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‘The Paradise of Minnesota’: The history of Whitewater State Park

The park’s official creation dates from 1919, though no land was purchased until 1921. By 1926, despite few roads and minimal park facilities, 40,000 visitors came.

photo of whitewater river in whitewater state park
Whitewater State Park, May 22, 2009.

Whitewater is the sixth Minnesota state park, authorized by the legislature in 1919, and the first in the Driftless Area of dramatic bluffs, ravines, and promontories in the southeastern corner of the state.

Beneath the rolling farm country of southeastern Minnesota lies a great sheet of limestone created over 500 million years ago in the shallow sea that then covered much of North America. Numberless tiny shellfish lived there and died, fell to the sea floor, and were slowly buried and compressed into the rock today called Oneota dolomite. Beneath that lies an even older sheet of rock called Jordan sandstone.

When the sea receded, new processes took over: the growth of plant and animal life on the surface (and with that the buildup of soil) and erosion, chiefly by water. The last ice age, which ended about 12,000 years ago, released flows of water that cut the vast gorge of the Mississippi, leaving the tall bluffs seen from Red Wing south, and the many ravines, ridges, and cliffs to the west. One of the smaller rivers thus created was the Whitewater, which arises a little west of St. Charles, Minnesota, and flows northeast about seventeen miles to join the Mississippi.

People marveled at the beauty of this landscape, and anglers delighted in the bountiful trout found in the Whitewater River, which has cut so deeply through the dolomite that in places the underlying tan and yellow beds of Jordan sandstone are easily seen. In 1917 southeast Minnesota legislators got a bill passed appropriating $10,000 for a state park in the area, but Governor J. A. A. Burnquist vetoed it on the grounds that the money could not be spared in wartime.

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In response, L. A. Warming of St. Charles published at his own expense a book of eighty-eight photographs of the Whitewater valley, The Paradise of Minnesota, to raise money and awareness in support of the park. The legislature authorized $10,000 for it in the next session, and this time Governor Burnquist consented. The park’s official creation thus dates from 1919, though no land was purchased until 1921. By 1926, despite few roads and minimal park facilities, 40,000 visitors came.

In 1928 the state built a golf course in the park, with sand greens, mainly to serve patrons from nearby St. Charles. During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) installed a complex of shops and dormitories, and brought in hundreds of otherwise unemployed men. They built a dam that formed the swimming beach, bridges, cabins, picnic shelters, drinking fountains, and a water and sewage system, and trails, much of which remains in use.

During World War II the War Department used the former WPA facilities — augmented by a ten-foot, barbed-wire-topped fence — for German prisoners of war. In the springs and summers of 1944 and 1945, possibly as many as 259 prisoners were held at Whitewater, working at Lakeside Canning Company in nearby Plainview, and on local farms. A tornado in May 1953 destroyed almost all of the Depression-era shops and dormitories and the prison camp.

All improvements in the park have struggled against the same force that created it — erosion. Powerful floods in 1974, 1975, 1978, and 2007 washed out buildings, bridges, and campgrounds so that park facilities have had to be rebuilt again and again. The 1974 flood was so powerful that it took down a beautiful three-arch limestone bridge built by the WPA. One of the steady themes of Whitewater State Park is the great human effort required to preserve a natural area.

These efforts extend far beyond the park’s boundaries. Catastrophic flooding on the Whitewater outside of the park in 1938 led to the creation of Minnesota’s first conservation district, and with it measures to reduce flooding by reforming nearby farming practices. This work led to the creation in 1989 of the Whitewater River Watershed Project, which includes parts of Wabasha, Winona, and Olmsted Counties, and the 27,000 acre Whitewater Wildlife Management Area.

In 2019, the park includes 148 drive-in camping sites, almost half of them electrified, two group campsites, five camper cabins, a swimming beach, thirteen miles of trails, an interpretive center, and a store.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.