I Used To Believe
The story that the following two blogs are going to relate is one of intrigue, archaeology and a miscarriage of history. Like the image above this tale includes archaeology, Nazis, and Atlantis in Wisconsin. The first part is going to be a history of the Rock Lake Pyramids and the second part is going to be about modern misinterpretations of that history. The inspiration for this blog and this research came from fellow archaeology blogger ArchyFantasies and her corresponding podcast. The Rock Lake Pyramids have been ever-present on the fringes of Wisconsin archaeology and largely remained uncontested.
With the professionalization of archaeology as a field, it became a form of career suicide to even discuss archaeological “fantasies” like the Rock Lake pyramids regardless of the fact that archaeologists were the first to give the phenomena its fair chance as we’ll see later. Due to this archaeologists have been remiss in their duty and miss an opportunity to educate. It’s only been relatively recently that archaeologists have been working to engage with fringe or pseudoarchaeology. The Rock Lake enigma and others like it stubbornly persist to become legendary.
Admittedly, I was caught up in the mystique of the Rock Lake Pyramids and was so captured that I believed in the possibilities. The very idea of a submerged archaeological site located just adjacent to one of the largest, significant archaeological sites in Wisconsin had an impression on a young mind. I wanted to don Scuba gear and explore them myself. I later learned that this was another archaeological fantasy perpetrated by ex-Nazi Frank Joseph Collins with shadowy motives. In some cases, his books regarding Rock Lake are peoples first introduction to Wisconsin prehistory. What this blog aims to do is address the entire Rock Lake phenomena critically, to re-evaluate a modern myth.
“The pyramids are illogical. They shouldn’t be there. They would be too old, in a place where no person could have built them, so logically they can’t exist.” Ben Whitcomb, The Lost Pyramids of Rock Lake, Skin Diver Magazine. January 1970
The Birth of A Legend
Rock Lake itself is a small lake in southeastern Wisconsin, adjacent to the town of Lake Mills, Wisconsin. The lake is located about halfway between the cities of Madison Wisconsin and Milwaukee Wisconsin respectively. Its geographic coordinates are 43°04′53″N 88°55′54″W. The lake covers 1,371 acres and has a max depth of 61 feet. The lake is located three miles away from Aztalan, “the ancient city”. The largest and most continually excavated archaeological site in Wisconsin. Aztalan got its name from Judge Nathaniel Hyer who first formally surveyed the site in 1837. The site received its name because of his knowledge of the Aztec legend that claimed the first Aztecs came from a northern land called Aztalan – more on this in part two. Captain Joseph Keyes first settled the area of Lake Mills in 1836 so named because of the mills that Keyes had constructed on Rock Lake. Keyes constructed a sawmill in 1839 and a gristmill in 1842, these also will become important in part two.
The first appearance of the Rock Lake Pyramids was apparently in or around 1900 but the story was not reported until much later. Local residents and brothers Claude and Lee Wilson were duck hunting on Rock Lake. The water of Rock Lake was abnormally clear and after a prolonged drought that year had apparently lowered the lake levels. After rowing for a time into the middle of the lake, they noticed a stone structure sitting on the bottom. It was apparently square and had sloped upwards to an apex. They had touched the top of the structure with their paddle. Apparently, they found two other structures like the first nearby. It was a pyramid, a legend was born! The rains finally came and the pyramids were never relocated again. As the story goes the news reached Milwaukee and a newspaper reporter was dispatched to report on the pyramids but never got the chance to see them. This was apparently reported in the Milwaukee Herald for 20th August 1900, but a review of the newspaper itself for that time contains no mention of Rock Lake or a pyramid.
There had also apparently been a longstanding legend of “stone tepees” that used to be above the surface of Rock Lake but had sunk into the lake over time. This legend was apparently shared by the local Native Americans to the early settlers of Lake Mills in the 1840s, however, contemporary historical accounts from that time do not relate these legends or the fact that there were stone structures on islets in the lake. Though it is possible this information comes in the form of oral history it seems like this is another part of hearsay that was later developed in 1936. The book A Reminiscent History of the Village and Town of Lake Mills by Elisha Keyes, the son of Joseph Keyes, the founder of Lake Mills there is much mention about interactions with the local Native Americans and of Aztalan at that time, there is no mention of any legend being shared of stone tepees in or around the lake.
