A century ago in 1919, Congress established the Grand Canyon as a national park, while closer to home, the Minnesota Legislature appropriated $10,000 for the purchase of 240 acres in Winona County to be preserved as a state park.
Today, Whitewater State Park encompasses 2,700 acres of wooded ravines and limestone bluffs rising above its namesake river teeming with trout.
To celebrate the 100th birthday of one of the state’s most popular and picturesque parks, staff with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources have been highlighting Whitewater’s history with special programs that will culminate on Saturday, July 13, with a centennial picnic and a sing along featuring the Grammy Award winning Okee Dokee Brothers. The concert, running from noon to 2 p.m., is free and no park entrance fees will be charged for the day.
“Bring a picnic lunch, a blanket and some chairs; we’ll provide the cake and punch,” said Whitewater State Park interpretive naturalist Sara Holger. “We’ll listen to some downhome music from the Okee Dokee Brothers, and then all join together to sing Happy Birthday to the park.”
Located about a half-hour east of Rochester, Whitewater State Park sees some 250,000 visitors each year, with about 50,000 staying overnight at one of the park’s 154 campsites or five camper cabins. Visitors can enjoy fishing for trout, a sandy swimming beach, a year-round visitor center, and hiking trails that range from easy to challenging. In winter, the park is popular for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Nearly 50 kinds of mammals and 250 species of birds use the Whitewater River Valley during the course of a year, including the ever-present bald eagles and wild turkeys.
For more information, visit mndnr.gov/whitewater.
A brief history of Whitewater State Park
100 Years in Paradise
Twenty five miles east of Rochester, Minnesota State Highway 74 quickly descends from gently rolling farm fields through ancient outcrops of limestone into the beauty of Whitewater State Park. Since it was established in 1919, the park has been praised for its outstanding cold water trout fishery, noticeable lack of mosquitoes and dramatic landscapes. And 2019 marks the Centennial Anniversary of this special place.
Over the past year, park staff have been working with the Friends of Whitewater to plan monthly centennial events that showcase the fascinating history of and unique outdoor opportunities at Whitewater State Park. The following timeline highlights some of that history.
- 1896 – 1918 Tourists flocked to the Whitewater valley to camp, hike, fish and hunt at the Paradise Ranch, a private ranch offering visitors opportunities to experience the outdoors.
- 1916 – 1919 When farming and land-use concerns motivated locals to unite to preserve the Whitewater valley, L.A. Warming, the editor of the local newspaper, assembled a photo book of the valley titled, “The Paradise of Minnesota; the Proposed Whitewater State Park. ” The book helped grow support for establishing the park and, on April 24, 1919, the House Appropriations Committee approved $10,000 for “the new Whitewater State Park in Winona County to cover the costs of 240 acres of land.”
- 1934 – 1941 The park was fairly rustic until the New Deal programs of the Great Depression funded development projects, with labor provided by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Using simple hand tools, these workers built much of the infrastructure still used by park visitors today including the beach, picnic areas, restroom facilities, parking lots and many of the trails.
- 1944 – 1945 The camp facilities that housed CCC and WPA workers were used as a German Prisoner of War (POW) camp at the end of World War II. At that time, America had a labor shortage and POWs were assigned across the country to help with agricultural work and other manual labor. The Whitewater camp was later used as a summer camp for various youth organizations until 1953, when a tornado demolished the site.
- 1940s – 1960s Boy Scout camporees were held at the park each May. Troops from across southeastern Minnesota gathered with 600 – 1,000 boys camping in military-style pup tents in the woods and pastures surrounding the edges of the developed park.
- 1970s – 2000s Repeated flooding caused the park to lose its golf course, stone-arch bridge and CCC visitor cabins. Floods washed away and buried campgrounds, forcing park staff to rebuild in new locations out of the floodplain. In 2007, the largest flood in the park’s history caused several million dollars in damage to infrastructure and closed the park for nearly a year.
- 2009 Peregrine falcons returned to Whitewater State Park after a nearly 40-year absence due to widespread use of the pesticide DDT.
- 2014 The Friends of Whitewater regrouped after dissolving in the 1990s. Today this newly invigorated group of park volunteers works tirelessly to raise funds for park projects and events and to help park management staff find innovative and creative ways to achieve goals and objectives identified in the park management plan.
- 2019 Whitewater State Park is celebrating 100 years with a variety of monthly special events including a Centennial Picnic and Great Big Sing Along with the Okee Dokee Brothers on Saturday, July 13, from noon – 2 p.m.
The affection that past and present visitors have for the Whitewater valley is expressed in the following poem, whose author is unknown;
“Oh there’s not in this wide world a valley so sweet
as the valley in whose bosom the Whitewaters meet.”
For more details about Whitewater State Park and its centennial, including an online version of the revised Paradise of Minnesota book, visit: mndnr.gov/whitewater.