Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County

The 1926 dedication of the Main Street bridge in Ottawa. Image courtesy of the Franklin County Historical Society

One of the most important pathways in Franklin County’s early history is a natural river crossing that no longer exists.

When the founders of the Ottawa Town Company were deciding where to establish their new town, they understood that access to a reliable source of water—for consumption, for agriculture, for transportation, for powering mills—was crucial to the long-term success of their town. The Marais des Cygnes River meandered through the center of Franklin County, dividing it almost entirely, from west to east. But access to the river wasn’t enough – for a town to truly be successful, citizens needed an easy way to cross it. As a result, the Ottawa Town Company’s site was located alongside a natural ford that native and emigrant tribes used, as well as early Franklin County settlers on their way to the now defunct county seat of Ohio City, a ford that would become known as the Hickory Street Crossing.

Unfortunately, the early town founders did not recognize the danger that they would bring to their fledgling town by settling inside one of the many crooks and bends of the Marais des Cygnes River. Ottawa’s history—and indeed, Franklin County’s history—became inextricably intertwined with the temperamental river and the many creeks that feed into it. Floods repeatedly destroyed homes and businesses while further dividing the county by shutting down roads and bridges and washing away railroad tracks. Ottawa’s development into an unusually elongated town, stretching north and south, reflects the town’s effort to move away from the river without abandoning it completely.

Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County takes a closer look at the irregular relationship citizens of Franklin County have with the Marais des Cygnes River. The exhibit documents old town sites developed around water crossings, including the original Ottawa Mission site, which was destroyed by a flood in 1844. It also examines the crossing at Hickory Street, a ford that was in use until it was destroyed by the completion of the levee system in the 1960s.

Crossings also explores the story of the river itself. The exhibit draws from the Franklin County Historical Society’s collection of nearly 1,200 photographs of floods, as well as the photographs, maps, and artifacts documenting the shifting of the river channel, the creation and marooning of the Island, and the sometimes controversial construction of flood control measures and the levee system that would both save and further divide northern and southern Ottawa. The exhibit takes a closer look at how Franklin County continues to control, protect, and respect the Marais des Cygnes River as both a source of safe drinking water and a site for recreation, and visitors are encouraged to consider how the construction and destruction of river crossings influences the development, success, or demise of communities.

Learn more about Kansas’s water history at Water/Ways, a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display in Eudora from June 19 to August 6, 2017.

To view Crossings: Getting Over, Around, and Through Water in Franklin County and other parts of Franklin County’s water story, be sure to visit Water/Ways exhibition at the Old Depot Museum in Ottawa from June 4 to August 20, 2017.



Dam, that Took a Long Time

The Wyandotte County Lake Dam under construction (Photo courtesy Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library & Environmental Learning Center)

The Wyandotte County Lake Dam under construction, c. 1938. (Photo courtesy of Schlagle Library)

Each year, thousands of anglers, hikers, and boaters enjoy Wyandotte County Lake, a manmade lake that has been a getaway destination in northeast Kansas for nearly 75 years. Today, life on the lake is carefree, but building it was a different story. The process was so long and difficult that, at times, it looked like it would not happen at all.

Wyandotte County Lake Park was dreamed up in the early 1930s, when Wyandotte County, like much of the country, faced the dueling problems of economic depression and drought-induced scarcity of water. After finagling, political maneuvering, and some help by banker Willard Breidenthal, the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution on September 24, 1935, to buy 1,400 acres of land near Marshall Creek to build a county lake and park, simultaneously solving the problems of lack of jobs and lack of water; the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) provided labor.

But building this landscape wasn’t all a dream. In July 1936, the first of a number of strikes took place, as the WPA laborers picketed for a raise. They also demanded that only Wyandotte County residents be hired, at least until the labor pool ran dry. Although such issues were eventually resolved, it did not end the strikes. Nothing, however, could prepare workers for the disaster ahead.

On September 19, 1937, when the dam was 90 percent complete, and with water about 30 feet in the adjacent lake, several motorists sightseeing on a nearby road noticed a crack in the pavement. Wisely, they fled. The dam collapsed in a massive landslide. 300,000 pounds* of earth fell 50 feet, causing the land to the north to shift and close a 16-foot drainage ditch. The collapse also made the highway over the spillway impassible.