The legend of the Rock Lake Pyramids was not truly born until 1936 as the town of Lake Mills was about to celebrate its centennial. Victor Taylor was a journalist, scriptwriter, radio host, and Lake Mills resident who was employed by the Federal Writers Program by the Works Progress Administration. At that time, at the height of the Great Depression, the WPA had hired writers to survey and research local history, landmarks and legends to be put into a massive guide of the United States. The end goal is that this would be a massive travel guide to promote tourism and history. Victor Taylor had his sights set on his home, Rock Lake, which coincided with the centennial celebration.
In 1932 Taylor had written an article about the coming centennial with no mention of the Rock Lake pyramids but mentioned how sacred the lake must have been due to the presence of the many effigy mounds in the area. During his time working for the WPA Taylor had apparently discovered the aforementioned oral history of the stone tepees at the bottom of the lake. He then surveyed local residents where he got the story from Claude and Lee Wilson; he also heard that the stone structures were a popular location for fishing and many fishermen lost their lines on them. A commercial fishing operation had torn up its nets on the supposed structures. Most fishermen believed the stone formations were leftover from the construction of the railway that crosses the southern end of the lake.
The structures were immediately declared ancient by Victor Taylor and first made the news 13 February 1936. Much like Judge Hyer before him, Taylor believed that the three to four pyramids (the number changed with each reporting) was Aztec in origin and were built during a drought when the lake was completely drained and they were sacrificial altars to the rain god to bring the rains back. Victor Taylor hired three youths to dive down to the pyramids to inspect them and one of them reported that he thought that he saw hieroglyphics written on the side, the other two did not. They also reported that three of the structures were pyramidal in form and the other conical. They were reportedly 20 feet across and the same in height and the stones were filled with mortar. This is problematic, they are children swimming down on a gulp of air to go find these structures. It was never stated whether or not these kids had a mask or fins but with the poor visibility of Rock Lake, it is unlikely they were able to see the structures themselves much less hieroglyphics written on the side. There was also the claims of the discovery of “Indian Shafts” but it is unclear what exactly was meant by that.
Taylor would take his finding to Charles E. Brown, the then director of the Wisconsin Historical Society Museum, and was also the local director of the Federal Writers Project. (Widely regarded as the father of Wisconsin archaeology, Brown founded the Wisconsin Archaeological Society) and Ernest Bean the state geologist. Brown and Bean seemed initially interested in the pyramids but would later go on record of disbelieving that they were ancient, he (or the newspapers just said he did) would attribute them to the notorious Finch gang. The finches were a family of horse thieves and bandits that lived in the area around Lake Mills before Wisconsin was a state. Their hideout was apparently located on an island in the marshland directly south of Rock Lake. Later discoveries of horse skeletons on this island attested to their activities. The research into the Finches was another part of the local history project being undertaken by the Federal Writers Program that culminated in a small book written by Dorothy Brown, wife of Charles Brown. Being that the pyramids were discovered in close proximity to the Finches former hideout, Charles believed that they were built by the Finches to hide caches of loot that later submerged underwater. Aside from that, Charles Brown seemed to have never gave the phenomena any credence. Everything regarding the Rock Lake pyramids was immediately met with skepticism:
“Ancient Indians of this area must have been wondrous fellows indeed if we are to believe Lake Mills’ press agent extraordinary, Vic Taylor, who has them building pyramids under Rock Lake for their own and later generations amusement. Maybe they were “mermen” Lake Mills Leader 20 February 1936
“ Have you noticed how credit for construction of the Pyramids on the floor of the lake has been tossed around? First ancient aborigines and now its attributed to a master gang of thieves. Any minute now we can expect to read it was made by summer visitors skipping rocks.” Lake Mills Leader 27 February 1936
It was reported in a few other papers in Wisconsin and nearby newspaper reporters were also skeptical:
“Vic Taylor, Lake Mills Writer, is responsible for much of the centennial ballyhoo in our neighboring city. Studying Indian Folklore, Taylor recently was told about three stone piles located in rock Lake. Fishermen for many years have anchored on these piles. Taylor’s mind generated an idea. The idea is excellent newspaper “copy” In the eyes of the scientific world these three rock piles have suddenly become “pyramids” of the ancient Aztecs. We were told that the Aztec civilization reached its pinnacle around Lake Mills in the year 1066. The idea caught hold. Half forgotten legends were recalled or “invented” by the old timers. Four young men became divers. They tried to explore the extent and shape of the pyramids. One lad probably blessed with a better imagination than the others said he saw strange markings on some of the rocks, which appeared to be hieroglyphics. The others saw no such markings but the hieroglyphic angle of the story lives. As soon as it quits snowing, feature writers for at least a few of the daily newspapers will journey to Lake Mills to gather more data about these pyramids.” Fort Atkinson News 14 February 1936
Regardless Lake Mills carried on with their centennial celebration in August 1936. The centennial committee offered a $5.00 reward for the discovery of the pyramids and for them to be buoyed so festival-goers could go have a look but no one came forward. It was assumed that it would be a matter of embarrassment if people arrived to see the pyramids only to be disappointed when there was nothing to show them. As a bit of humor, during the centennial parade, a local man had a float that featured him in a faux diving bell with a sign that he would be diving the pyramids afterwards.
