The photo is at the Spirit Lake swing bridge looking into East Okoboji- Today Highway 71 east end of the town of Spirit Lake.
I was born in 1925. My parents, Ray & Jean LaFoy, had built a cottage on Jones Beach (formerly named Milford Beach). Many people from Milford did the same thing including my Uncle Ollie Holcomb and Walter Jones.
I don't recall my parents spending a great deal of time except to service the property and rent it out. While they were cleaning the place, I went swimming and playing on the wonderful sand beach. I do not ever remember not swimming and spent lots of time capturing clams that were lying on the bottom of the lake near our dock. I do know I paid little attention to the lake level and probably never did until we owned a cottage at Terrace Park in 1953-1971 and later on Pocahontas Point. It was then that we were aware of the lake levels.
Cliff and Clyde Weaver were our dock builders when we lived on Pocahontas Point (1971-2000). They would go to the Outlet on Lower Gar that emptied into Mill Creek and from there determine how high to build their docks. They were very seldom wrong but do recall several years when we had a great deal of evaporation and little rain the planks on the dock seemed to be a long way from the surface of the water. We recalled after a heavy rain, trying to hold the dock down with 55 gallon barrels full of water to keep it from floating away. The lakes rise and fall because they are "natural" as opposed to "man made" lakes backed up by dams.
From the time the first settlers gazed across the sparking lake waters of West Okoboji and Spirit Lake to the present, there has been an ever-present natural phenomenon which neither pioneers nor moderns have denied or can control.
The water level of the Lakes, West Okoboji and its chain of lakes, and Spirit Lake with Little Spirit Lake can change. There have been many discussions regarding the lake levels, legal battles and year to year discussions regarding the waterline. Regardless of all the discussions, the same fluctuations continue and none can explain or properly anticipate the plans of nature.
I recall that in my youth the lake was very low (1930s). We played on big rocks in the lake near Gull Point State Park and the beach at Arnolds Park was way out from the "sea wall." The beach at Terrace Park never ended and it was a long way from the parked cars on the road to the water of the lake. We also remember the lake water going over the Terrace Park Road near Boy's Town Camp in 1993.
R.A. Smith, "History of Dickinson County," had a discussion on the subject. Mr. Smith declared the summer preceding the Spirit Lake Massacre in 1857, that the water were exceptionally low. At the time the Relief Expedition came here, there was a reef two or three rods wide on the site of the present grade connecting Arnolds Park and Okoboji. There were trees, 25 to 40 years old growing on the reef with a growth of underbrush. The summer of 1858, Mr. Smith stated, was an unusually wet summer and the lake rose. It was not, however, until 1872 that the water became high enough to wash the trees and vegetation on the bar. I remember an island in Center Lake with trees on it.
The highest water levels recorded in written accounts were in the summers of 1882 and 1883. But there again it was also noted it had been higher before. In 1882 and 1883, the waters seemed to have receded gradually until a new low was set in 1898. At that time a large and beautiful hotel sat on the isthmus between Spirit Lake and Spring Lake (East Okoboji), the first Orleans Hotel. The actual truth as to why the Orleans Hotel closed and was torn down it still being debated. One idea was the owners thought Spirit Lake was drying up, but another theory was that on Aug. 19, 1898, there was a terrific storm in the area that did a great deal of damage to the hotel. Crandall's Lodge on the north end of Spirit Lake had its roof torn off in that storm so it was pretty widespread. Times were tough also and the economy was not so good so take your pick as to why it was torn down.
In 1896, after a long series of legal and midnight battles over a dam at the outlet of the Okoboji chain of lakes, the state built a dam there to protect the fish(?). The dam has been changed in recent years to discourage the flying carp from entering the Iowa Great Lakes. The flour mills below the dam are only memories but the creek is still called Mill Creek.
The low-water mark in the last of 1800 was caused by several dry seasons. Likewise, history states the cause of the high water was a series of wet seasons. The highs and the lows seem to run by cycles, if the historical dates are used for rules" 1857, low; 1882-1883, high; 1898, low; 1919, high 1931, low. We should all remember the high of 1993 and at the present time it is about normal. Two bench areas to judge the water level are the Spillway out of Sprit Lake and the Outlet Dam out of Lower Gar.
I recall in the early 1930s the pond before the dam drying up and it was full of carp and buffalo fish wallowing around in the mud. Also a few years later I was fishing the same pond for bullheads.
Several old timers disagreed as to when the lake was the lowest. Mr. Tate Barr maintained that in 1903 it was the lowest and used several examples: he built a three-wire fence 27 rods from the trees along the east shore of Big Spirit Lake to the water but on May 22, 1903 it rained sufficiently to raise Okoboji 18 inches. He had to delay planting his corn for 30 days as it was so wet. After the big rain the posts of his fence were under water. There was even talk of planting corn in the dry lakebed of East Okoboji.
Captain Klein also wrote that: "A. J. Hopkins and the River Queen (Steamers) were both dry-docked east of the swing bridge at the foot of Lake Street at Spirit Lake. The rain came up Saturday night and it was a whale of a rain. Why I can remember this so distinctly is from this particular instance. "D.S. Blakley had a large meat wagon, one he used for hauling stock to his slaughterhouse on the south shore of East Okoboji.
The morning following the storm he ventured out very early, before daylight, headed for a farm out in the country. He, being very deaf, could not hear the water rising over the banks at H. A. Miller's farm that used to be called Weaver's Creek. At that place there is quite a bridge. At that time it was of wooden construction. That bridge was at least 13 feet from the bottom of the creek to the plank flooring. The dirt approaches were all washed away. Mr. Blakley drove his team, thinking it was all right, across the bridge, but after hitting the water's edge down went the team, wagon and Mr. Blakley into the overflowing creek. He saved himself by grabbing onto a fence post, crawled out and walked to the nearest farm."
In the late 1800s, the lakes were so dry that steamers had to discontinue transporting passengers from Arnolds Park to Orleans because East Okoboji was so shallow they could not navigate and even prior years before it had dredged out at the Narrows to allow passage. Steamers still navigated West Okoboji and the southern part of East Okoboji.
Please remember: the Iowa Great Lakes are "natural" lakes and Mother Nature can be very nice to us or she can really mess things up by lowering or raising the level of the lakes. Unfortunately there is little we can do.