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Lake Darling - Notes on Iowa State Parks Series, Episode 91

Located between Richland and Brighton in Washington County, a 1,417-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


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


Part of the Iowa Conservation Commission’s plans to create improved access to artificial lakes for Iowans during the post-World War II era. The site near Washington came under state control during 1947. Situated along the Honey Creek tributary of the Skunk River, the sites valleys proved an easily engineered site for an impoundment dam and reservoir. During the late 1940s, a $256,000 dam rose to over Washington County to impound the largest artificial dam in the state. Although the later federal projects at Saylorville and Red Rock would dwarf the project, the 150,000 cubic yards of earth piled into the dam and 15,000 cubic yards of rock used for rip-rap represented a historic undertaking for the Iowa Conservation Commission.


Named for Jay N. “Ding” Darling, the park stands as a remberance of the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist’s significant legacy to the conservation movement in Iowa. Born in Michigan, Darling’s family moved to Sioux City during his childhood where Darling developed an early appreciation for nature and wildlife during days spent wandering the prairie. He started to learn the importance of conservation as a youth after an uncle admonished him for shooting a wood duck during nesting season. Following college, Darling got a job working at the Sioux City Journal before eventually moving on to the Des Moines Register and Leader. After a couple of stints in New York, Darling returned to Des Moines where he continued his career as a cartoonist, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1924 and again in 1943.


On September 17, 1950, the Iowa Conservation Commission officially dedicated Lake Darling State Park. Named for Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jay N. “Ding” Darling, the park seeks to honor the influential Iowans legacy as a conservationist. Darling’s influence on Iowa’s public lands long predated the dedication of the park. Credited as the visionary behind the state’s 1933 Iowa 25 Year Conservation Plan which brought all of Iowa’s state lands and waters under one agency, Darling long advocated for improved access to nature for all Iowans.  Part of the 25 year plan focused on the creation of artificial lakes throughout southern Iowa. Lake Darling, near Brighton in Washington County, directly resulted from the project. Darling personally set the impoundment gate on the dam built to create the lake in a ceremony prior to the dedication. With the waters filling in, Darling again was on hand in September of 1950 to celebrate the dedication of the new lake and state park named in his honor.


Across the 1950s, development helped to provide amenities at the park. Construction of a beach house, campgrounds, boat ramps, picnic areas, and trails all followed the park’s dedication. By the 1960s, the development of the park allowed for the site to stand as a favorite for many throughout southeastern Iowa. Almost immediately after opening, however, siltation started to cause issues at the newly christened lake. By 1954, so much silt stacked up in the northern end of the lake the boat dock in the area stopped providing functional access. Without the boat ramp, the park’s original campground, also located at the north-end of the lake, had to move to the south end familiar to visitors today. Over the 1960s, the relocation of amenities paired with initial projects aimed at offsetting the siltation issues at the park, however, the 41:1 ratio of watershed to lake area proved a constant challenge. Other improvements and amenities also came online during the 1960s and 1970s, including a memorial honoring Jay N. “Ding Darling” during 1962.


While the park thrived over its first fifty years, sedimentation and other water quality issues continue to threaten the long-term viability of the lake. Common to many of the artificial lakes created in southern Iowa as a result of the 1933 conservation plan, the lake shrank due to erosion and sedimentation from the watershed. Reduced in size from 302 acres at initial filling to 267 acres by the year 2000, the overall quality of the water stood as poor. However, thanks to a dedicated effort spearheaded by locals and supported by state officials the park underwent a transformative era of reinvention during the early 21st century. A lake draining and reengineering project removed over 300,000 cubic feet of silt, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources sought to work with landowners throughout the 12,500-acre watershed to reduce erosion and runoff. The Friends of Lake Darling group, as well as the Izaak Walton League and the Washington Riverboat Foundation, headed an effort bringing together various stakeholders throughout the area to raise funds and work together for the betterment of the lake and surrounding park. In 2014, a rededication ceremony took place to celebrate the restored lake and park amenities. While the large-scale project proved a success, water quality continues to represent a significant challenge at the lake.


Today, Lake Darling State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southeastern Iowa.  Iowa’s anglers enjoy testing the waters for a variety of fish species with easy access provided by boat ramp, shoreline, and an ADA accessible fishing pier opportunities. The park boasts 11 cabins and a modern campground for guests hoping to spend the night. A variety of trails wind through diverse habitat, including a 1.5 paved trail, offer great options for visitors hoping to take in the scenery. A recently renovated day-use lodge pairs with two shelters to provide options for those hoping to host an event or gathering at the park.


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