A year later the Rock Lake pyramids caught the attention of local diving pioneer Max Eugene “Gene” Nohl. A Milwaukee native, Nohl had worked with Dr. Edgar End of Marquette University to develop the world’s first practical helium/oxygen (Heliox) for use in deep-sea diving. By December of 1937, Nohl would break the Navy depth record for diving in Lake Michigan off of Port Washington, Wisconsin. He successfully dove to a depth of 420 feet with his heliox mixture, a deep-sea diving suit of his own design and a decompression schedule devised by Dr. End. Prior to this feat, Nohl conducted a search both above and below water for the Rock Lake pyramids. A local dentist and aviator Dr. Fayette Morgan claimed to have seen some submerged bumps on the bottom of Rock Lake when flying over. Nohl would accompany Morgan on flights to try to spot the pyramids himself but never did. Nohl’s next step was to cruise the lake and use a surface view scope to peer underwater to search for the pyramids, this too ended in failure. Nohl’s next step to search for the structures was to drag a weighted cable between two boats. Whenever the cable would snag, Nohl then would dive down on his “diving lung” to verify what the snagged object was. After two months of searching he discovered:
“The pyramid rises up from a 36-fott bottom to its upper base which is 7 feet from the surface therefore being 29 feet high. A deposit of ooze has collected at the base and penetration of this with my hand revealed that the structure continued on down. The pyramid is in the form of a truncated cone. Approximate dimensions: diameter upper base, 3 feet, diameter bottom 18 feet, altitude 29 feet. The construction is apparently of smooth stone set in a mortar. It is covered with a greenish, thin scum that rubs off.” Max Nohl letter to Victor Taylor 12 October 1937
Although this discovery was detailed in a letter from Max Nohl to Victor Taylor in October of 1937 it was not reported immediately only appearing in the local Lake Mills Leader in May 1938. People would question Nohl’s discovery but he would challenge them to don his diving gear and go look for themselves. Not too long later Nohl would make his historic record-breaking dive in Lake Michigan, start his company Desco, (Diving Equipment & Supply Company) go on to the lecture circuit, and dive and salvage several shipwrecks. Although he had plans to return to Rock Lake in winter 1938 to photograph the pyramid, he never did. Initially, he would tell the tale of his exciting discovery during his lectures but as time went on he would mention it less and less. Interest in the pyramids quickly declined due to the Second World War. The next group of intrepid explorers was a group of high school students and their homemade diving apparatus in 1952. Although they had a very novel and unique approach, they did not discover the pyramid or Indian village they were looking for.