WPA and Wyandotte County officials put the project on hold while they tried to figure out what to do. The construction of the new dam started nine months later at the end of July 1938, just south of the dirt pile where the first dam once stood; it was completed in 1942.

Today, the Wyandotte County Lake enriches the lives of Kansas City residents. Jennifer Kilburg, education specialist at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Learning Center in Wyandotte County Lake Park, asserts:

“In a county that is very urban, Wyandotte County Lake is a place to get away…the lake is continuously busy with fishermen and boating. We have over 11 miles of hiking and many people comment that it has the best trails in the area! Birders from all over eastern Kansas come out to the lake to see the migrating waterfowl. None of these activities would be possible if this lake were not here.”

Learn more about the history of Wyandotte County Lake at the Dam, That Took a Long Time exhibition, on display at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Learning Center from June 24 to August 6, 2017.

Learn more about Kansas’s water history at the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition Water/Ways, on display in Eudora during these same dates.

*Primary documents estimate that 300,000 pounds of dirt fell in the collapse, but according to Retired Civil Engineer Steve Schmidt, given the size of the dam and impact of the collapse, the amount of dirt that fell was probably closer to 300,000 tons. 




Taking Pictures, Speaking Out

Photo of the Delaware River taken by one of the Photovoice project participants. Image courtesy of Felicia Mitchell.

University of Kansas social work doctoral student Felicia Mitchell handed out disposable film cameras to members of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, all of whom “lived or worked” on the Tribe’s reservation in northeast Kansas. Mitchell asked the Tribal members to take pictures illustrating the relationship between health and water in their community.

The distribution of the cameras and the associated research formed the backbone of Mitchell’s dissertation. Recently completed, it’s a study using a qualitative research method called Photovoice. Invented in the 1990s by Caroline C. Wang at the University of Michigan and Mary Ann Burris at the Ford Foundation, Photovoice aims to enable participants “to represent their communities or express their points of view by photographing scenes that highlight research themes.”

In inviting the Kickapoo to photograph the connection between water and health in their community, Mitchell empowered them to voice their own concerns and interests. A small tribe, with around 1,600 members and about 600 reservation residents, the Kickapoo are uniquely affected by water issues, and Mitchell wanted to let the Tribal members explain exactly how.

The Kickapoo rely on the Delaware River for nearly all their water use. This reliance leaves them uniquely positioned for certain water challenges. First, surface water is subject to drought and climate change, often leading to low flow. In fact, in 2003, the Delaware ran completely dry and the Kickapoo had to ration their water, spending thousands to truck in over 7 million gallons of water. Another drought in 2012 affected everything from livestock to swimming pools, fire departments to car washes.

Further, non-source contamination from pollution and runoff upstream affects the quality of the water. Often the tap water on the Kickapoo reservation tastes bad, and those who can afford it use bottled water, itself posing a host of environmental issues. Additionally, tainted river water can lead to health concerns like eczema and even cancer.

Yet, when Mitchell handed out the cameras, she left her Photovoice question broadly phrased, not explicitly mentioning any of the Kickapoo’s previous water issues. In this way, Mitchell ensured that the results wouldn’t be tainted by her own interest, theories, or previous research. Mitchell says she “left it open-ended on purpose. I was careful about not leading them to any visuals.” So it’s all the more striking that nearly every camera came back with a picture of the Delaware River.

Water is central to many if not all indigenous populations — a common saying across indigenous peoples is “water is life.” The Kickapoo Tribe has only been in Kansas — and by extension, along the Delaware River — since the 1800s, when they were relocated to their current reservation in Brown County. Therefore, going in to her Photovoice study, Mitchell wasn’t sure how central the Delaware would be. Turns out, it was. The river, according the Mitchell, is “connected to a lot of aspects of the livelihood of the community,” even if the Delaware wasn’t the Kickapoo’s by choice.

