Madison’s Atlantis: The Lost City

Tucked within the UW–Madison Arboretum is...
Madison’s Atlantis: The Lost City

The peaceful atmosphere of the UW-Madison Arboretum seems an unlikely site for a city rocked by scandal, war and nature’s cruel grip. Yet tucked within the Arboretum is Madison’s own Atlantis, its lost city.

According to Pioneers of Ecological Restoration, the story of the lost city began in 1911 when Chandler Bernard “Bernie” Chapman, Leonard Gay and E.J.B. Schubring, Madison contractor-realtors, established the Lake Forest Land Company (which became the Lake Forest Company in 1916) and planned to build Lake Forest, a sprawling suburb on the south shore of Lake Wingra. The group had big dreams for this subdivision that was publicized as the future “Venice of the North,” complete with lagoons, canals and shoreline properties. Little did these entrepreneurs realize that their wishful thinking would be met with harsh reality.

The plans for Lake Forest were never completed for three reasons: financial troubles, World War I and swampland. To finance Lake Forest, the Lake Forest Company entrusted Victor H. Arnold, president of the Madison Bond Company, to sell Lake Forest Company bonds. However, Lake Forest Company’s trust was misplaced as Arnold engaged in financial mismanagement and fraud. By 1922, the company was bankrupt. While about 800 housing lots were for sale, the war slowed sales, and by 1922 only seven houses were completed. And, finally, the Lake Forest Company underestimated the amount of fill needed for building on the wet soil, and the lofty dreams for Lake Forest sank–literally.

Remnants of Lake Forest, the Lost City, still remain within the Arboretum, but they are best seen with the help of a guide. In October, a free guided tour of the Lost City will take place.