Regardless of what Frank Joseph Collins states in his books, which this blog will be exploring in part two, archaeologists were the first to give the Rock Lake pyramids their fair chance. In a time before the term “Maritime Archaeology” was ever coined, divers were conducting an archaeological survey of Rock Lake. Work was conducted in 1960-61 culminating in the article The Underwater Search For Pyramids in Rock Lake, Jefferson County, Wisconsin published in the Wisconsin Archaeologist in 1962. This work was conducted by Dr. Stephan Borhegyi the then director of the Milwaukee Public Museum, Robert Ritzenthaler, curator of Anthropology at the Milwaukee Public Museum, diver Lon Mericle (who later wrote the article) with the help of the Midwest Amphibians a dive club based out of Milwaukee. Borhegyi already had experience as a diving archaeologist conducting underwater searches for Mayan artifacts in Lake Amatitlan in Guatemala in the years just prior. They contacted the brothers Claude and Lee Wilson who related their story about finding the pyramid (though this article states it was found “some 50 years prior.” which in 1962 was 1912). They made use of the brother’s story and experience to set up search areas around the lake. They would use a towed depth finder to get a contour of the bottom within the search areas. They then anchored buoys to delineate the search areas. When searching within they would use the sonar to find a pyramidal target and then drop divers to search for the pyramid. The divers would be spaced along an anchored line inside the search area and would swim in circles for a visual survey. In other areas of the lake where it was less likely to encounter a pyramid, the divers would be towed behind a boat to another visual search. They would make their searches in spring after the ice had melted when the water would be at optimum clarity to have the best chance to spot the structures. After two years of searching no pyramids were discovered. The article concludes with an editor’s note that stated the Pyramids are unlikely to exist because the search turned up nothing, Wisconsin Native Americans constructed mounds from earth and not stone (there are some adjacent to Rock Lake), Rock Lake is a glacial lake 10,000 years old and mound-building did not begin in Wisconsin until 2,000 years ago. There was no geological evidence to indicate the lake levels rose in that time. The note concludes by stating that the lake bottom formations are glacial in nature:
“The dumping of concentrations of gravel or rock as the ice block melts during the lake building stage is not unusual, and for some of these to have roughly pyramidal shape is not difficult to conceive with silt they could assume a man made look. The evidence for the geological explanation is so overwhelming, and the man made theory so remote that no doubt remains in the mind of the writer.” Lon Mericle, The Wisconsin Archaeologist Vol. 43 No. 3
Although they promised further searches, they never found the pyramids. Dr. Borhegyi would go on to conduct an underwater search in Cenote Azul located adjacent to the Mayan site of Chinkultic in 1966.
“The American is a sucker for a legend. Give him a rumor of lost treasure, or a buried city, or a shipwreck on the ocean floor, and he’ll cheerfully dare with his life and his equipment.” Ben Whitcomb, The Lost Pyramids of Rock Lake, Skin Diver Magazine January 1970
The Rock Lake legend was relatively silent until January 1970 when the story was reiterated in an issue of Skin Diver Magazine. The article details a dive made in July of 1967 made by diver Jack Kennedy. Kennedy was at the end of his dive using the last little bit of air in his tank where he discovered a stone wall of grapefruit-sized stones that angled into a low platform five feet above the lake bottom with a flat level, top. Jack Kennedy estimated the formation to be 20 feet across and probably 40 feet long. Kennedy collected three of the stones and ended his dive. He alone made this discovery and other divers in his crew were unable to find the structure that he had found. Not too long later Lon Mericle, the author of the Wisconsin Archaeologist article gave a presentation at the Chicago Undersea Forum about the previous efforts made by myself and the Milwaukee Public Museum and how they never found anything. His lecture on the Rock Lake pyramids held a lot of sway within the dive community because himself and the Midwest Amphibians were well-respected. Jack Kennedy apparently found further structures on the bottom of Rock Lake. This article reiterates the theory that the structures beneath Rock Lake were Aztec in origin but also reminds the reader that the nearby archaeological site of Aztalan was not an Aztec site. Although the article expresses some incredulity halfway through it ends by stating that there is no longer any doubt that something is down there waiting to be found. Which seems confused almost as if the author started off skeptical but had to end with it being real. No one else was able to find the structure that Kennedy discovered. The Skin Diver Magazine article inspired the next generation of Rock Lake exploration.
