Located near Clarion in Wright County, a 122-acre former state park holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore what used to be Lake Cornelia State Park.
The 244-acre glacial lake today known as Lake Cornelia initially gained familiarity to Iowans as Little Wall Lake. One of four Wright County glacial lakes extending north to south, Lake Cornelia finds common company with Morse Lake, Elm Lake, and Wall Lake. The Wisconsin Glacier carved each of the lakes out of the Des Moines Lobe as it skidded south roughly 12,000 years ago. The glacier left behind a moraine, or small wall of glaciers, thus the initial name of the lake. Lake Cornelia features a maximum depth of just over 20’ while averaging about 10’ in depth throughout the lake.
As American settlement arrived in northern Iowa during the late 20th century, a small town known as Cornelia sprung up along the east shore of Little Wall Lake. The earliest appearance of the name Lake Cornelia shows up in the 1870s, an alleged shift in monikers spurred on by the fondness of a visiting state geologist for a Miss Cornelia Eastman of nearby Clarion. By 1893, the small community featured a post office, several business, and a railroad depot which welcomed both north and southbound passenger trains multiple times each day. A bustling vacation spot during the summer months, the town steadily grew to include a commercial ice operation, a grain elevator, café, roller skating rink, and stockyard. A dance hall proved popular with summer visitors and locals alike, and the Lawrence Welk Orchestra even played at the venue during the group’s rise to national fame.
While agricultural sought to stretch Iowa’s lands to accommodate as many productive acres as possible during the early-20th century, a plan sought to drain Little Wall Lake and Mud Lake. Water quality, already suffering under vegetation and other issues. Concerned citizens came together to partner with the Clarion Commercial Club to petition the State Board of Conversation to prevent the destruction of the natural lakes. On September 25, 1920, the citizens presented state officials with a plan to condemn a 600’ long strip of land between the two lakes to create a state park. The officials consented to the plan, and the lands officially came into the public domain.
Late in the 1930s, work started on development of the lands into a state park. Establishment of picnic grounds and construction of changing booths at the beach paired with a 1940s dredging project to offer improved amenities both at the park and on the lake.
During 1957, the Clarion Junior Chamber of Commerce decided to take action to help improve the park. Partnering with the Iowa Conservation Commission, the Clarion group created a plan to develop and maintain the 33-acre park on the lake’s northwest shore. Later in the year, the Lake Cornelia Improvement Association formed with a stated goal of helping to improve the overall health of the lake. The two groups, as well as other local volunteers, helped to usher in a new era of development for Lake Cornelia. As amenities improved under local guidance, the Iowa Conservation Commission official transferred management responsibilities for the lands to the Wright County Conservation Board during 1964. After an initial decade of management, Wright County decided to purchase lands adjacent to the state owned parcel to enlarge the park while creating improved camping and recreational opportunities. During 1978, the county constructed an open picnic shelter, as well as improved restroom facilities adjacent to the park and campground. Additionally, the county built a storage shed, improved the roadway access, tree planting, and replacement of docks. The improvements kicked off a reinvigoration of the park, and decades of enjoyable events and outings followed. In 1991, the state and Wright County consented to a new 25-year management agreement.
Today, Lake Cornelia offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in north central Iowa. An 88-site campground welcomes visitors hoping to spend the night. Three shelter houses pair with playgrounds for those hoping to pass an enjoyable afternoon. Day use and overnight boat docking at a marina ensure quality opportunities for those hoping to spend some time out on the water of Lake Cornelia. Walking trails, free wi-fi, and other amenities help to provide a variety of ways to enjoy all the park has to offer.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Lake Cornelia. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Lake Cornelia shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.
Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore what used to be Lake Cornelia State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!