Stanton County: Can You Dig It?

A mural at the Stanton County Museum depicts life in the Western Interior Sea (mural by Chuck Bonner, Keystone Gallery, Scott City, Kansas)

To understand Stanton County’s water story and history, you need to start digging. Clues to this southwest Kansas county’s long and varied water story are found underground. Here you’ll find fossils of fish and whales, not dinosaurs.

These sea animals lived during the Cretaceous Era, between 66 and 145 million years ago, in a body of water as the Western Interior Sea. This sea stretched from today’s Gulf of Mexico all the way through northwest Canada to the Arctic Circle.

An amazing variety of creatures lived in the Western Interior Sea, including the Mosasaur. Katie Herrick, director at the Stanton County Museum, refers to it as “the T-Rex of the sea.” An adult Mosasaur grew up to 17 meters in length and looked like an aerodynamic, elongated whale with a pointed, alligator-like mouth. Mosasaurs and other marine life left their fossilized remains, and archaeological digs regularly find ancient traces of a time when an ocean covered this part of Kansas.

Around 9,000 years ago, after the ocean receded, the first humans appeared in what is now Stanton County. During the same era, a chain of intermittent playa lakes – temporary lakes formed by rainwater filling natural hollows in the landscape –provided a place for bison to gather and drink and offered a tempting spot for Paleo-Indians to hunt.

In 2002, Jack Hofman, archaeologist at the University of Kansas, discovered dozens of bison bones, including fully articulated skeletons, on a dig at the Bear Creek playa bed. The team also found two small stones—a tiny edge of a lithic arrowead, and an entire arrowhead point. This helped provide evidence that Paleo-Indians met at Bear Creek playa and used it as a bison kill site.

Keep digging in Stanton County today—you might need to go down pretty deep—and you’ll hit the Ogallala aquifer, proof that Stanton County’s water story is ongoing.

To learn more about Kansas’s water story visit Water Rights: Exploring Our Relationship with Water on display at the Stanton County Museum in Johnson City through November 12, 2017.

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Look Down to Think Forward

Rainwater retention tanks at Kiowa County High School in Greensburg

Rainwater retention tanks at Kiowa County High School in Greensburg

In the 1880s, towns across Kansas sprang up with two hopes: to become a county seat and to attract a railroad. To do either, a town needed people and businesses, and water. Greensburg, in south central Kansas, was no exception. Teams of farmers, cowboys, and transients dug a huge hole in the middle of Greensburg in search of the groundwater below. It took two years to find the water and shore up the resulting well, which measured 109 feet deep and 32 feet wide.

The well still stands in near-perfect condition, a triumph of frontier engineering. The Big Well served as Greensburg’s chief water source from 1888 when it was completed until 1932. After sitting vacant for a few years, the Big Well reopened in 1937 as a tourist attraction, which it remains today. Visitors can descend a long, spiral staircase and inhale the damp, cool air of the well, which smells like equal parts ocean and fill dirt.

On May 4, 2007, an EF5 tornado, one of the strongest ever recorded, freight-trained its way through town and leveled 95 percent of Greensburg, including the small gift shop and visitor center above the Big Well. Safely below ground, the well remained intact, though the tornado had knocked its concrete cover askew.

Less than a year after the tornado, the Greensburg City Council passed a resolution calling for all new municipal buildings to acquire LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification, the first such resolution in the country.

The decision to go green impacted Greensburg’s water use: downtown’s small business incubator is equipped to use gray water in its toilets; the hospital boasts a retention pond that serves to collect rainwater for irrigating the grounds; and the high school has four massive collection tanks designed to channel rainwater off the roof and into the irrigation system.

The design of all these water systems minimizes Greensburg’s impact on the Ogallala Aquifer, a massive stretch of groundwater that serves much of western Kansas. The Ogallala is depleting faster than it’s replenishing, and suffers from other concerns such as toxicity and chlorine salinity. Some are intimately aware of the depletion of the aquifer, as Greensburg Tourism Director Stacy Barnes notes, “water is something you’re always aware of.”

The Big Well offers visitors a valuable experience – here, they can actually see the Ogallala aquifer. The bottom of the well still contains water and provides a rare chance for people to glimpse the underground water supply that feeds so much of the High Plains. It’s right there, a strikingly clear turquoise in the cool, hushed well—and it’s fallen four feet since the new, post-tornado Big Well Museum opened in 2012.

Looking up from the bottom of the Big Well (Photo courtesy The Big Well Museum)

Looking up from the bottom of the Big Well (Photo courtesy The Big Well Museum)

To learn more about Kansas’s water history, visit the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition Water/Ways on display in Dodge City from September 30 through November 15, 2017.

To learn more about Greensburg’s water story, both past and future, visit their Greensburg: Looking Down to Think Forward exhibition, on view at the Big Well Museum during the same dates.

