History of the Phantom Lakes Area

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  Phantom Lakes History

The earliest residents who inhabited the vicinity southwest of Mukwonago were the Potawatami Indians who had named what is now Upper Phantom Lake, Spirit Lake. In 1835, the first white settlers began arriving on the shores of Spirit Lake. Lyman Gates settled on the west shore of the lake and a year later, Wilder Chafin arrived on the south shore. That same year, Charles Stockman obtained land on the southeast shore. In the years to come, Spirit Lake was temporarily renamed Stockman Lake.

The Roller Mill

In 1848 Colin McVean began developing an area he had purchased that extends from where what is now County Road ES to Highway 83. First he built a dam 100 rods west of Highway 83. To the west of the dam, he set his sites on the construction of a roller mill which would grind flour and wheat. Next to the mill, he constructed a race and a floom which could best be described as a wooden conveyance through which water would run at a high rate of speed. This was employed to power the mill.

     Over the years, the mill and adjoining property would change hands numerous times. In 1856 when the mill proved to be financially unsuccessful, Sewall Andrews foreclosed on the property. Not long after that, he acquired the property and built another dam across the creek at a point where later the Milwaukee Electric Railway & Light Co. would have a train track crossing the creek. In 1856 a grist mill was built by Erastus H. Kellogg who, in 1862, sold the mill to Matthew and John Howitt whose name would later be associated with what is now Lower Phantom Lake. Then, in 1878, the Howitts sold the mill for a sum of $10,250 to an unknown buyer.

     In those days, the mill would operate 24 hours daily to supply ground feed for the horses. In 1905, The Milwaukee Light, Heat & Traction Co. purchased the real estate which later became the property of the Wisconsin Central Railway in 1921. In 1925, Thomas E. and Lester J. Swan obtained the property, the latter of whom was said to still be paying taxes on the land where Lower Phantom Lake was eventually formed. There was a wooden dam built by Sewall Andrews at the highway bridge under what is now County ES and another spillway dam between the mill bridge and Highway 83. When the railroad line from Milwaukee went through in 1907, this dam was said to be discontinued.

     Fred Fickau, father to the present day chairman of the Village of Mukwonago public works committee, Arnie Fickau, took over the mill operation in 1927 and a cement block company was established. The area became known as “Hobo Jungle” due to the vagrants that would frequent that vicinity as they came through “riding the rails”. However, Fred’s efforts to chase them off were to little avail. A dump was adjacent to the property and it is said that Fred had the first garbage collection for The Village and was the one that started the dump.

     In 1945 the Leder brothers assumed the operations at the cement plant and the mill was closed down at which time Fred Fickau retired from the business. The block plant was moved to the corner of MacArthur and N. Rochester in 1947. That same year, the mill and former cement block plant property were purchased by the newly-formed Mukwonago Lakes Improvement Association for the sum of $7,000. It was said that their goals were to maintain the dam, protect Lower Phantom Lake and protect the businesses of Mukwonago. In 1948, the mill and adjacent buildings were razed which had been a meeting place for local farmers for 84 years. Then, in 1962, the dam was offered to The Village and the area was converted into a park which boasted a swimming area.

     At the turn of the century, there was but one Phantom Lake and what is now Lower Phantom Lake was a marshy wetland with the Mukwonago River meandering through it. In fact, the local Indians would refer to the area as “The Gardens”, which was said to contain numerous beneficial mineral springs. When it was formed after the construction of the dams at the mill site, Lower Phantom Lake was initially called Howitt Lake , having been named after Matthew and John Howitt. In 1938 by an act of the State Geographical Board, Howitt Lake was renamed Lower Phantom Lake .

The Camps

     Prior to the formation of Lower Phantom Lake , two camps and three resorts started making their homes at what was then simply called Phantom Lake . The Phantom Lake YMCA Camp arrived on the south shore of Phantom Lake . Initially opening in 1893 on Lake Five near Germantown , Camp Hope as it was previously known moved to Pewaukee Lake before finally settling on Phantom Lake . For a detailed history of the Phantom Lake YMCA Camp, click here.

     During a fishing trip in 1954, Marvin Matson along with the parishioners of the Midwest Bible Church envisioned a potential camp on the southwest shore of Upper Phantom Lake and, hence, the Phantom Ranch Bible Camp was born. Longtime residents may recall that the site was previously occupied by Camp Hotpoint , used exclusively by employees and associates of the Hotpoint Appliance Co. More information about the Phantom Ranch Bible Camp is found here.

The Resorts

     Upper Phantom Lake was the site of three different resorts. Bucher’s Resort operated until the mid 1960s and was situated at the end of Sandy Beach Road . J.R.’s Tavern is still a part of what has become known as “Bucherville”. Until the mid 1970s Phipp’s Resort was located in the triangle formed by Lakeview Drive and Sandy Beach Road on the west side of Upper Phantom. In spite of its off-lake position, guests had access to the lake in which they could partake in recreational activities.

  But the most elaborate resort for its day was the vision of several local investors who wanted to attract the tourist trade to the shores of Phantom Lake . Eugene W. Chafin owned a considerable amount of lakefront property and he, along with Dr. H.A. Youmans, Frank A. Wood, The Honorable James Johnston, Lieutenant T.W. Haight and William MacArthur, expedited the construction of a 100-room hotel in the fall of 1892.

