With the purchase of state park lands by the Iowa Conservation Commission, it became necessary to prepare the areas for visitors. In 1924, the Iowa legislature passed a law allowing the State Conservation Commission to contract with the Iowa State Extension Service to provide landscape design work for the state park system.
Prior to this time, landscape architecture was part of the Horticulture Department at Iowa State. The first landscape architecture extension work in Iowa started in 1915 and was mostly limited to preparing plans for Iowa farmsteads and public spaces like parks and school grounds. When the Landscape Architecture program was assigned the state park work, program director P. H. Elwood quickly hired John R. Fitzsimmons to oversee this work.
Fitzsimmons and the other Landscape Architecture extension specialists developed plans that dictated how many of the parks look to this day. Often using the help of students, Iowa State's landscape architects helped design park architecture ranging from lodges to trail markers--including structures built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Under Fitzsimmons’ direction, personnel were responsible for laying out roads, footpaths, bridges, shelters, and many of the other structures present in the early parks.
Fitzsimmons was concerned with returning land that had been altered by livestock and human activities back to a more natural state by replanting native plants and trees. By the time the state parks program began, Iowa’s natural landscapes were in a state of high cultivation-many times including land which became a part of state parks. Early on in his work with state parks, in an effort to return the landscapes to a more natural look, Fitzsimmons co-developed a planting plan for the state parks.
Beginning in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps further developed the park with overnight cabins, picnic, hiking and camping facilities, and reconstructed the trout hatchery. A dam across the Maquoketa River, originally built to power a mill, was replaced by a concrete dam, creating a lake. The stone pavilion overlooking the lake is considered one of the best surviving examples of state park architecture from this time period. Backbone has the largest concentration of Civilian Conservation Corps work to be found in a single park.
The park’s bathing area, picnicking, hiking and camping area and Richmond Springs are listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the Backbone State Park Historic District.