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Empty Promises, Empty Riverbeds

The Soule Canal, Dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal, dry, near Dodge City (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

Once Dodge City showed promise of becoming a bustling town, enterprising minds decided irrigated farmland would be just the thing to lure even more people to the area. In the 1880s, brothers George and John Gilbert dreamed up the Eureka Canal, which diverted the Arkansas River through potential farmland. The large scale irrigation project drew financing from none other than Dr. Asa T. Soule, the “worldwide Hops Bitters King,” a flamboyant businessman who made his fortune peddling a medicinal combination of alcohol, bitters, and hops.

Townspeople greeted the canal project with bombast and fanfare. One 1884 article in the Ford County Globe promised such a large vegetable crop from the irrigated land that a canning factory would be needed. The article claimed, “Upon completion of the irrigation canal you may talk about homes in Southern California, and on the banks of Lake Como, in Italy, but in preference to either give us a home in Southwestern Kansas, with plenty of water for irrigation purposes and a bottle of Hop Bitters as a family regulator.”

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Soule Canal with water in it—a rare sight (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The canal was finished in 1888, but a mere four years after its construction the project became known as “Soule’s Folly.” The Arkansas River, the canal’s source, flowed irregularly, and nowhere near the predicted levels of water came through the canal. Add to that unusually porous soil, and the canal was dry more often than wet; the promised Eden of Southwest Kansas growing never came to fruition.

The westward movement of settlers into Colorado and their use of the Arkansas River proved to be another reason the canal never filled. These Colorado farmers built their own canals upstream, diverting enough water to decrease the flow of the Arkansas into Kansas. A conflict erupted between the two states resulting in a decades-long legal fracas that saw United States Supreme Court decisions in 1902, 1907, 1943, 1985, 1995, 2001, and 2009. Even today, people in Dodge City claim that Colorado uses too much water from the Arkansas. It’s easy to understand why. Most days, the Arkansas River through Dodge runs as dry as the remnants of the Soule Canal.

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

The Arkansas River in wetter days (Photo courtesy Boot Hill Museum)

As Boot Hill Museum curator Lyne Johnson says, “Dodge City always has to renivent itself.” Despite rapidly-changing times, environments, and riverbeds Dodge City has done just that.

To learn more about Dodge City’s water story, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and the Napeste: Water in Dodge City exhibition, both on display at the Boot Hill Museum from September 30 until November 12, 2017.

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Water + Ink

Amanda Maciuba, "Concerning the Past, Disregard the Future (The Ogallala Aquifer)" (Intaglio, Monotype & Silkscreen, 20” x 26” each, 2015)

Amanda Maciuba. Concerning the Past, Disregard the Future (The Ogallala Aquifer) (Intaglio, Monotype & Silkscreen, 2015)

Printmaker Amanda Maciuba is an artist shaped by water. Hailing from Buffalo, New York, for most of her life looking at water meant looking west to the behemoth Lake Erie. She says it still feels odd to go to a city like Chicago, where “the water is on the wrong side.”

After living a childhood anchored by the Great Lakes, she moved to the Great Plains, land of underground aquifers and rivers “that you can’t even swim in,” as Maciuba puts it. This influenced her art, which she says investigates issues like time, place, and a location’s environmental history.

Amanda now lives in Massachusetts, but she recently completed a stint as an artist in residence at the Lawrence Arts Center in northeast Kansas. She earned her MFA in printmaking at the University of Iowa. Four years before she arrived in Iowa City the town flooded so severely that recovery continued by the time she got there. The lingering effects of the disaster shed new light on Amanda’s perceptions of how environment and place interact.

The flood inspired motifs in Amanda’s art that she still employs, namely Noah’s Ark, which she sees as “a reminder of the futility of building despite climate change”: no matter what man builds, it will always be surpassed by the environmental forces which are beyond his control.

After moving to Kansas, Amanda became interested in aquifers and irrigation, especially the circular patterns caused by center pivot irrigation systems. The geometry of the circles, as well as their environmental implications on aquifer drainage and water conservation, inspired Maciuba to include them in her art. Both circular plots and Noah’s Ark frequently appear in her works, which she makes using a variety of printmaking techniques such as letterpress, intaglio, silkscreen, and lithography.

Recently, Maciuba ventured out to the Baker Wetlands south of Lawrence. For years local debate erupted when it was revealed that the wetlands would fall in the projected path of the South Lawrence Trafficway. A compromise was struck – in order to complete the project and avoid destroying the wetlands, construction crews would add 380 acres of Wetlands adjacent to the existing site to make up for any territory lost to the highway.

When Maciuba visited the new, man-made wetlands site, she found it a “nude and strange landscape.” Such places raise questions about the human ability to control – much less replace – nature and water.

These questions also remind her of the Iowa City flood, which occurred due to necessary discharges from a man-made dam. While others might not be drawn to “nude and strange” landscapes, these themes compelled Maciuba to use her artwork to explore the question of how humans interact with nature.

To learn more about how water shapes human existence and vice versa, visit the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and its partner exhibitions.

To learn more about Amanda Maciuba’s art, visit her website or see her work as part of Memory of Water: an Interdisciplinary Arts-Based Research Project on exhibit at Albrecht -Kemper Museum of Art on display from December 1, 2017 – March 18, 2018.

 

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“Water Clear and Pure, & Excellent for Drinking:” Exploring the Solomon

 

Robert McBratney, Newspaper Man, Railroad Man, Explorer Man (Image courtesy of KansasMemory, Kansas Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.)