The Rock Lake pyramids have a confused, conflicting history. This fact speaks to the illegitimacy of their existence. The Rock Lake pyramids are not ancient structures, they were created in 1936 as a product of yellow journalism. It was a sensational story created to promote and generate interest in the centennial celebration of Lake Mills in 1936 by one man, Victor Taylor. The goal of the Federal Writers Program was to unearth folklore to generate interest and tourism, Victor Taylor succeeded he created a myth that persists to this day and inspires research and diving to this day, its story will also be co-opted by former Nazi Frank Joseph Collins to further his agenda of scientific racism. The pyramids have taken on a life of their own and the story is embraced in Lake Mills. Later Max Nohl would use the Rock Lake pyramids as a sensational topic to promote himself and his lectures. As Nohl accomplished more exciting things in the course of his diving career, he discussed them less and less. The story was used to springboard his career. Before his tragic death in a car accident in 1960, Nohl wrote a book about his adventures titled By The Deep Six that was unfortunately never published but the manuscript exists in the archives of the Milwaukee Public Library. Within there is no mention of the Rock Lake Pyramids. The prevailing attitudes at the time were of skepticism, the pyramids were treated as a joke. The Federal Writers Program was very good about recording their research and files from their efforts are still retained in the archives of the Wisconsin Historical Society, however, Taylor’s personal files are not among them. Unlike Dorothy Brown’s research into the Finch gang, Taylor’s research never resulted in a book and it seemed that Victor Taylor dropped the subject entirely after 1936. The date of the Wilson’s discovery is uncertain and for as big and dramatic as their discovery was, was not reported until 1935-36 and even then not fully reported until the early sixties. Adding to the mystery is the low water clarity of Rock Lake, due to algae blooms the visibility in the lake is low throughout the year, that is why early spring after the ice melt is usually the best time to explore the lake. Diving Rock Lake sometimes groping in the dark, akin to the parable of the blind men and the elephant all these supposed discoveries are people seeing a different part of the same thing under poor conditions, which is submerged glacial landforms. This is the reason that there are several different descriptions of the structures and later that will be used to suggest that there are several stone structures beneath Rock Lake. All of the structures as they have been described have been unable to relocated which further speaks to the illegitimacy of the Pyramids. Even though they are glacial landforms they have developed the status of being an actual archaeological site that after all this exploration still remains elusive. The geology of Rock Lake will be further explored in part two. Rock Lake is a sacred lake due to the presence of burial mounds around the lake, some of which exist to this day. See A General History of the Ward Mound Group & The Burial Sites Conflict in Wisconsin.
Sources & Resources
Boyd, Richard. The Rock Lake Pyramids: Anatomy of a Legend. Unpublished Manuscript, used with permission of the Author.
Brown, Dorothy. The Fighting Finches: Tales of Freebooter of the Pioneer Countryside in Rock Lake and Jefferson Counties. Federal Writers Project.
The Capital Times 14 February 1936
Desco The People Who Built Desco
Friends of Aztalan State Park
Gericke, Paul Lake Mills 1881-1936. Lake Holds Indian Shafts
Fort Atkinson News 14 February 1936
Hyer, Nathaniel Ruins of the Ancient City of Aztalan. Milwaukee Advertiser, 25 February 1837
Keyes, Elisha. A Reminiscent History of the Village and Town of Lake Mills
Lake Mills Leader 20 February 1936
Lake Mills Leader 27 February 1936
Lake Mills Leader 9 April 1936
Lake Mills Leader 15 October 1936
Lake Mills Leader 19 May 1938
Lake Mills Leader 21 April 1960
Lurie, Nancy Oestreich. Obituaries: Stephan Francis Borhegyi. American Anthropologist No. 72
Mericle, Lon. The Underwater Search for Pyramids in Rock Lake, Jefferson County Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Archaeologist.
Milwaukee Journal 27 March 1938
Milwaukee Public Museum Aztalan Site History
Milwaukee Public Museum Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi
Milwaukee Sentinal 1 December 1937
Nohl, Max. By The Deep Six. Unpublished Manuscript. Milwaukee Public Library: Historical Records Collection, Wisconsin Marine Historical Society, 1959
Nohl, Max. Letter To V.S. Taylor. 12 October 1937. Lake Mills, WI: F. D. Fargo Library, Vertical File Series, Rock Lake Folder
rk_diver 2014-04-14 Rock Lake in Jefferson County. Youtube. (At 4:20)
Statz, Lydia Could Human Remains Found During Roadwork be Finch? Daily Jefferson County Union.
Taylor, Victor. Rock Lake Vital Factor in History of Lake Mills Nearing 100th Anniversary
Taylor Victor. Rock Lake. Lake Mills Wisconsin Centennial: 1836-1936
Whitcomb, Ben. The Lost Pyramids of Rock Lake. Skin Diver Magazine, January 1970
Wisconsin State Historical Society Mississippian Culture and Aztalan
Wisconsin State Journal 14 February 1936
Wisconsin State Journal 12 October 1937