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Madison’s lost city: A failed 1920’s development

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A rendering of the proposed development along Lake Wingra. | Photo provided by Wisconsin Historical Society

We’re here today to tell you the story of a lost legend right in our own backyard. Grab some popcorn + learn about the tales of Madison’s Lost City.

In 1911, The Lake Forest Land Company, founded by “Bernie” Chapman, Leonard Gay + E.J.B. Schubring, proposed the suburb of Lake Forest.

Set on the south shore of Lake Wingra, the “Venice of the North” — as it was marketed — promised canals + shoreline property. The company advertised the development as “the most beautiful, modern, healthful, and desirable dwelling spot in the Northeast.”

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Lake Forest on Madison’s west side. | Photo provided by Wisconsin Historical Society

For 3 reasons, however, the city was never fully completed.

  • Financial Woes — The president of the Madison Bond Company, who was entrusted with helping finance the project, committed fraud. The company was bankrupt by 1922.
  • World War I + The Great Depression — The start of the war slowed sales + the Great Depression exacerbated this. Only 61 lots were ever sold.
  • Swampland — The expensive construction of canals + roads was mostly lost to the sinking marshy soils. Over the over 800 lots promised, only a few were ever completed.

Despite their inability to successfully bring the city to life, the developers refused to initially sell the land. Parts of the Lake Forest land were eventually developed into what is known as the Forest Park neighborhood today.


Remains of the development | @wemurkve

As for the rest of the land? The University Arboretum slowly acquired the plots of land left behind by the development company. This means that if you enter through Martin St. + follow the decaying concrete path, you’ll likely stumble across reminets of the land.

The UW-Arboretum has their yearly tour of the Lost City on Oct. 31 from 2-3:30 p.m. for those looking to explore more.