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Pammel State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 31


Located just southwest of Winterset in Madison County, a 350-acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


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


Home to Iowa’s only auto tunnel, named for the “Father of Iowa Conservation” Louis Pammel, and representative of the overarching history of public lands in Iowa, Pammel State Park’s history stretches back into the geologic past. A 140 foot tall ridge known as the Devil’s Backbone and comprised on Bethany Falls Member, Swope Formation, Pennsylvania Period limestone dominates the park, and prior to a 1930 renaming locals referred to the area as the Devil’s Backbone.


During Iowa’s earliest American settlement, local man John Harmon and his sons started digging a millrace tunnel through the Devil’s Backbone at the narrowest point in 1856. The tunnel took three years to construct and helped in the operation of the flour and sawmill until 1904.


As the Iowa Conservation Commission started identifying potential parklands throughout the state, the scenic area southwest of Winterset stood out. The picturesque parcel along the Middle River came under state control through a purchases taking place over 1923 and 1924. Development followed as prisoners from Anamosa State Penitentiary arrived and worked to enlarge the tunnel, construct roads, and build a peeled log lodge characteristic of 1920s Iowa State Park development. During 1924 a group of 100 members of the Des Moines Garden Club ventured to the park to assist in planting and maintenance of plant life under the direction of Louis Pammel. Workers also constructed the iconic Middle River Ford within the parks bounds during the early era of development. By early July of 1930, the park stood ready for the public and a dedication ceremony followed with an estimated 2,000 attendees.


Upon dedication of the park and induction in the Iowa State Park system, officials changed the name to avoid confusion with eastern Iowa’s Backbone State Park while honoring Iowa State botanist Louis Pammel. In the story of Iowa’s state parks, Louis Pammel stands out for his role in assessing lands and guiding the Iowa State Board of Conservation from its creation until 1927. Championed as “the most valuable single influence” on Iowa’s conservation during his life at his 1931 funeral, the visionary Pammel towers in the history of Iowa’s state parks.


Although developed during the 1920s, Pammel State Park also saw improvement with the arrival of 187 Civilian Conservation Corps workers during the 1930s. The group, composed entirely of World War I veterans, built the iconic stone entrance portals and constructed the Backbone Shelter of local sourced limestone and timber.

Throughout the mid-20th century, newspapers abound with accounts of idyllic picnics in the park, accounts of automobiles stalled on the ford, and joyous family reunions in the shelters. Over the years, the park grew to embody not just the legacy of its namesake put also Louis Pammel’s vision for conservation in the state of Iowa.


In 1958, significant flooding severely damaged the tunnel in the park, and the state allotted $25,000 in emergency funds to make repairs. During 1962, the state dedicated a marker featuring an original stone burr from the Backbone Mill placed on the original location near the tunnel. The state also spent $17,000 during the 1960s to reconstruct the popular ford on Middle River. Other projects during the era improved camping opportunities and amenities within the park. In 1980, coring samples taken on Oak trees within the park dated some specimens back to the year 1614.


In 1988, the state started to explore a transfer of the site to the Madison County Conservation Board. Also during that year, the Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church donated a 60 acre parcel adjacent to the park to the Madison County Foundation for Environmental Education featuring a church building which was converted into a nature center. The following year, during May of 1989, the state announced the Madison County Board of Conservation would take over responsibility of maintenance at the park. Unlike many other transfers of the 1980s and 1990s to county control, the transition at Pammel did not result from poor maintenance or other problems. Instead, locals felt better equipped to handle the preservation and conservation of one of Iowa’s most notable state parks.


Today, Pammel State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in Madison County. Nearly five miles of trails wind through the park, and a new conservation center pairs with the former chapel nature center to offer educational opportunities. Catfishing proves popular with anglers in the deep pool below the ford, and traditional, yurt, and cabin camping offer a variety of options for visitors hoping to spend the night.


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