Highway 71 through the Iowa Great Lakes is a history lesson.
Driving from Milford to Spirit Lake via the highway stretch from Arnolds Park to Okoboji would be a challenge without the bridge. I can’t count the number of times we have driven that stretch of Hwy. 71 that we observed a sign that reads "Clair Wilson Parkway." I have often wondered who Clair Wilson was.
I assumed because there were many Wilsons involved in our past history at the Iowa Great Lakes he was one of "those" Wilsons, but I was wrong. Clair Wilson was president of the Okoboji Protective Association that introduced and administrated the development of that parkway. I will expand on the parkway later in the article.
The bridge over the channel between West Lake and East Lake Okoboji has been installed and rebuilt at least five times. For many years it was a swing bridge allowing steamboats passage between the lakes. In 1929 the swing bridge was removed and the bridge became permanent. That 1929 bridge was recently rebuilt to accommodate the present three-lane highway.
I was born in 1925 in Milford, and trips from Milford over the "grade" between East and West Okoboji are too numerous to count. Allowing that the Okoboji Swing Bridge was removed in 1929, it is quite possible that I accompanied my parents, by automobile, to have driven over the swing bridge. Butch Parks saved that bit of history and it can be viewed at his boat works on East Okoboji.
The slough on the south end of that passage between the Okoboji Bridge and the Milwaukee Railroad swing bridge was for many years a dumping place for wooden boats, stoves, trash, cars, etc. It was an eyesore. Many people were disgusted with the appearance but it wasn’t until 1952 that anything was done to eliminate the eyesore.
Clair Wilson, President of the Okoboji Protective Association, and the membership decided to eliminate the blight. An article in the Spirit Lake Beacon — June 25, 1953:
"Grant Approval For Fill Project — Okoboji Protective Association Plans Work for Parkway. The big fill project to form a parkway at the grade between Arnolds Park and Okoboji took another step closer to reality this week when the state authorities granted permission to the Okoboji Protective Association to allow dump trucks to back in and unload clean fill material.
The guardway on the East Okoboji side of the road at the north entrance to the Park will be lowered and gateway built there by the Protective Association to allow dump trucks to back in and unload clean fill materials.
The filling will be under the supervision of the association and will be directed by Harry (Zeke) Wilson of Okoboji. The association hopes that the large area between the permanent grade of the railroad and the highway eventually can all be filled to road level to provide a suitable parking and picnic spot for lakes visitors. (Never did observe any picnic tables.)
Present plans leave a very wide channel through the bay for pass through of boats and fish.
Any individual having clean non-floatable fill which they need to dispose of in the near future is urged to contact Harry (Zeke) Wilson."
Zeke Wilson drew a sketch of the boats that had been dumped in the slough. One of the old steamers, Sunbeam, (1909-1929) is buried in the landfill now known as Clair Wilson Parkway along with many other wooden sailboats, rowboats and launches. For 62 years Zeke was Okoboji’s own "iceologist" keeping records of when East and West Okoboji froze and thawed. The Steamer Sunbeam ferried people for many years attending the Chautauqua meeting held in Spirit Lake. Jap Loomis and Steve Hartley was the crew on the Sunbeam for many years.
So the next time you park for Sunday worship, view the boats passing under the historic old Milwaukee railroad swing bridge, go fishing or biking on the trail or watching the Fourth of July fireworks give a thank you to the Okoboji Protective Association and Clair Wilson for the park.