Phantom Lake Inn

Click on Picture to Enlarge

Situated on 20 acres on the northeast shore of Upper Phantom Lake (immediately southeast of the present-day Lakeside Inn), the Phantom Lake Inn sat high atop the bluff overlooking nothing but woods and water. The Inn boasted 1800 feet of screened veranda that was 12 feet wide. Guest rooms featured hot and cold running water, gas lights and electric bells. Each room opened on to the wide veranda and there were no inside rooms. The dining room could seat up to 350 guests and was lit with gas lamps. The Inn was built at a cost of $40,000. At times, guests were said to be so numerous that cots were placed in the dining room and halls to accommodate the overflow crowd Saturday nights and Sunday.

     There were three separate buildings that housed a bar and the caretaker’s family. At the foot of the hill next to the lake was the laundry but local women would frequently take some of the wash home. At the lakefront, the water was said to be clear and clean at the almost white sand beach. A fleet of boats was made available for guests along with a little steamer for outings on the lake. The steamer was 32 feet long with a 6 horsepower engine that powered a stern wheel. Known as “The Phantom”, the craft could accommodate 35 to 40 passengers and achieve a speed of 10 mph. A channel was cut between Upper Phantom and what would eventually become Lower Phantom through which the steamer would bring passengers from the foot of Main Street in Mukwonago to Idelwile Park , the future site of the Phantom Lake YMCA Camp.

     While under construction, the soon-to-be Phantom Lake Inn was damaged by a cyclone in April of 1893. But then on June 15, The Inn was dedicated and many dignitaries and notables were present. Giving the keynote address was then Governor George W. Peck whose speech was entitled, “ Wisconsin , The Greatest Summer Resort in the World”.

     Guests would arrive by train in Mukwonago and be taken, along with their luggage, to The Inn by bus or horse-drawn wagons. When James G. Pond was General Passenger Agent for the Wisconsin Central Railroad, Pullman sleepers would depart from the Hawthorne Racetrack outside Chicago and arrive in Mukwonago where they would be sidetracked while the guests spent time at the Inn . The guest register revealed that visitors came from all over Wisconsin as well as from Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and as far away as California. Many of the street signs in the Village of Mukwonago reflect the names of the early visitors: Andrews, Blood, MacArthur, Gibson and Mitten to name a few.

     The following ad for the Phantom Lake Inn ran in the Chicago area and touts the springs adjacent to the Inn: At the foot of the headland upon the summit of which the Inn hold its airy sway, there are numbers of copious mineral springs which retain their mineral coolness, each one of which possess peculiar features and characteristics of its own. Three of these springs, the :”Phantom Chalybeate”, the “Phantom Crystal ”, and the “Phantom Sulphur ” are within one hundred feet of The Inn . The first is named from its distinctively chalybeate (iron-tasting) quality and is known as the “iron spring” at the lake from the days of the earliest settlers. The “Phantom Crystal ” has the same general properties as the Waukesha Springs and may be used for the same purpose with like results. There are no better or safer waters in the world than those of the Phantom Springs”, and their source is one of the inscrutable puzzles which are so often presented to the geologist in the way of terrestrial phenomena.”

     In spite of the Inn ’s popularity, it was never really a financial success. When the Inn first opened, it was advertised at the Columbian Exposition which was occurring simultaneously in Chicago . Ironically, the exposition provided some healthy competition for patrons that might have otherwise come to the Inn . Later, in 1912, Eugene Chafin was a candidate for the office of the President of the United States , running on the Prohibition ticket. Chafin was also said to have been the one who renamed Stockman’s Lake Phantom Lake at some point in the late 1800s.

In May of 1901, it was determined that the Inn would not open for that season due to monetary challenges and it was said that the property would be sold “for a song”. The next year, the property was leased by R.T. Barton of Chicago for a period of 5 years. The building was renovated and it re-opened on June 14th that year. The property was then purchased by W.H. Dietrich of LaGrange, IL., in 1904 who leased it to a church organization for club purposes.

     On August 8, 1919, tragedy was to strike which would bring an end to life at the Phantom Lake Inn. A fire of unknown origin destroyed the recently renovated north and south portions of the Inn . The east wing which contained the dining hall was saved. Then, in 1921, the property on which sat the charred remains of the Inn was purchased by the Reverend William Behnke, Superintendent of the Associated Rescue, Milwaukee . He then razed the burned portions of what was left of the buildings and recycled the unburned portions of the Inn for what was said to be “building purposes”. Eventually some small summer cottages sprouted on that bluff.

     The site high atop the bluff previously occupied by the Phantom Lake Inn is now home to three residences, two of which were built in 1993 by  Dr. Tim Markowski and Rick Grieb. West of those aforementioned residences, a smaller cottage overlooking the lake with 300 feet of frontage belongs to Andy Maney. And it’s not unusual for an occasional artifact to appear on those properties which serve as a reminder of life as it was at the turn of the century on Upper Phantom Lake .

     The PLMD wishes to thank Thayne Odier with the Mukwonago Museum, and lifelong residents Arnie Fickau and Mike Haslem for helping to provide some of this information. We also derived some of this historical perspective from two books written by D.E. Wright, “The Chronicles of Mukwonago” and “The Place of the Bear” which were penned in 1990 and 1994 respectively. We also wish to credit an article about the Phantom Lake Inn written in March of 1970 from the Waukesha Freeman. We would welcome any additional contributions to the historical perspective of the Phantom Lakes at gonefishing@phantomlakes.us.


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