Ten Views of Lake Wingra
The Madison area is known for its four lakes. But there’s a fifth, and its history, ecology and beauty are well worth a tour
1. UNSEEN WINGRA
In an out-of-the-way corner of Vilas Park, above Henry Vilas Zoo, an effigy bird with angled wings soars along a ridge next to Lake Wingra. The bird, with an original wingspan of more than two hundred feet, is one of almost fifty effigy mounds that surround Madison’s smallest lake. They’re arranged in a half-dozen groups.
At the UW Arboretum and Edgewood College are elongated water spirit mounds that seem to crawl out of the lake. A bear at Bear Mound Park and birds all around the lake likely represent earth and sky worlds. Think of Wingra’s mounds as powerful signs from a vast thousand-year-old ceremonial landscape, where people enacted mound-building and burial rituals to renew and balance their universe. The Four Lakes area is rich in effigy mounds, but no place in North America had such a dense concentration as Lake Wingra and its 230-plus mounds.
Charles Brown of the Wisconsin Historical Society, who did the most to save Madison’s mounds, understood Wingra’s attraction: its bountiful springs. “There is no doubt that the number and size of them were largely responsible for the location of the six different early Indian village sites and the large number of Indian mounds (150) on its shores,” Brown wrote in 1927—and modern archaeologists agree.
2. WINGRA’S STORY IN A SPRING
Spring Trail Pond on Nakoma Road practically tells the story of Lake Wingra by itself. Ten centuries ago, Late Woodland people sculpted effigy mounds on high ground near a large spring. In time an Indian trail passed the spring, and the Ho-Chunk established a summer village on the hill above. In the 1800s, farmers drove wagons up Verona Road to fill water barrels from the spring, Ho-Chunk families entered Madison on foot and horseback and miners headed to the lead region. Old Spring Hotel and Tavern (the building still stands across Nakoma Road) lodged early travelers. In the 1920s, the developers of Nakoma, Madison’s first automobile suburb, dammed “Gorham’s Spring” to make a picturesque pond. Frank Lloyd Wright designed the walls and steps leading to it.
Popularly known as the duck pond, this spring-fed pool never freezes. It’s part of a long natural strip between Wingra Park and Nakoma Country Club—land added to the UW Arboretum in the 1940s—that has a surprisingly remote feel.
3. NOT A DEAD LAKE
Named Lake Wingra around 1840, early settlers preferred to call it Dead Lake because they thought it had no outlet. Land between lakes Wingra and Monona was so marshy that finding any stream flow provedimpossible. The eight-story-high glacial moraine known as Dead Lake Ridge, covered by effigy mounds, stood between the lakes; at times it was a virtual island in the marshes. Far from dead, Lake Wingra brimmed with fish, and wild rice beds attracted huge flocks of ducks and geese. Based on the 1834 federal land survey, the pre-settlement lake was double the size of today’s lake, and wetlands were vastly greater.
4. ROWLEY’S PARADISE
Leslie Rowley spent much of his childhood on his uncle’s farm between Monroe Street and Lake Wingra. In his remembrances of the 1870s, Rowley wrote that “the shores of the lake were shallow, and one had to push a boat through a hundred yards or more of weeds and cat-tails before reaching open water.” This could be hazardous for a young adventurer like Rowley: “I nearly lost my life several times on Dead Lake by stepping from a boat to what was apparently dry ground with grass on it, and sinking in silt up to my armpits.”
Rowley and a pair of brothers who grew up on Lake Wingra, Walter and Samuel Chase, were avid hunters and fishermen. They mention Wingra’s bountiful wildlife: redhead and canvasback ducks, gar and northern pike, otters and bobcats. At night, wolves howled from the south shore. Passenger pigeons, Samuel Chase wrote, “were so thick as to weigh down the oak trees from which they were gathering mast.” Today some wildness is returning: beavers have built lodges around the lake, and coyotes tread the more remote marshes.
An experimental carp enclosure placed near the Edgewood College shoreline in 2007, dramatically increased water clarity in the exclusion zone
5. TOO MANY CARP
First stocked in Wisconsin lakes in 1879, common carp reached Wingra about a decade later. People regretted their introduction almost immediately. The bottom-feeding habits of carp destroyed vegetation and stirred up sediment. In this murky carp-dominated lake, habitat was suitable mainly for more carp and for invasive weeds. But two recent winters of netting carp have reduced their population by half. The result is not only noticeably clearer water in Wingra, but less toxic blue-green algae (which can close Vilas beach) and a better environment for native lake vegetation.
