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Wilson Island State Recreation Area - Notes on Iowa State Park Series, Episode 83

Located along the Missouri River near Missouri Valley in Harrison County, a 544-acre state recreation area holds natural and historic treasures.


Come along with Notes on Iowa as we explore Wilson Island State Recreation Area.


Originally a mid-river sandbar in the Missouri River, the land’s today held in Wilson Island attached to Iowa when the Big Muddy shifted channels in 1900. Some eager settlers attempted to claim the lands during the early decades of the 1900s, but by 1930 the state sought to gain control. Iowa Governor George A. Wilson, fixed on creating a fixed border between Iowa and the neighborly Nebraskans to the west, found a challenge in the constantly shifting channel of the Missouri. An agreement, known as the Iowa-Nebraska Boundary Compact followed, drawing a line down the middle of the Missouri River channel based on mapping data available at the time. Despite the resolution, the river’s refusal to stay put considered to cause disputes and headaches well into the 1950s. By the time the Army Corps of Engineers largely contained the river by the 1950s, thirty-two different land claim disputes, including one for Wilson Island, had found their way into federal court.

While the state’s battled in out in court, Governor Wilson worked with the Iowa Conservation Commission to set the lands at what soon came to be known as Wilson Island aside for preservation. The initial tract, just 35 acres in size, found itself tucked into the state’s land holdings as a wild game refuge and saw little development throughout the 1940s and 1950s. As clarity came into Iowa’s title of the lands, the development of the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge immediately to the north of Wilson Island kick started a new era for the area. The 8,362 acre DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge stretches across the Missouri to include lands in both Nebraska and Iowa, and the creation of the refuge in 1958 kickstarted Army Corps of Engineers development of the site. Reconstruction the Missouri’s main channel to reroute and straighten the river, the federal government created DeSoto Lake in the oxbow where the river ran. The project effectively connected the former island to the shore and opened to the public during 1962.


Soon after, during the 1960s, the Army Corps installed a boat ramp, camping facilities, roads, and parking lots at Wilson Island. With the initial development handled federally, the Iowa Conservation Commission invested in the park to provide amenities including picnic shelters and landscaping.   By 1965 modern and primitive camping facilities followed, as well as development of five miles of hiking trails. The combined properties of DeSoto and Wilson Island soon grew too such popularity rangers struggled to get visitors to follow rules, especially on DeSoto Lake. Disruptions to wildlife and damage to habitat led the government to remove the lake’s marina, snack bar, swimming area, and boat ramps in order to protect the natural beauty of DeSoto bend. The Iowa Conservation Commission came out officially in opposition to the changes, but to no avail. Officials from both Iowa and Nebraska also pitched taking over responsibilities for the refuge, but the federal government rejected the proposal. A bitter battle ensued as governmental and interest groups battled for control of the lands. With the amenities removed at the National Wildlife Refuge, many feared Wilson Island would decline and close. However, the park stayed open and continued to offer a quality option of Iowans looking for outdoor recreation opportunities.  


In 1981, a museum and visitor center opened at De Soto. Featuring many artifacts, the museum is known for its collection from the Bertrand, a steamboat which sank on April 1, 1865, while carrying cargo up the Missouri River to Virginia City, Montana Territory, after hitting a snag in the river north of Omaha, Nebraska. Half of its cargo was recovered during an excavation in 1968, more than 100 years later. Today, the artifacts are displayed in a museum at the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge near Missouri Valley, Iowa. The display makes up the largest intact collection of Civil War-era artifacts in the United States, and are an invaluable time capsule of everyday life during that period.


Continued development and maintenance have provided basic amenities at both Wilson Island State Recreation Area and DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge. The unpredictability of the Missouri River continues to represent the largest challenge and limitation on development at Wilson Island. Flooding, a threat each spring, occasionally closes the park and damages existing amenities. Over the decades, careful planning and precautions have provided a balance of maintainable amenities designed with the unpredictability of the river in mind.


Today, Wilson Island State Recreation Area offers visitors a variety of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors in southwestern Iowa.  A boat ramp pairs with fishing jetties and other shoreline access for anglers hoping to test the waters of the Mighty Missouri. Modern camping options pair with picnic shelters to provide suitable amenities for visitors hoping to spend the night or just pass a pleasant afternoon. Trails provide access to the diverse habitat of the site, while wildlife viewing proves a popular pastime for park visitors. A favorite site for Iowa’s morel mushroom hunters, in season wildlife hunting opportunities also drive visitors to the recreation area.


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


Thanks for coming along with notes on Iowa to explore Wilson Island State Recreation Area.


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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