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. 

 

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