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How Photography Put The Wisconsin Dells On The Map

What comes to mind when you think of the Wisconsin Dells? Among the water parks and the pancakes at the Paul Bunyan restaurant, you may think of the Dells’ unique landscape with narrow gorges defined by steep, sandstone bluffs.

Before the Dells became a tourist destination, it was known as Kilbourn City. But H.H. Bennett opened a photography studio there in 1865, and soon his landscape photography of the area helped make it into a top tourist destination.

Credit Courtesy of the H.H. Bennett Studio and Museum
Bennett's most iconic photo, "Leaping the Chasm, WHI 2101."

"This was just a stop on the railroad, just a tiny little town. And it’s really thanks to H.H. Bennett and his family support in making these photographs that really allowed this place to be truly on the map," says Jenna Loda Eddy, the Visitor Services Coordinator at the H.H. Bennett Studio and Museum.   

Photographing the Dells back then was not an easy process. Not only would Bennett have to carry all of his photography equipment out to the bluffs, but he would also have to build a portable darkroom to develop his photos on site. It took around 15 minutes per photograph, according to Eddy.

As Bennett’s second studio celebrates its 145th anniversary, it still functions as a photography studio that uses some of the same technology that Bennett used back on opening day. 

"The waterparks can be anywhere," says Eddy. "It's the natural landscape ... that really brought us here."

The museum is open for in-person, reservation-based tours

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.