Hometown Icon: Lake Neshonoc

Lake Neshonoc as seen from Swarthout County Park in West Salem.

The largest inland lake in southwestern Wisconsin in West Salem was formed as the result of land speculation in 1851 and has survived after coming back from the dead.

Monroe Palmer built a log and dam on the La Crosse River when he bought 15 acres of land. He platted a village of 18 blocks and 147 lots which he called Neshonoc, a Ho-Chunk name. Several homes, a church and school were built. But the railroad bypassed Neshonoc in 1858 in favor of nearby West Salem and by the 1890s Neshonoc was all but gone.

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The impoundment remained and was enlarged in 1940 with a new hydroelectric dam that raised the water level five feet and created a lake of nearly 1,000 acres. The newer recreational lake soon started to suffer from agricultural runoff and siltation, as was first noted in 1950 by the Wisconsin Conservation Department. The size of the lake shrank to about 700 acres. Carp took over the lake and it was essentially declared a dead lake by the Department of Natural Resources by 1970, with very little vegetation. The public beach was closed

But local residents were determined to not let the lake enter a final phase of eutrophication. In 1982 the Lake Neshonoc Protection and Rehabilitation District was formed and work began to restore the lake, which has a maximum depth of 11 feet and average depth of four feet. A $2.28 million dredging project — with funds coming from local sources, La Crosse County and the state of Wisconsin — was completed in 2002 where an estimated 1 million cubic yards of sediment was removed and a sediment trap was installed. Deep areas were dredged for fish habit improvement.

All of these efforts capped the return of the fishery where walleyes, northern pike, bass, perch and other fish. There are ongoing efforts to make sure the carp population is controlled.

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