For one night a year from 1911 until 1930, the shores of Lake Mendota sparkled with the old-world charm of the canals of Venice — at least in the eyes of onlookers.
The shoreline between Park and Frances Streets played host to the Venetian Night Illuminated Water Parade and Festival, where a procession of lighted and decorated canoes and literal floats attempted to transport students half a world away from the isthmus.
The first event, hosted by the UW’s canoe club, was not short on entertainment. Venetian Night included a canoe parade, a pyrotechnics display, a float decoration contest, and individual craft decorations. The UW Regimental Band, the Glee Club, and the Mandolin Club performed. Despite a rain shower early in the evening of the 1911 event, a reported 10,000 spectators watched the festivities.
The event soon turned into a campus staple, becoming part of the UW’s Spring Carnival in 1912. The water show became a contest for judging the best piers, floats, canoes, and music. It took candles, lanterns, strings, and wire — and a lot of creativity — to construct the winning entries, with themes including a battleship, a lighthouse, a Japanese pagoda, King Tut’s tomb, and Mount Vesuvius.
Venetian Night later included a flame exhibition, aerial maneuvers by the Royal Airways Company, and night surfboard riding. And in the 1920s, the event retained its popularity after it was incorporated into Mothers’ Week End.
The tradition faced a few considerable roadblocks. In 1912, two people suffered minor injuries after pyrotechnics caught fire and rocketed toward campus buildings and boats. And in 1925, students destroyed — and failed to pay for — four canoes they had rented from Camp Indianola, a former boys’ camp on the northwestern shore of Lake Mendota.
After suffering intermittent cancellations during its two-decade existence, the event ended in 1931 due to unpredictable weather, a surplus of spring events, and a lack of funds. Twilight had fallen on the UW’s little piece of Venice.
Published in the Summer 2017 issue