Rock Lake’s ‘Pyramids’ are Just Silty Rock Piles
LAKE MILLS – Local legends of the past century say Rock Lake’s murky waters hide ancient pyramids the Aztecs built before moving south to settle central Mexico 600 years ago.
That sounds cool, but Madison’s Rick Krueger – arguably Wisconsin’s top underwater detective – thinks such tales are so much loon poop.
“You can look all you want for pyramids and other manmade structures out here, but all you’ll find is regular ol’ rock piles left by the glacier 10,000 years ago,” Krueger said Monday while motoring slowly from Rock Lake’s north-shore boat landing. “Compared to Madison’s (four) lakes, the bottom of Rock Lake has very few things people left behind.”
Rock Lake in Jefferson County is about 20 miles east of Madison, and covers 1,365 acres in a slight figure-eight shape at the western edge of Lake Mills. Its maximum depth is 61 feet, and it provides decent fishing for walleyes, panfish, northern pike, and largemouth and smallmouth bass.
The legends’ origins don’t run deep in the lake or city’s histories, but they’ve been popular enough since their fabrication in the mid-1930s to put pyramids on Lake Mills’ logo. You’ll also see pyramids in the names of local stores, motels and businesses. Likewise, the Chamber of Commerce good-naturedly taps into the pyramids’ notoriety to promote civic events, much as the Scottish Highlands capitalize on the Loch Ness monster.
In fact, some claim Rock Lake also has a sea monster, but that tale hasn’t stuck like the pyramids myth. Krueger said “true believers” aren’t fazed by doubting historians, geologists or archaeologists.
Krueger, 65, has worked for pyramid chasers who paid for his time and expertise. As a certified diver and an authority in side-scan sonar technology, Krueger has helped police and sheriff’s departments in the Madison area solve mysteries and find drowning victims, sunken cars and swamped boats for nearly 30 years.
But he has yet to find a pyramid.
“I’ve met three types of people on Rock Lake,” Krueger said while monitoring his boat’s GPS-equipped depth-finder, underwater camera, and side-scanning sonar unit through two screens on the boat’s console and one screen beneath it. “Besides true believers, you have people who want to believe, and you have scientists.
“The ‘wanna believers’ are like me: I doubt all the stories, but I wish they were true. It would be cool if the pyramids exist.
“But scientists don’t think that way. If you can’t show them physical proof, don't waste their time.”
Rock Lake’s murky, algae-tinted waters were calm July 8, making it easy for Krueger to keep his boat hovering over rocks, sandbars, weed-beds, clay humps and dimpled marl depressions while he studied the depths with a submersible camera.
Soon after, Krueger maneuvered his boat toward three fishing boats in about 37 feet of water. “The true believers call that spot the Limnatis Pyramid, but those guys aren’t fishing a pyramid,” he said. “It’s just another rock bar, much like all the other rock piles I’ve marked on every other lake around here.”
The pyramid tales apparently began in 1936 when a writer named Victor Taylor shared a story from about 1900 in which brothers Lee and Claude Wilson were duck hunting Rock Lake. A drought supposedly dropped the lake 6 feet, and the lack of run-off made its waters unusually clear. One brother struck rock with his paddle, and they saw a rocky, pyramid-like structure below. Soon after, they found two more pyramids.
The tale took off, even though skeptics tried hard to quash it. An article in the Feb. 27, 1936, edition of the Lake Mills Leader read: “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 it’s attributed to a master gang of thieves. Any minute now we can expect to read it was made by summer visitors skipping rocks.”
Soon after a local diving pioneer named Max Nohl used his new gear to probe the lake while a partner studied it from an airplane. Nohl also dragged a weighted cable and looked beneath the waves with a scope. After two months of work he claimed a pyramid rose 29 feet from the lake bottom to 7 feet from the surface. He described it as an upside down ice cream cone, and said its stones were set in mortar.
Nohl said he would return in winter to photograph it when the water was clear. But he never returned. Interest in the pyramids has cycled up and down since, and various folks have filmed dull, inconclusive documentaries that repeat tired tales going nowhere.
Krueger said he’s been amazed how some clients react while watching his sonar screens. They believe so earnestly in the pyramids that they’re certain they see them on Krueger’s sonar screen, even when it’s just weedy clumps, rocky bottoms, or schools of white bass. Still others think they’re seeing long trenches and bottomless pits, not ordinary depressions in the lake-bottom’s marl.
“They’re nice people and I won’t make fun of them, but there’s nothing down there that I can’t explain,” Krueger said. “They also don’t realize that if your screen settings are adjusted wrong or you turn too fast, you can make a little bump look like a pyramid. But they won’t listen. They want so hard to believe they’re right.”
But what about the stones set in mortar that Nohl reported? “The only thing between the rocks down there is clay and silt,” Krueger said. “You see artists’ renderings, and you read that the pyramids were built from round, black rock all the same size. But everything down there is the same rock you find in every farmer’s fields around here.”
Krueger also wonders why so many people see a pyramid one day with their buddy, but can’t find it when they return the next with witnesses. And why do some report finding four pyramids one day, but then say it was three the next?
Those stories sound even sillier today, given GPS technology. Still, Krueger makes this offer:
“I’ve talked to people who say they’ve seen a pyramid, but no one ever has the GPS coordinates,” he said. “If someone gives me a pyramid’s coordinates, I’ll find it.”