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Rush Lake - Notes on Iowa State Parks Series, Episode 97

Located just north of Laurens in Palo Alto County, a 522-acre former state park holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore what used to be Rush Lake State Park.


The glacial drag of the Des Moines Lobe in the deep-past left behind a series of wetlands throughout north and central Iowa. Rush Lake represents one of the wetland areas left behind. The lake, adjacent to Lizard Creek, hosted Indigenous inhabitants well into the pre-American past. A tributary to the Des Moines River at the site of modern-day Fort Dodge, Lizard Creek hosted a large summer village of the Dakota leader Sintominduta during the decades prior to American settlement in the area. As the United States stretched west and dispossession of the Dakota ultimately opened the land to the plow, Rush Lake nearly disappeared. Draining, ditching, and tiling slowly eliminated lakes, sloughs, and wetlands across northern Iowa, and by the early 20th century development nearly reached the shores of Rush Lake. Sometime during the 1920s, a lowhead dam was constructed at the site, raising the water level and drowning out the namesake rushes and other vegetation in the lake.


During 1930, citizens from Palo Alto and Pocahontas counties came together in an effort to secure the lands and petitioned the Iowa Conservation Commission for the creation of a state park. During April, officials from the two counties ventured to Des Moines with a gift of 30 acres of lakeside land and funds amounting to $1,300 meant to provide for development should the state agree to create a state park.


Rush Lake officially joined the Iowa State Park System the following year in 1931, and work started on development. The county set about gravelling access roads, while the state put forward plans for initial development. The state also stocked the lake with tens of thousands of fish from the Sprit Lake hatchery. Tin-can tourists from throughout the state soon flocked to take the scenic two-mile drive around the lake and stopping for picnics.  In 1933, Civilian Conservation Corps workers stationed at Spencer arrived at Rush Lake to provide improvements. The men completed 1,300 feet of embankment work and completed two sets of stairs leading down to the lake. Newspapers reports from the time-period suggest the CCC also built a log shelter house at the site. The CCC also planted and watered trees at the site. In 1935, a Pocahontas County 4-H Club planted hundreds of shrubs at the state park site.

Over the 1940s, the park virtually disappears from newspaper reports only to remerge in a 1950 copy of the Ruthven Free Press under the headline: “Plan to Restore State Park at Rush Lake This Year.” The article details how the park fell out of disrepair after the initial burst of effort in the 1930s. One report suggests the park “was abandoned during the war,” without providing further detail. During 1950, a committee with representatives from fourteen different surrounding communities came together. The state eventually sent out representatives who crafted a plan to return Rush Lake to a closer proximation of its original state by constructing a new dam and lowering the overall water-level. Sold as a way to provide more ideal bird habitat, the officials sought the input of locals before the project started. During October of 1952 work on the new dam commenced. Over the following decades the Iowa Conservation Commission and the Iowa DNR implemented improved water management techniques at Rush Lake, allowing for re-vegetatation, improving water quality, and enhancing habitat for waterfowl and shorebirds. The effort also included dropping water levels to reduce the number of carp in the lake, while also providing a more suitable water-level for emergent vegetation like cattails to germinate. The resulting vegetation and wildlife balance has created a healthier ecosystem in the lake.


Unlike other properties leaving the Iowa State Park system over the 20th century by reverting to county-level control or local maintenance agreements, Rush Lake seemingly faded from the state park system over time. Although some newspapers and Iowa visitor guides continue to refer to the site as Rush Lake State Park as late as 1957, over time instances of Rush Lake Wildlife Refuge and Rush Lake Wildlife Management Area start to pop up with greater frequency over the second-half of the 20th century.


Today, Rush Lake offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in northwestern Iowa.  Boat ramp access offers an excellent opportunity for Iowa’s paddlers hoping to dip an oar. Fish abound in the deeper parts of the lake and wetland complex, while many birds call the site home. Limited trails offer opportunities for hiking, and the priority placed on habitat allows for animal and bird watchers great chances to catch a glimpse of unsuspecting wildlife in the natural landscape.


Next time you find yourself looking to get out and enjoy Iowa’s public lands, consider a stop at Rush Lake. A truly stunning representation of Iowa’s natural beauty and a testament to the necessity of maintaining opportunities to get outdoors for all Iowans, Rush Lake shines as a must visit for all people hoping to see Iowa Slowly.


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore what used to be Rush Lake 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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