Long before kitsch and water parks ruled the region, visitors from around the world traveled to the Dells to marvel at the iconic sandstone formations carved by a glacier that plowed through Wisconsin approximately 15,000 years ago–leaving behind a 5-mile gorge struck from rock that’s older than anything on earth.
Word of this discovery spread quickly, attracting Leroy Gates, a lumber rafter with a notion that promotion would bring tourism to the river he loved, and earn him a buck or two to boot. In 1856, Gates offered the first guided boat tours of the Dells of Wisconsin, and made sure everyone knew it.
Supposedly, Gates and his associate guides would sit under umbrellas sipping lemonade, while the guests would paddle their boats up river to destined attractions…
until steamboats took over in 1873.
Fortunately, landscape photographer H.H. Bennett was there to capture it all–taking souvenir photos of the tourists, and landing a place in history as “the man who made the Wisconsin Dells famous.”
Today, Dells Boat Tours continues the tradition on the river…
with a fleet of 17 vessels that carry half a million passengers year after year.
Captain Bob piloted our riverboat north through the Upper Dells,
while First Mate Abby called out the names of rock sculptures famously characterized by H. H. Bennett:
After manuevering through the Devil’s Elbow…
Captain Bob turned into a slot canyon discovered–and affectionately named Witches Gulch by Bennett. Apparently, the name was intended to be sinister and provocative. His strategy was reinforced by similar names inside the canyon, such as:
Eventually, Bennett built a tie-up dock, threaded a boardwalk through the canyon walls, and created a photography concession at the terminus. We were about to see why, as Captain Bob eased toward the mooring.
Abby tied up the riverboat,
and we walked the boards,
for a closer look at the beauty of ancient splittered sandstone turned emerald,
and the waves of light and darkness.
Next, we cruised across the Wisconsin River to the western shoreline to visit the Dells’ most precious formation,
made famous by H.H. Bennett’s photograph of his 17-year old son, Ashley leaping onto the column from a neighboring cliff in 1886.
We gathered under the rock for an equally impressive demonstration by a trained German Shepherd from Juneau County…
that jumped the 5-foot gap without hesitation.
We completed the trail back to the boat, passing other impressive formations along the way…
until it was time to reboard the Marquette and return to the tour operator’s dock. As we cruised back under sunny skies, boat traffic on the river had blossomed.
Locals were enjoying the river to beat the heat,
which was way better than any water park would ever be.