For thousands of years, people have lived in and visited what will become Manitowish Waters and the Northwoods mostly to enjoy the abundant natural resources. Indigenous communities, early pioneers, and turn-of-the-century visitors celebrated Wisconsin’s wilderness and shared amazing stories. Once the wave of logging, railroads, and some industrialized development swept across the Northwoods, many wished to restore and protect the natural resources that defined the region.
The national journey to embrace serious environmental conservation began at the turn of the 20th century. Importantly, the region named Manitowish Waters would immediately take a lead role in environmental stewardship as well. In 1904, E. M. Griffith was appointed the first forester in charge of the Wisconsin Department of Forestry. By 1912, Griffith selected Rest Lake as one of the first four ranger stations and fire towers to support the new forestry effort, which was headquartered at Trout Lake.
After budgetary shortfalls due to the Great Depression closed state fish hatcheries, Manitowish Waters created the first municipal fish hatchery in cooperation with the Wisconsin Conservation Department. From 1931-1932, $1,000 was raised, and an impressive fish hatchery was constructed below the Rest Lake Dam. All finances and most of the labor for the operation of the fish hatchery came from our town. This public/private project was recreated in many Northwoods communities following the success of Rest Lake Dam.
In the spring of 1931, Rest Lake Dam was also the site of the first successful fishway to move fish safely over dams to preserve traditional spawning. Harold Barr from Ironwood, Michigan, working with the Wisconsin Conservation Commission, unveiled this technological wonder in the spring of 1931.
In 1933, just a mile north of the Vilas-Iron county line, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp 660 S-79 was built along the banks of the Manitowish River. Even though Manitowish Waters was the closest town, the CCC installation was named Camp Mercer, where 150 to 300 men lived and conducted conservation projects under the supervision of state forest rangers. By 1935, Camp Mercer added a subdistrict administrative headquarters and supervised 10 other CCC camps in the Northwoods. Planting trees, fighting fires, building roads, and other conservation duties continued until 1942, when the CCC was decommissioned so resources could shift to fighting the Axis Powers in WWII.
In 1962, Governor Gaylord Nelson created the Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) Program, allowing Wisconsin high school age students to work with state forest rangers to improve the Northwoods. The residential camp on Statehouse Lake was the first in Wisconsin and became a model for the nation. Unfortunately, budget cuts ended the YCC experience in Wisconsin, and all four Wisconsin camps were closed by 1995.
Today, Walleyes for Tomorrow and the North Lakeland Discovery Center protect our fisheries and battle threatening invasive species. Numerous educational programs at area camps, schools and the North Lakeland Discovery Center teach best practices to protect Northwoods natural resources. The town of Manitowish Waters, civic organizations and generous gifts from residents continue to fund conservation initiatives.
Manitowish Waters and Northwoods Conservation
MWHS Video series on conservation