Madison Lakes & Rivers
Lake Mendota Formerly Known as 4th Lake and
Lake Monona Formerly known as 3rd Lake and
Lake Wingra Formerly known as Dead Lake
Starkweather Creek Formerly known as Wyseorah Creek
Wingra Creek
Yahara River Formerly known as Catfish River and
Madison Has History of “Healing Waters”

This area was first referred to as the “Four Lakes” in a manuscript in 1817. In 1833 a team of surveyors led by Orson Lyon moved through from the south and, starting with Lake Kegonsa, naming the lakes First through Fourth as they encountered them. Their map showed what now is Lake Wingra as a pond, and left it unnamed. Because settlers believed Wingra had no outlet, it was commonly called Dead Lake as early as 1840.

In 1849 Simeon Mills, one of Madison's first settlers, employed Frank Hudson of Philadelphia to plat the University Addition. Hudson, familiar with Indian legends, suggested the names Monona and Mendota be applied to Third and Fourth lakes respectively. Mendota, a Dakota name, means “confluence of rivers.” Monona, a Sauk-Fox name, was translated as “fairy.”

In 1854 Governor Leonard Farwell decided all of the lakes should have Indian names. Lyman Draper found two Ojibwa names for First and Second lakes; Kegonsa “little fish” and Waubesa “swan”. The Legislature made the names of all the lakes, including Wingra, a Ho-Chunk name meaning “duck,” official on February 14, 1855.

A year earlier Horace Greeley had created a map of the Four Lakes for Farwell to use in his promotions, showing these names in print for the first time (although Greeley spelled Monona “Menona”). Other features familiar today were also named, including Picnic Point, which to that time had been called Gooseberry Point, and the Yahara River, an Ojibwa word for “catfish,” also chosen by Farwell.

Other place names included Peena “good water” Creek, today Pheasant Branch; Tarporah “breast bone” Creek, today Nine Springs Creek; Neosho “containing water” Creek, today Six Mile Creek.

Wintertime on Madison's Lakes
  • Both lakes have frozen over every winter since researchers began keeping records in 1855.
  • Ice can be from 12 to 18 inches thick. The ice near shore is usually about three to four inches thicker than the center.
  • The average length of time they remain frozen has dropped. From 1999 to 2008, Mendota was frozen over for an average of 82 days a year, about 20 days less per year than from 1899 to 1908.