An Early Journey Through Sauk County
I.A. Lapham Describes What He Saw in the Fall of 1849 at the Dells, Lyons, 
Devils Lake and Sauk Prairie.

June 11,1912  

Increase Lapham.jpg

I.A.LAPHAM, Wisconsin Naturalist, Born 1811, Died 1875

Some time ago Miss Julia A. Lapham of Oconomowoc, Wis., sent to the Sauk County Historical society the field notes made by her father, Increase A. Lapham, when he traveled through the Dells and Sauk county from October 22 to November 1,1849.  Mr. Lapham was the author of the first history of Wisconsin and a number of works of a scientific nature.  The field notes were given to the Sauk County Historical society and were read at the last meeting by Mrs. J.E. English.  It will be noted that the theories as to Devils lake and other geological aspects found in this region have greatly changed since the days of 1849.  The field notes are illustrated and make a valuable addition to the manuscript collection of the society. Mr. Lapham was accompanied by Samuel Linconde, taxadermist, and Henry O. Hubbard.  In part the description runs as follows:  

We arrived at Dell creek near the foot of the Dells just at night; but were much struck with the difference in the character of the sandstone here from that observed farther east.  It undoubtedly belongs to the lower or older portion of the formation, being the true Potsdam sandstone of the New York geologist.  The rock as a greater hardness and a somewhat regular stratification.  The different degrees of hardness and consequent power to resist the action of the elements has given rise to many fantastic shapes in the cliffs.  At the place where the ferry boat leaves the shore on the east side of the river we observed the layer of diagonal and curved strata which is so conspicuous a feature above.  It is here about three feet thick but gradually becomes thicker as we ascend the river from this place.  

The next morning our eagerness to see the dreadful Dells induced us to leave our beds at 5 o’clock and drive four miles to the Dell house situated at the foot of the steep rock gorge.  The river is now unusually low so that the current is not as rapid as usual.  In this respect we were very fortunate as we were able to find a man who was willing to paddle us up through the gorge in a small boat.  When the water is high, about 15 feet above its present level, the narrowness of the passage causes it to rise and rush through with great force and velocity.  At such times it would be impossible to ascend with a boat.  The constant flow of water has worn away the rocks on each side so that the river is wider at the water level than a little higher up.  The width of the gorge in the narrowest place is about 50 feet so that the story recorded on some old maps that one could jump across is without foundation in truth.  At this place a bridge is contemplated for which a charter has been granted by the legislature of the state.  The general width may be stated as from 50 to 100 feet.  

River Very Deep  

It is related that a stick of timber 32 feet long was slid down the hill and precipitated over the bluff end-wise into the water, that it went down and remained for sometime out of sight such is the great depth of the water.  It may be supposed to be 50 feet deep.  

The Dells may be considered as extending from near the mouth of the Lemonwier, ten miles above the Dell house to the mouth of Dell creek four miles below, having, therefore, a length of about 1 ½ miles. Most of the way the gorge is not so narrow as the point visited by us.  

As we paddeld along against the current we occasionally crossed from one side to the other to take advantage of eddies and places where the water runs less swiftly.  When passing some points of rock the force of three paddles was required to stem the rapid current.  Our guide at one place directs the boat into an opening in the cliff just sufficiently large to admit us; and we passed for some yards through this wide channel and again emerged form another opening above the first.  At another point we entered a large fissure which extends 30 feet from the edge of the water.  It gradually diminishes the width above until it was nearly closed at the surface of the ground high above our heads.  We notice many other smaller fissures.  

Like Picture Rocks  

As we ascended along the margin of the river we had a good view of the strata on the opposite side and we could observe that the curved layers gradually increased in thickness though it was always placed between horizontal layers, both above and below.  We soon came to where the curved strata were more irregular resembling the banks of sand, gravel and clay in the drift.  This is said also to be the character of the sandstone on Lake Superior, forming the Picture rocks.  

No trace of fossils was discovered.  

The navigation of the Dells is very difficult, requiring much skill and experience to guide the rafts of timber through without striking against numerous projecting rocks.  

Vegetation about the Dells presents some peculiarities.  We find here the white, yellow and scrub pine, the hemlock and cedar.  Among the shrubs we notice comptonia, asplenoids not before credited to Wisconsin.  

The Little Town of Lyons.  

From the Dells we passed south over a prairie to the little town of Lyons situated on the Baraboo one mile above Adams, the county seat of Sauk county.  About one mile north of Lyons we found a ledge of rock similar to that found at Portland in the southwest corner of Dodge county.  It has the same quality, character, and is evidently the same geological formation. Looking about we found large fragments of conglomerate apparently of the same kind of rock, the pebbles of various sizes, usually less than an inch in diameter.  A mile below Adams the sandstone is quarried in the high bluff.  Limestone is also found and lime is burned for the use of the people of Adams, some seven miles from the village.  

Lake of the Hills.  

About three miles south of Adams lies a small lake which is sunk deep in a group of very high rocky hills. From the high bluffs a mile east of Adams the valley of this lake may be seen forming a sudden break in the hills and it is apparent to the eye that the hills are higher at this place than on either side.  This lake is vulgarly called Devils lake from the wild rocky place in which it is found.  It is almost inaccessible except at one point for teams.  It has no visible outlet on the surface, the surplus water being carried off by subterranean passages into a small branch of the Baraboo.  From the stories I had heard about this little lake I was prepared to find it one of much interest, perhaps the crater of an extinct volcano.  

Passing directly south from Adams we soon began to ascend the hills and found the roads difficult on account of the numerous stones and sharp ascents.  About three miles from Adams we found, although we had ascended very considerably, we had a much higher hill on our left between us and the lake.  We _______ opposite the south end of the lake and upon approaching the bank found a perpendicular escarpment of this rock 250 to 350 feet high, reaching directly down to the water.  

The lake is not entirely surrounded by these rocks.  There are three prominent cliffs separated by narrow valleys.  A large body of broken fragments have accumulated along the edge of the water making it very difficult to walk along the shore; yet two of our party made the circuit of the lake, jumping from rock to rock as best they could.  

This rock appears to have a dip from the lake as indicated by the distant view of the hills.  We may therefore suppose this valley or notch to owe its origin to a violent uplift of the rocky strata, perhaps at the time they were altered by the volcanic heat which converted the sandstone into a quartzite rock.  Such an uplift would naturally form a chasm and leave the strata inclining from it in different directions.  

Extent of Hills Unknown.  

These hills continue south about two miles and then we descend into the broad and beautiful Prairie du Sac.  They are said to extend eastward to the Wisconsin at the ferry and west to an unknown distance.  They probably form the dividing ridge between the waters of the Baraboo and the streams that run south into the Wisconsin. The marble near the head of Bear Creek and the iron ore six miles west of Reedsburg may be connected with this “volcanic” range of hills.  

Sac Prairie is composed of loose gravel and sand covered by loam.  It has probably been the bottom of a lake.

Limestone to supply the village of Prairie du Sac is taken partly from Honey Creek but mostly from the top of the bluffs on the opposite side of the river.  

[EDITOR’S NOTE.]  It is now believed by geologists that Devils Lake was once the bed of the Wisconsin river and formed by the ends of the gorge being closed by the drift.  Sauk prairie is an overwash plain from the terminal moraine of glacial days.  

Baraboo, Wis.
Jan. 11, 1912