Misadventure on Tivoli Island

“Mosquitos started hovering around Vlad like he was the last bargain picture book at a teachers’ conference and he slapped at the ones on his face and neck. As he strode deeper into the woods, small branches struck him in the face. Sweat started to sting his eyes. He glanced in alarm at a small dot that latched onto his bare leg. Was it a tick? He frantically brushed it off. He stumbled on a root, and caught himself before he stumbled over another and fell headfirst into a patch of some plant with three leaves.

When he heard the roar of rushing water, he knew he was nearing the old dam. Where the hell was that dog?

A twig snapped behind him. He turned abruptly but all he saw was tangled shrubbery. Gaston’s barking seemed close at hand, so he pressed forward, the din of the plunging water drowning out the buzz of the mosquitoes. More rotting fallen trees covered with moss, but no dog.

Another crack of branches breaking. He pivoted, and this time caught a glimpse of a black glove wielding a thick tree branch.”

Perched in a bend of the winding Rock River is a woodland jewel known as Tivoli Island.With its tangled undergrowth and lack of visitors, Tivoli Island seemed the perfect setting for the above scene in my new novel, a scene where the main character, Vlad, is attacked by the killer. Designated a wilderness park, the island invites visions of hauntings and nefarious activities.

When I researched the history of the island, I was surprised to learn it was once a grand summer resort. First named Concordia Island, a German singing group purchased the island in 1874 and transformed it into a “beautiful and enchanting spot for pleasure seekers.” The society landscaped the island, built a beautiful central pavilion, and installed one of the first fountains in Watertown, with spumes of water splashing around a statue of Neptune holding a dancing boy aloft. For nearly thirty years, city residents enjoyed picnics, band concerts, and even a bowling alley on the island. Nearly nine hundred public school children marched to the island for their annual picnic. Unions, clubs and trade guilds also gathered on the island. Excursions featuring a steamer sailing from Jefferson landed on the island and trains brought visitors from Milwaukee. A balloonist even descended with a parachute “alighting at the Bohemian garden.”

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In 1907, the same year a new concrete electrical dam was constructed downstream, two local saloon owners bought the island and renamed it Tivoli after an ancient summer resort in Italy or Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. The Ohm brothers enclosed the pavilion, added nine rooms and opened a beer garden with vaudeville attractions. After changing ownership several times, in 1920, probably due to Prohibition, the pleasure resort became a poultry farm. From 1924 to 1926 motorists were welcomed to an island tourist camp. Later lost to the county for taxes, the beautiful island fell into ruin when residents voted down the purchase by the city in 1941. For many years, the island was ignored and the buildings became vacant, until 1961, when the rundown buildings, now a hazard, were removed, dense brush trimmed, and dead trees hauled away. Still the island lingered in obscurity and decay.

Finally, in 1976 as part of a bicentennial project, The Isaac Walton League adopted Tivoli Island to develop as a wilderness park, laying out hiking trails and removing debris. Due to erosion by the Rock River, the island is a shadow of its former self. But Tivoli endures,

Like Xanadu, described by Coleridge as “a stately pleasure-dome,’ Tivoli Island certainly once fit that description. Throughout the years, it evolved into “a savage place, as holy and enchanted as e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted by woman wailing for her demon lover.” Walking there gives me the feeling of ghosts whispering amongst the rustling leaves. Mysterious things can happen in such a place, where knobby fingers of twisted branches catch at the lonely hiker. Uninhabited and feral, a remote tangle of wilderness amidst the rushing river, Tivoli ignites the imagination. Is it a catalyst for misfortune, mayhem, even possibly murder? Read my upcoming book to find out.

Tivoli Island quotes from the Watertown Historical Society website.
Poetry quotes from Kubla Khan by Samuel Coleridge