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Eagle Lake State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 89

Located between Garner and Britt in Hancock County, a 21-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Eagle Lake State Park.


Part of a larger wetlands complex covering around 1,200-acres, Eagle Lake offers a vision of life on the Des Moines Lobe before the onset of American agriculture. The earliest records of the area now known as North Iowa showcase one of the world’s great marsh and wetland areas. Part of the knob and kettle geography carved by the advance and retreat of the Wisconsin Glacier over 12,000 years ago, the are hosted habitat for untold numbers of waterfowl by the time American arrived in the area. While ditching, draining, and tiling lowered Iowa’s water-table as much as four feet, Eagle Lake remained. As late as 1900, the lake, as well as adjacent marshes and ponds, stretched north for more than 10 miles. Within the rich habitat of the overarching wetland complex observers noted duck nesting sites in the thousands. Other records showcase the place as a refuge for migrating birds passing through Iowa seasonally.


During the early 1900s, William Ward purchased the tract which would eventually enter the park system. Ward allowed locals to cross his lands to access the lake, and the site gained a reputation for quality hunting and fishing. A zoologist from Coe College in Cedar Rapids named Bert Bailey spent several summers with the Wards’ studying and collecting birds at the site. The resultant records stand as one of the most complete snapshots of north Iowa’s habitat during the era.


With the formation of the Iowa Conservation Commission and the subsequent founding of the Iowa State Parks system during the early 20th-century, the citizens of nearby Britt banded together to help purchase thirteen acres from the Wards during 1923. The donated parcel paired with a state land trade for adjacent acres to result in the 21-acre state park. The local community drove the initial development of the park, volunteering to provide for amenities including the formation of a picnic ground and lake access. During the New Deal Era, federal programs helped to provide for construction of a shelter in 1935. Utilizing labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps camp stationed just to the north in Forest City’s Pammel Park, the small-scale development of the 1930s stood as the most significant in the park’s history.


Over the course of the post-World War II era, the park suffered from lack of attention in the state system. With the formation of the Hancock County Conservation Board, locals advocated for the park to return to county-level control. In 1964, the state formally transferred management responsibilities to Hancock County. The new maintenance agreement allowed for updating of the park’s limited facilities.


Controversy erupted in 1974 when the state put forth a proposal to create better water stability by putting in infrastructure to ensure the lake water didn’t rise high enough to threaten the marsh habitat. The state removed an existing plank dam, temporarily drained the lake to allow for vegetation and habitat to recover, and then allowed the lake to refill. Some locals opposed the construction, while hunting and fishing interests expressed interest in the state plan. Arsonists burned down the hunting cabin along the lake owned by one of the County Conservation Board members, not once, but twice, and an attempt was made to light the empty marsh on fire during June of 1974. The plan represented the state officially transitioning treating the lake as a lake, and instead moving to a marsh maintenance strategy.


Over the course of the late 20th and early 21st century, small projects have continued to provide for the park. In 2004, Tyler Bauer of Garner enclosed and painted the shelter at Eagle Lake as an Eagle Scout project. The following year, in 2005, the construction of a handicap-accessible observation deck helped to provide visitors with an excellent option for observing bird life on the shallow lake and marshland complex.


Today, Eagle Lake State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in North Iowa.  Limited trails offer access to the diverse habitat at the site for wildlife viewing and bird watching. Park of the broader wetland complex which includes a wildlife refuge, a nature area, and a wildlife management area, the park offers little in the way of formal amenities. The boardwalk and observation deck help offer accessible views, and the shelter still proves popular for picnics and other gatherings.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Eagle Lake 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, Eagle Lake 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 Eagle Lake 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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