As a child, Wisconsin Dells was a magical place for me, wrapped in mystery, because I never got there. Friends and neighbors told me about it, but for many reasons, my parents never went anywhere if they had to stay overnight. After I was married, I traveled a lot–far away–the Midwest had little appeal for me. Finally, in the 1980's, we drove to Wisconsin Dells. The original attraction of the dells was rock formations and caves carved out of sandstone (?) by the Wisconsin River. Now the area is so filled with water parks and other "attractions" the river and the dells are hardly noticeable. I've been thinking about this today because of the pictures on the news of Lake Delton breaching the dam that formed it and rushing to the Wisconsin River taking several houses and part of a highway along with it.
One of the attractions for us was the studio of H. H. Bennett, a photographer who arrived at the Dells after the Civil War. Although ostensibly a portrait studio, Bennett's real interest was photographing the Dells. We bought several wonderful photos printed from his original negatives. One of the photos shows the river flowing right next to the buildings in the city, as if it was a street. Evidently the river flowed right through the town before they built a dam further upstream, not the one that failed today. It was hard to watch those houses being destroyed by the water, but there is also something satisfying watching nature reclaim its own.
Thinking about it inspired me to do more research. I found the photo here, which turns out to be Milwaukee, not Wisconsin Dells, as I had been told.