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History of Governors Island and Rocky Roost in Madison, WI


A bird’s eye view over the east side hidden gem. | Photo by @sekretempire

We’ve had a few readers ask us to delve into the history of Governor’s Island, so we’re flashing back to see how residents of 1860s Madison saw the space.

Governor Leonard J. Farwell called the island home during his time serving Wisconsin’s executive branch. He is more notably known for his contributions in reorganizing the State Historical Society, establishing the State Supreme Court, and abolishing the state death penalty. The second governor of Wisconsin donated the land to be used for the first State Hospital for the Insane (now the Mendota Mental Health Institute) in 1858.

In the 1860s, the island was connected to the north shore of Lake Mendota by a causeway, which means it’s no longer technically an island, but the island moniker stuck. We weren’t able to find out why exactly the causeway was built, but we suspect accessibility.


A view of the compound circa 1913. | Photo provided by the Wisconsin Historical Society

The air of mystery around the land comes from the early 1900s, when a two-story cabin was built off the northwest tip of the land on its own island. The building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for his friend, Robert Lamp.

Rocky Roostas the cabin was called — is rumored to have been burned to the ground in 1937 by a Mendota patient. Rising water levels have reclaimed the small island, with little evidence left of the once popular recreation spot.

Today, the island is a 60-acre green space situated as a peninsula on Lake Mendota and technically the property of the Mendota Mental Health Center. There is currently one private home on the island, which explorers should take care of to stay away from.

This hidden gem is mostly cherished by dog walkers, fishers, and hunters. Visitors are treated to scenic views near the rocky bluffs + can explore on the paved walking path around the island.

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