Lake Manawa - Then and Now
Visitors entered the park by travelling down Shady Lane. The canopy of trees gave
way to a surprisingly beautiful lake nestled in Iowa’s hills. After a visitor paid his or her
dime at the turn style to enter the Grand Plaza, they would discover the Grand Pavilion,
the boardwalk, lighted fountains, and the entertainment acts provided by the
management. Besides the band stand, the park featured acrobatics acts, hot air
balloon launches, and dramatic productions. Lawn tennis courts, horseshoe pits, and
cycling were also popular.
A trip to the resort
Rowboats could be rented at the lake and rowing competitions were common forms of
entertainment. As mentioned, spectacular acts delighted the crowds. One such act occurred at
the dive tower. For years, a woman diver, known only as Miss Fishbaugh, climbed the dive
tower, soaked herself in gasoline, and lit herself on fire every night at 9 p.m. Thankfully, her
asbestos bathing costume and a special collar around her hair and face kept her alive to
repeat the fete again and again.
Not everyone traveled to Lake Manawa from the fancy hotels inside the city. Each season over
500 people pitched tents and lived at the lake. The wealthy brought along all the comforts of
home, including their servants. Husbands would take the streetcar into Council Bluffs or
Omaha to work. Later, some cabins were built near the lake.
Did the rich really camp in tents?
While today it’s hard to imagine swimming in wool stockings, bloomers, and a skirt, bathing
costumes weighed considerably less than the usual summer apparel and were quite freeing for
women. They also showed a woman’s arms and the shape of her legs so some people
considered them quite scandalous. Most bathing costumes sported some kind of nautical theme
complete with a sailor collar.
Swimming at the lake
To give the resort an Eastern feel, the main beach was named Manhattan Beach. Tons
of sand had to be brought in to create a place for bathers. Col. Reed, the manager of
Manhattan Beach, also brought in top acts to perform. In the year Making Waves is
written (1895) the Ladies Military Band of Chicago performed all summer. They were
paraded through the city in streetcars.
Manhattan Beach in Iowa?
Today, Lake Manawa is a popular state park, and sadly, no traces of its heyday remain.
The once well-liked resort became a victim of tornadoes and fires beginning in 1913.
Along with that, the carnival atmosphere fell out of popularity with the wealthy, and they
became concerned with the “shady characters” the Midway seemed to attract. As
automobiles increased in popularity, travel became more accessible to all and people
were not limited to staying close to home. In 1927, after nearly forty years of entertaining
its patrons, the park closed for good and the buildings were either auctioned off or torn
What happened to the resort?
The photo on the right was sent to me by Mary Arenholtz. It is over her mother's parents, Hjalmer
and Isabel Wiig and is dated 1919.
"Grandpa had just returned from the Great War in Europe," Mary said. "They were on their second
honeymoon and took it at Lake Manawa. They lived on a farm in Irwin, Iowa, so driving 60 miles or
so to Council Bluffs was a big deal back in the day."
Thank you Mary for sending this great example of the kind of tourist pictures available back then.
Photographers on the lake had sets like this one for just such an occasion.
If you have a Lake Manawa photo in your heirlooms, please send me a copy. I'd love to see it.
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remains of the
resort days, you
can still visit
State Park. Click
here to visit
Click on the map
below to go to a
handmade map of
Lake Manawa as
used for the books.
Not all buildings
are listed but it
should give you an
idea of where