Tucked in a series of Southern Iowa Drift Plains hills near the Missouri Border in Taylor County, a 1,155-acre State Park near Bedford holds natural and historic treasures.
Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Lake of Three Fires State Park.
In 1935 the Civilian Conservation Corps dammed tributary streams of the One Hundred and Two River’s East Fork, forming Lake of Three Fires. However, to understand the name of the park one needs to understand a story which stretches further into the past. Local legend holds the valley now sleeping beneath the lake once held important diplomatic meetings between different Indigenous peoples who called the area home during the pre-American settlement era.
The Prairie and Forest bands of the Potawatomi tribe, who called southwestern Iowa home during the early to mid-1800s after dispossession and removal from the Great Lakes Region. Although the United States government again moved the Potawatomi further West into Kansas during the late-1840s, the name of today’s park recognizes their time in the area. The Potawatomi, or ‘people of the place of fire,’ in Ojibwe, represents one of three fires represented in the long-standing confederacy of the Potawatomi, Ojibwe, and Ottawa.
As new American towns replaced the villages of the Potawatomi, towns including Bedford developed in Taylor County. When the Iowa Conservation Commission started scrutinizing potential parklands throughout the state, the citizens of Bedford took the lead in rallying support from neighboring communities to raise funds for land purchase at the future site of Lake of Three Fires. Called the Southwestern Iowa Lake Project, the town raised an initial $10,000 before drawing in other communities’ support for the project in 1934. Over the mid-1930s the rest of the funds came together to purchase an initial 375 acres, and by 1937 the state started to consider names once they had the lands in hand.
On January 28th, 1937, the Redding Herald announced: “Taylor County is to have a State Park and artificial lake. The State Conservation Commission in selecting a name for the new lake went back to the early history,” and decided to honor the earlier Indigenous peoples of the area. Although some locals scrutinized the name, it stuck. Aiming to construct a dam which would provide recreational opportunities while also serving as an auxiliary water supply for nearby Bedford, Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Progress Administration Workers spent the mid-to-late 1930s working on the new park.
The dam and spillway served as a major focus for the CCC and WPA, but other projects in the park also represent the legacy of New Deal Workers at Lake of Three Fires. A stone and timber bathhouse sits atop a CCC constructed beach, and the group also constructed fish nursery ponds in the park.
Following the onset of World War II and the close of the New Deal, the park continued to develop new outdoor opportunities for the citizens of southern Iowa. Notably, local citizens formed the Bedford Saddle Club during the 1950s and kicked off extensive trail development while also constructing the park’s equestrian campground.
Aside from recreational developments, maintaining the lake has consistently proven a challenge. In 1980, workers drained the lake and chemically killed off carp and other undesirable fish populations. Additionally, a project to reengineer the lake in the hopes of reducing sedimentation and improving water quality followed from 1997 to 2005. In the summer of 2022 a swimmer at the lake was hospitalized and eventually died after becoming infected with brain eating amoeba
Today, Lake of Three Fires State Park offers many opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy southern Iowa. Although equestrian activities represent the most popular draw to the park, open picnic shelters invite guests to spend an afternoon along the shores of the lake. Both equestrian and non-equestrian campgrounds welcome visitors, and anglers enjoy fishing from several jetties or in boats launched at the boat ramp.
Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Lake of Three Fires 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 of Three Fires 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 of Three Fires State Park.
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I hope I’ll see you out there!