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Lake Wapello State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 66

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

Acquired during the 1930s as a part of an Iowa Conservation Commission 25-year plan to create more artificial lakes in Iowa for outdoor recreation, Lake Wapello saw primary initial development by the Civilian Conservation Corps as the first artificial lake constructed by the ICC. The CCC boys primary initial work focused on the construction of a dam and sediment-trapping berm structure. Meant to offset potential siltation and erosion issues common to artificial lakes throughout the Southern Iowa Drift Plain, the dam and berm system allowed for the creation of 284-acre lake.

Construction started on the dam along Pee Dee Creek during 1932 with the help of locals. Contributions totaling more than $10,000 poured in from area residents, and many also contributed labor to assist in the lake and park development. Davis County locals but in over 1,000 hours of volunteer labor to help with the removal of trees and fences located within the projected pool of the artificial lake, as well as initial work on the dam site. When the CCC arrived in 1933, the government workers took over and quickly completed the dam and erosion-control structures. With the dam done and the waters of Pee Dee Creek slowly filling the pool, the workers shifted their efforts to plant thousands of trees, construct roads, and build trails. Additionally, the workers built a distinctive stone and timber boat-bathhouse structure still in use today.

Named for the Meskwaki tribal leader Wapello who helped the American government facilitate the dispossession of the Sauk and Meskwaki through treaties spanning the 1820s and 1830s, the park pairs with the Chief Wapello Memorial Park near Agency in Wapello County to provide remembrance of the tribal leader. Although Wapello urged compliance with American wishes during initial treaties, the leader pivoted in 1841 and gave an impassioned speech opposing the final removal of the Meskwaki from the state. After his death in March of 1842, the final cession removing the Meskwaki from Iowa took place. However, the Meskwaki returned following a significant land purchase in Tama County during 1857 to create the Indigenous settlement which still represents a significant tribal presence in the state today.

In October of 1933, the Public Works Administration granted Wapello County $22,600 to further improve access to the new lake through construction of road from nearby Ottumwa. However, the following year the government pulled the funds citing violations of the initial agreement. With the road already under construction, local officials scrambled to find funding to complete the project. During 1935, the water of Pee Dee Creek paired with heavy seasonal rains to fully-fill the intended pool of the lake for the first time.

With the lake full and initial amenities work completed, Governor Clyde Herring arrived on July 30, 1936, to officially dedicate the new state park and lake. In subsequent years the lake provide the backdrop for idyllic picnics, family reunions, camping trips, and fishing outings. During August of 1944, a man from Eddyville snagged a 21” long pike while fishing in the park to set a new record for the lake. The good times continued to roll at Lake Wapello as careful maintenance paired with healthy visitation across the mid-20th century.

During the 1990s, significant work started to renovate the lake. A lake drawn down in 1991 allowed for improvements to fish habitat, installation of riprap, construction of two new fishing jetties, and work on siltation dams meant to decrease water quality issues.

The state again undertook efforts to improve water quality and eliminate the gizzard shad population at Lake Wapello during the early 2000s. The problem fish species again reemerged almost immediately after the lake’s reopening in April of 2009, leading officials to offer a $1,000 reward for information related to identifying who intentionally reintroduced the problem fish species after the renovation. Ultimately the problem forced a draw down and chemical fishkill of the lake during later 2009.

Today, Lake Wapello State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southeastern Iowa. The CCC constructed boat and bathhouse serves as day-use rental lodge which offers weekend boat rentals through the work of the Friends of Lake Wapello group. A modern campground pairs with thirteen cabins to provide options for those hoping to spend the night. Day trippers enjoy the beach during Iowa’s hot summer months, and picnic facilities offer great options for those hoping to enjoy a quiet afternoon. A seven-mile long shoreline trail winds through the densely wooded park. Anglers enjoy testing the waters of the no-wake lake or dropping a line from universally accessible fishing piers and docks.

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