Copper Falls State Park is renowned for its spectacular scenery of lush forests, dramatic waterfalls framed by majestic pines, and an understory of fern-like white cedars. It seems primeval, but the landscape bears a remarkable human imprint. In the late nineteenth century, Wells Ruggles began reshaping the landscape when he attempted to mine the land for copper, sinking a nearly horizontal shaft into a hillside at the southeast corner of the present picnic grounds. The swift-flowing Bad River continually flooded this shaft, so in 1902 Ruggles and his crew diverted the stream by blasting through rock. Ruggles shifted the stream’s course north of the present picnic area; the old riverbed remnant is visible east of the combination picnic and concession building.
During the Great Depression, decades after Ruggles’s mine failed, the State of Wisconsin created Copper Falls State Park with the assistance of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and other federal agencies. CCC workers found a nearly denuded landscape, which had been logged out during the lumber boom. They set to work planting thousands of trees, creating the forest visitors see today. The landscaping included plants, trails, stone stairways, and various structures designed in a Rustic manner to make them seem part of the natural environment. Steiro of the Wisconsin Conservation Department and Riemenschneider and Knobla of the National Park Service developed the plans, and CCC workers provided the labor. In constructing most of the extant buildings, workers shaped the logs to fit snugly without gaps, a method used by Nordic immigrants to Wisconsin. (Some chinking became necessary after the green wood shrank.) Saddle notches join the peeled logs, and V-shaped tapers finish the ends.
Examples of CCC and Works Progress Administration (WPA) work are visible throughout the park, although many original structures are gone. The Custodian’s Residence was designed by Steiro, as was the adjacent stone garage and repair shop. The Old Contact Station (1937) is attributed to Knobla, who also designed the Combination Building, which CCC teams began constructing in 1936. The log footbridge across the Bad River was built in 1948 after floodwaters washed away the original. The Observation Tower has provided visitors a panoramic view since its construction in 1930, although components of the tower were replaced since then. The long steps flanking the modern footbridge above Devil’s Gate are particularly impressive. The CCC quarried the black slate slabs in Mellen. The deck and foundation of the footbridge just above the cascades on Tyler Forks River are intact, but the new railing has three rows of boards instead of the original two.