6. IT’S THE WATERSHED
“Impervious surfaces” is a deadly phrase for a lake. With city on all sides, it’s a challenge to keep Wingra clean. The lake receives polluted runoff, sediment, phosphorus and road salt from streets, storm sewers and construction sites.
The Wingra watershed includes an industrialized corridor of the Beltline from Fish Hatchery Road past Whitney Way. These paved surfaces also mean less natural ground to absorb rain and snowfall, so groundwater can’t be replenished. Wingra’s springs once provided a third of the lake’s inflow, but without this recharge many have dried up. Others have been paved or covered by fill. Today, perhaps only eight of more than thirty known springs remain active.
7. SAVING THE SHORELINE
In the early 1900s the Madison Park and Pleasure Drive Association claimed members from one in ten Madison households; it was so successful that Madison neglected to form a parks department until 1931. Big and small donors funded parks and sightseeing drives around the city, including Vilas Park and Edgewood Pleasure Drive. In the 1920s and ’30s, a new generation of visionaries in the Madison Parks Foundation rallied donors and citizens to buy farmland on Wingra’s south shore for a nature preserve. Those purchases were the beginning of the university’s Arboretum. Thanks to this forward thinking, almost all of Lake Wingra’s 3.7-mile perimeter is public land. This circle of green is triply important: for beauty, an environmental buffer and public access.
8. THE HO-CHUNK IN THE ARBORETUM
Long after ceding their ancestral lands to the U.S. government in 1832, Ho-Chunks returned to Wingra yearly until about 1925, establishing seasonal camps on the lake. To the Ho-Chunk, the name was Ki-chunk-och-hep-er-rah: place where the turtle comes up. In the winter of 1909, Charles Brown began a long relationship with the Ho-Chunk by befriending Joseph White. Brown spent hours in the White family’s wigwam near White Clay Spring (in what is now the Arboretum), listening to White’s stories, sometimes staying until smoke from the fireplace hurt his eyes.
9. DON’T FORGET WINTER
It’s a frigid Sunday afternoon. Instead of avoiding the elements you decide to head to Vilas Park, where men, women and children embrace winter by playing pond hockey for hours with an enthusiasm that makes them oblivious to cold. Sounds carry: skates cutting across the ice, the slap of a stick, hoots of delight after a goal. “It’s like being a kid again,” says a man in his forties. “You know how, when you were a kid, and you did things that were just pure, unadulterated fun, and you did them for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment of it?” The Wingra area also offers miles of cross-country ski and snowshoe trails in the Arboretum, and skating at Vilas Park. The lake in winter expands the available area for recreation, including ice fishing. To step onto its frozen surface is to enter another world and see Wingra from a new perspective.
10. THE SPIRIT OF WINGRA
The sacred moundscape on Lake Wingra’s ridges shows this was a place of deep meaning and mystery for the moundbuilders. Abundant life-giving springs, which distinguish Wingra from Madison’s other lakes, likely gave it such power. Of the Ho-Chunk living on Wingra’s shores, Charles Brown wrote: “These Indians have a belief that springs are the places through which animals enter the spirit world: hence a former custom of casting tobacco, stone and bone implements, and other articles into springs to obtain the ‘blessings’ of these animals.”
Perhaps the highest concentration of springs is along the Edgewood College shoreline, where one in particular stands out: New Millennium Spring, emanating from the lake bottom off the end of the boardwalk. This spring, seen most clearly as open water in winter, was discovered and named in 2000 by Edgewood biology professor Jim Lorman when it suddenly bubbled up out of nowhere. While the spring’s appearance is a puzzle, Lorman suggests that infiltration from new rain gardens on campus and along nearby residential streets could have played a role—a potential harbinger of good things to come for Madison’s most intimate lake.
Listen to all Lake Wingra audio stories here
Gordon Heingartner enjoys playing pond hockey on Lake Wingra and secretly wishes winter lasted a little longer. He’s been a geology instructor, water utility worker and volunteer radio news producer and is now doing outreach work for the Clean Lakes Alliance.
Jeff Durbin has canoed Lake Wingra, crossed it on ice, swum to its middle and raced around it. He has a special interest in Madison history and effigy mounds. Professionally, he creates educational exhibits.