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Prairie Rose State Park - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 60


Located near Harlan in Shelby County, a 422 acre state park holds natural and historic treasures.


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


As early American settlement stretched west toward the Missouri River, settlers founded a small village in Shelby County. With an abundance of wild roses adorning the area, the new arrivals dubbed the hamlet Prairie Rose. Located roughly a mile and a half south of the current park site, the Prairie Rose settlement slowly faded into a ghost town.


While the early era of state park development in Iowa blossomed during the 1920s and 1930s, western Iowa lacked in opportunities for Iowans to enjoy public lands. When the legislature authorized a park creation project in 1947, the area stood as a high priority. To rectify the situation, the Iowa Conservation Commission conceived of a $389,000 project during the late 1940s focused on developing a lake and park. The plans slowly came together as officials mulled a variety of sites, and in 1952 the state started acquiring lands to the southeast of Harlan. Hesitancy to sell lands slowed down the project as the courts ruled on challenges presented by individual land owners. Local organizations, including the American Legion and the Kiwanis came out to publicly support the project, while bitter opposition led to contentious arguments at the local and state level. A special commission appointed by the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court set the condemnation land price for hesitant owners at $333 an acre during December of 1954. The geographic location and geological realities of the site also proved a sticking point, and arguments concerning the practicality of creating a healthy lake based off existing watershed practices also fueled skepticism of the project’s projected success. By 1958, the settlement of court cases allowed for state officials to stake out the boundaries and move toward making Prairie Rose a reality.


With the lands in hand by the late 1950s, the task of constructing a dam on the West Nishnabotna River to create a reservoir preceded park development. Construction completed in 1960, and the river slowly filled a 204 acre reservoir reaching depths of 26 feet and featuring over seven miles of shoreline. Initial park development saw the creation of picnic areas and campgrounds, while largescale tree planting seeded future enjoyment of the park. In 1962, the park proved ready for dedication and officially opened to the public.


During the 1980s, water quality challenges forced officials to undertake a major renovation project. As one of the first projects to benefit from the 1979 Rural Clean Water Program, and the cooperation of watershed partners helped to limit siltation and lake pollution. However, sedimentation problems continued to plague Prairie Rose. By the year 2000, build up reached such a significant point the lake actually reduced in size. During the decade locals came together to found the Friends of Prairie Rose State Park with the aim of lending helping hands to park staff. Officials responded to the public’s interest with the Prairie Rose Lake Water Quality Project in 2008. A combination of local, state, and federal cooperation led to the construction of 40 miles of terraces in the 4,600 acre watershed feeding the lake, and reengineering efforts focused on minimizing sedimentation. During the project major improvements to the campground and the construction of cabins helped add amenities to the park.


Today, Prairie Rose State Park offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in western Iowa. Over seven miles of trails wind through the park and provide interpretation of plant and wildlife found within the bounds. Two modern boat ramps pair with miles of shoreline to offer Iowa’s anglers opportunities to test the waters for bass, channel catfish, crappie, and bluegill. A pair of cabins couple with two modern campgrounds to offer options for those hoping to spend the night. Open shelters and picnic areas provide a place to pass a pleasant afternoon.


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