By Julia Keepper, NWS Board
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In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, there was a thriving town located near what is now Parking Lot 3 and the Newport Beach area. Hans Johnson and Peter Knudsen started a lumbering business and 300 people called Newport Town ‘home’. There was a general store, post office, sawmill and a 1,000-foot pier where ships were loaded with lumber for transport to Milwaukee and Chicago. There was also fishing and farming.
In 1913, a railroad from Sturgeon Bay to Newport was proposed, and the land from Lynd Point to Rowleys Bay was platted to accommodate 715 homes complete with a main street called Michigan Avenue. What is now our wilderness park could have become a large resort community. The railroad plan fell through and with that and the start of WWI, the home development plan was abandoned.
In 1919, Ferdinand Hotz bought the Newport acreage and built a family retreat on Europe Lake. Hotz and his family valued the land and allowed it to return to its natural state. The forested land healed for over 50 years. In 1967 the Wisconsin DNR purchased 1300 acres from the Hotz family and the Wisconsin’s first wilderness park was born.
As a kid in the 1960s I knew none of this history. All I knew was how cool it was when my Dad would take us to visit the “ghost town” on the beach. All that remained were a few foundations and remnants of old gardens. I spent hours exploring and imagining who lived there, what it was like, what happened that made it a ghost town? Of course, the mention of “ghost town” conjured all kinds of sinister possibilities. As an adult, I learned the history was much more interesting than anything I dreamed up as a child. I’m still fascinated by how quickly nature can erase all traces of human civilization.
Read more about the history of Newport State Park in booklets available in the park office. Better yet, stop by the newly renovated history kiosk on the site of the old town. Look around while you’re there and imagine what was, what could have been, what is.