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Water Stories: A Brief History of Lake Mendota Swim Crossings

This article was written in 2010 at the request of Madison, Wisconsin ultra-distance athlete Darren Fortney. As an athlete with a remarkable story to tell, Darren was a recipient of the Focal Flame Honoring the Athlete award. The prize included a photo essay and custom-commissioned article. 

Each year, Darren leads a group of swimmers in a 6-mile swim traversing Lake Mendota as a fund-raising effort for Gilda’s Club, a cancer support and advocacy organization. As a history buff, he wanted to place the ultra-swim in historical context. Focal Flame co-founder Robyn Perrin interviewed a local boat captain and historian, Donald Sanford, whose book “On Fourth Lake: The Social History of Lake Mendota” is scheduled to be released in August, 2015. Sanford gave permission for some of his research on “lake swimmers”, as he calls them, to be included in this article. Additionally, Robyn interviewed local Madison resident Joe Silverberg, who swam the lake in the mid-1940s, when he was 16. We hope you enjoy the stories they shared and invite you to cheer on the 2015 Gills for Gilda’s swimmers - who will take on the lake once again on June 19, 2015, having raised nearly $8,000 dollars to support cancer patients and their families. 

Hydrogeographic map of Lake Mendota, 1900

Hydrogeographic map of Lake Mendota, 1900

To learn the history of Lake Mendota is to pay homage to ice. Not the foot and a half of ice that caps it on average every winter, but the massive glacial sheets that birthed the lake during the “Wisconsin Stage” of Pleistocene glaciation, beginning about 50,000 years ago. Over the span of nearly 38,000 years, glaciers scraped across a 600-foot-deep river valley. The Yahara River flowed underneath. Advancing and retreating again and again, the edge of the glacier scraped out hollows in the landscape, scuffing out four lake beds like a child digging its toes into the dirt.

One of the lake beds was later named “Mendota” by the Ho-Chunk tribe, which is reported to mean “The Lake Where the Indian Lies.” The name refers to a tribal story in which the lake was created by the splashing of a Ho-Chunk brave who turned into a spirit fish, then joined a maiden in the largest of the Four Lakes.

Throughout history, people living in the Yahara River region have been fascinated with Lake Mendota. At an average depth of 41.7 feet and reaching a maximum of 83 feet deep, it is a substantial yet intimate inland body of water. Edged with multiple bluffs, bays, points, rivers and creeks, and punctuated with Governor's Island, it is laced with opportunities for close inspection despite its size. 

Generations of Madison residents have done just that – exploring, boating, fishing, rowing, and watching the lake. But in spending the past five years researching Lake Mendota history, local boat captain Donald Sanford also kept coming across accounts of people who had sought an even more personal communion with lake – by swimming across it. He started referring to these individuals as “Lake Swimmers“ and began keeping track of news reports dating to the late 1800s. 

Wisconsin State Journal, August 6, 1930

Wisconsin State Journal, August 6, 1930

Many of the reported lake swimmers were adolescents - perhaps a reflection of teenagers' curiosity, access to leisure time in the summer, and their youthful athleticism. Summer camps lining Lake Mendota surely played a role as well. Camp Indianola was a private boy's camp operating from 1906 until 1967 located at what is now Governor Nelson State Park. A meticulously detailed 1910 catalog advertising the camp assured parents, “Every boy is taught to paddle a canoe, row a boat, and swim....last season there were a number of excellent swimmers in camp. One of our boys made a record swim of five and one half miles. A number of others swam one, two, and three miles.“ Public swimming in the lakes, however, had only been acceptable for generation or so by that time, as swimming was illegal in Madison until 1879.

Colorful lake swimmer characters include "Dr. Joe Dean," likely the same Joseph Dean who founded the Dean Clinic in 1904 that would later become Dean HMO, who swam Mendota in 1899. Later, James “Jimmy“ Julian, captain of the swim team at Central High School (which was later demolished to make way for expansion of the University of Wisconsin) traversed the lake several times in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Mina Fox, a visiting student from Chicago, swam from Bernards Park to Adams Hall in 1930, only to be accused afterwards of faking the swim by skeptical reporters. (She responded indignantly.) 

Another notable duo were Charley Bran, the only person reported to have swum the entire shoreline perimeter of Lake Mendota, and his son Stan Bran, who attempted to repeat his father's feat 10 years afterward in 1939 but was unsuccessful due to conditions. Longtime Madison residents may remember Stan Bran as the host of the television show Outdoor Calling, which ran on Channel 15 for 29 years. 

Interestingly, a rash of swim crossings occurred during the Great Depression in the 1930s, which Sanford attributes to the lure of cheap outdoor recreation during hard economic times, and perhaps the universal appeal of meeting an individual challenge when so many lives were in turmoil.

The most remarkable story is that of Peter Foseid, who was reported to have swum a five-mile course from Tenney Park to Camp Indianola in 1930. The Capital Times reported that Foseid had had his leg amputated eight inches below the hip in 1921 following an injury incurred in a football game. A junior at UW and counselor at Camp Wakanda, Foseid reportedly followed his five-mile swim by playing a baseball game, for which he donned his wooden leg. If his reported swim time is indeed accurate, his pace of 1.70 min per 100 yards is the fastest of any other lake swimmer profiled in news accounts. He also swam across the lake on at least one other occasion, in 1932.

YMCA Camp Wakanda Swimmers, June, 1945 

YMCA Camp Wakanda Swimmers, June, 1945 

One Madison resident, Joe Silverberg, was happy to share his memories of his Lake Mendota swim crossings in the mid-1940s. Joe Silverberg traversed the lake in 1946 at the age of 16, and two years later his sister Sally completed the same distance. When asked if either he or his sister swam competitively in high school, Silverberg said, "No - we were water rats. We just swam for recreation. We all lived on Sherman Avenue, and of course the lake was our recreation during the summer."

Although it became a family tradition, Silverberg stated that his own swim crossing was not pre-planned. “One day the lake was dead calm, and we [Silverberg and two friends] decided we should swim across the lake. But for the last half of the swim, a wind from the north kicked up and so I was fighting against it the rest of the day.“ He continued, “The moral of the story is that it's much better planning if you swim on a day when there's a south wind.“

Joe was accompanied by a friend in a rowboat, and he later rowed with his sister during her swim, a safety measure that both siblings deemed essential. When asked about the most memorable part of his own lake crossing, though, his thoughts turned to the most basic of athletic needs: nutrition. “The person in the rowboat fed us along the way - Hershey bars - which is exactly the wrong thing to do,“ he said. Laughing, he explained, “In those days we thought that eating chocolate gave you instant energy. We've since found out that it doesn't.“

Caption on a photo dated July, 1955, reads, "Tia Nelson, 11, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Russell Nelson...dives into Lake Mendota. She was one of Madison's most outstanding young swimmers."

Caption on a photo dated July, 1955, reads, "Tia Nelson, 11, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Russell Nelson...dives into Lake Mendota. She was one of Madison's most outstanding young swimmers."

Silverberg's tone grew quieter as he talked about the pollution that has since befallen Lake Mendota, and offered an explanation. He speculated that development of the private, artificial Lake Cherokee in the 1950s drained the marsh land that was within and near the Yahara River, preventing absorption of agricultural runoff from the dairy lands north of Madison. The result was effluent flowing into the lake, both polluting it and triggering algal blooms.

Water quality remains a tremendous issue for Lake Mendota, as well as the three other lakes in the region. But while pollution and preservation of healthy lake ecology will continue to be a challenge well into the future, the timeless pull of Mendota will surely persist and compel residents to treasure it.

And, of course, to swim across it.