to prepare for a dedication ceremony held on June 28, 1925. An estimated 13,000 people attended the festivities, which officially opened Dolliver as the Iowa’s third state park to officially join the system. Although controversy swirled around the construction of a low-head dam at the site, officials ultimately decided to complete the project during the late 1920s. Quick construction of a log caretakers cabin and lodge followed, but the most significant development of Dolliver didn’t get underway until the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration arrived during the 1930s. Development of the site around the Dolliver memorial plaque, construction of several stone-and-timber buildings representative of the CCC architectural style, stone bridges, cabins, the round check-in station, shoreline work on the Des Moines River, laying of stone steps, entrance portals, and a variety of other projects. Today, a National Register of Historic Places district within the park helps to preserve the CCC-era structures. With much of the park’s development completed by the close of the 1930s, the mid-20th century saw a time of idyllic picnics, informative public presentations, and other outings in the park.
Consistent maintenance at the park continues to allow generations of Iowans to enjoy the site, and in the 1990s a large renovation project helped to ensure the preservation of the park’s historic buildings and structures for the foreseeable future. During the decade the Iowa DNR also worked to modernize the campground and group camp facilities, the boat ramp, and several other features of the park.
Today, Dolliver Memorial State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in north-central Iowa. Hikers enjoy more than 5 miles of challenging trails which climb through the site’s geologic history, and history enthusiasts revel in the park’s connections to the deep past at Boneyard Hollow or at the Indigenous mounds. Rental cabins and modern camping welcome visitors hoping to spend the night, and a series of shelters offer the opportunity to enjoy an afternoon gathering. A boat ramp offers access to the Des Moines, a anglers enjoy testing the waters from shoreline fishing options.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Dolliver Memorial 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, Dolliver Memorial 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 Dolliver Memorial State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!