The Kickapoo people Mitchell spoke with raised many concerns. Some discussed how much more uncommon swimming was these days. Others worried over contamination in the springs used for ceremonies and rituals. Many raised the specter of being unsure whether the river caused cancer.

Yet Mitchell’s goal is more than learning about the issues facing the Kickapoo; she also aims to raise awareness to a broader public. She say “the purpose of the study was to engage the community in participatory research by collecting these photos and stories about health and water that can then be shared with a wider audience.”

With the wider audience in mind, Mitchell secured a Kansas Humanities Council grant to design and mount an exhibition of photographs the Kickapoo participants took. She enlarged the photographs and quotes from her research and displayed the exhibition in the senior center at the Kickapoo Reservation. After the exhibit, Mitchell solicited feedback from the participants and Tribal members to make sure she got the story right. Soon, she hopes to mount a public exhibition to make the Kickapoo water story more widely known.

Learn more water stories of Kansas at the Water/Ways Smithsonian exhibition that is touring Kansas through June 2018..




A Deluge of Things to Do

Photo provided by Eudora Area Historical Society

Photo provided by Eudora Area Historical Society

In mid-July 1951, Hazel Harris went to visit her husband Jerry in the hospital in nearby Lawrence, just west of their home in Eudora. Any other day the drive would have been a piece of cake, but on this particular day, she cruised the nine miles down Kansas Highway 10 in a boat – that day, several feet of water covered the road.

Elsewhere in Eudora, Bob and Lois Neis needed to get their 200 chickens to safety. As the waters rose, brothers Clarence, Floyd, and Oscar Broers came to help the family pack. With no time to properly bag the chickens, they simply placed them in the back of a truck. As the brothers pulled away, one chicken fell out, but luckily Clarence managed to save it. From that moment on, the chickens sat perfectly still on the truck’s stock racks, even after the poultry-rescue wagon reached dry land; with the help of the Broers every chicken survived.

The Monday July 16, 1951, editorial in the Lawrence Journal-World, published at the end of a chaotic weekend full of mud and water, proclaimed:

“Amid all the uncertainties, one thing is certain: people are impatient to get at the task…from the moment the river began to fall, those persons hardest hit by the overflow began making plans to return to their flood-battered properties…others, fortunate enough to have suffered no direct flood loss, are considering means by which they may continue the exercise of neighborly helpfulness, so notably in evidence in the dangerous crisis of the flood.”

Ben Terwilliger, executive director of the Eudora Area Historical Society, says the flood “submerged the entire northern portion of the Eudora Township, as well as significant parts of the city limits in Eudora.”

Visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and At the Mercy of the Kaw: Eudora’s Relationship with Water exhibition, both on view at the Eudora Community Museum from June 24-August 6.

Special thanks to the writing of Patty Neis Johnson for sharing her story.

Topeka Gives 2017

The Kansas Humanities Council is participating in Topeka Gives, the one-day event celebrating community charitable giving is June 6th! The event is sponsored by the Topeka Community Foundation and encourages Topekans to support the good work happening at nonprofits across the city.

Large-Print Books Needed

Every year, the Kansas Humanities Council makes sure residents at Aldersgate Village and Brewster Place have good books to read and good discussions that follow. Residents enjoy the books and the talks, but some struggle with reading the small print. Our goal is to raise $1,000 in June to buy new, large-print books and make them easily available to our readers.

Will you support our goal during Topeka Gives on June 6th?
The Topeka Community Foundation will match your donation.

“It was like a history lesson and a book discussion all in one, and it was special.”
Coordinator at Aldersgate Village after reading Snow Falling on Cedars

Research shows that access to learning opportunities, like reading books and talking about them with others, is critical to healthy aging. Medical research suggests:

  • adults with active minds are less likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other ailments.
  • frequent cognitive activity is associated with less rapid decline in cognitive function.

Aging Well, “Learning for a Lifetime” (July / August 2009)

Participate in Topeka Gives

Please stop by Fairlawn Plaza Mall at 21st and Fairlawn on June 6th between 7 am and 6 pm to make your donation. Click here for a donation form or you can pick one up at the event.

Thank you!