Robert McBratney, born in Columbus, Ohio in 1818, held quite a few jobs during his career: lawyer, printer’s apprentice, delegate to the 1861 presidential election, newspaperman, and, by 1861, registrar of the Land Office in Junction City in northeast Kansas, but it was abolitionism that first drew McBratney to Kansas.

The western territories had a case of railroad fever, and companies sprang up to lay routes into the territories. One such company was the Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad, which formed in September 1869. The new company’s board of directors needed to hire a president who could not only lead the business, but who could also lead an expedition along the Solomon River to sell the region to settlers and railroaders. They wanted someone smart and ambitious who could observe and report with clarity. Robert McBratney and his journalism background fit the bill.

The journey began October 14, 1869 and was not an easy one due in part to its size. In addition to a senator, a geology professor, and a state agent for the sale of railway lands, McBratney brought along one cook, one ambulance driver, one servant, and almost a hundred state troops to serve as protection. McBratney kept a detailed diary of his trip, available to read in full here.

Issues plagued the journey almost from the start. McBratney complained about the wind in an October 18 entry, near what is now Glasco. He wrote, the party “concluded to go into camp, one of our mules being very lame & the day being very raw and windy [and…] very disagreeable.” Later, on October 22, the party awoke to “a strong northern blowing filled with snow, that fairly stings the face.” The snow abated long enough for them to hit the trail, but resumed later “with almost blinding fury.”

Despite these difficulties, McBratney fell in love with the Solomon Valley. He wrote, “this is as fine a contre [sic] as any in the state.” The wildlife of the region filled him with wonder, and he reverently observed, on October 28, that “the hills were nearly covered with buffalo. We have seen more of them today than altogether. Saw also deer, elk, and antelope. Also gray wolves, thousands of prairie dogs, coyotes, and sage hens.”

He declared “the water of the Solomon and its tributary is clear, pure, and hard.” McBratney’s final verdict? “One snort of the iron horse in this valley would do more to people the wilderness we have traversed, than an army with banners.” The Solomon River, according to this early exploratory expedition, was fully capable of housing both industry and communities on its banks and bends.

The Junction City, Solomon Valley & Denver Railroad never came to be, but the Union Pacific did build a branch line through the valley after McBratney’s letters to eastern periodicals enticed settlers. Present day towns like Minneapolis, Delphos, Glasco, Simpson, and Beloit pepper the banks that so enamored McBratney.

Find out more about McBratney’s expedition and the Solomon Valley’s water story at Valley Highway 24 Heritage Alliance’s exhibit Living Off the Water: the Challenge to Tame and Sustain Life in the Solomon Valley, a Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution partner program on display at Bull City Cafe in Alton from August 12 to September 2, 2017; at Mitchell County Historical Society in Beloit beginning September 11, 2017; Stockton Public Library, October 7 to October 28, 2017; and Glasco Community Foundation’s Corner Store, November 4 to November 25, 2017.

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A Laboratory on the High Plains: Joe Kuska of Colby

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Joe Kuska digs a soil sample at the Colby Branch Station (photo courtesy the Thomas County Historical Society)

Raised on a farm in the Great Plains, Joseph B. Kuska graduated from the College of Agriculture at the University of Nebraska. He joined the staff at the Colby Branch Station in 1914. The Colby Branch Station, an agricultural experiment center, was opened by an act of the Kansas Legislature in 1913. Northwest Kansas farmers, concerned with erratic rainfall, drying winds, temperature extremes, and periodic drought decided a branch station might help find solutions to the difficult growing climate. Soon the United States Department of Agriculture partnered with the branch station to research how to farm in dry conditions.

Joseph B. Kuska’s leadership of the Colby Branch Station left a lasting impact where “except for a few years,” he served as its chief until 1951. According to a 1964 50th anniversary history of the Branch Station, Kuska’s “firsthand knowledge of farming practices in the Great Plains, his good judgment, energy, and enthusiasm were in large measure responsible for the success of the work.”

A significant part of Kuska’s job dealt with water and how it impacted farming in the arid High Plains. Under Kuska’s guidance, the Branch Station studied “moisture storage under different methods of fallow; moisture storage with a basin lister; conservation of winter moisture; available moisture in soil at seeding time and its effect on yield and penetration of rain.” Ultimately, they found that “the dry land farmer, to be successful, should follow a flexible system. This applies to his cropping systems, tillage methods, and cultural practices.” Adaptability and flexibility were the ingredients for successful farming on the High Plains.

Yet the 20th century brought change to Kansas agriculture. In the 1970s the center pivot irrigation system replaced the ditch irrigation system of the 50s and 60s, ringing in a new era of irrigation. The use of center pivot irrigation to grow crops like corn in Western Kansas opened a new line of research of farming the Great Plains.

The Branch Station, now called the Northwest Research-Extension Center (NWREC) and operated by Kansas State University, continues the research that Kuska started. These days, NWREC seeks more conservation-friendly alternatives to center pivot irrigation methods. For example, in 1989 Kansas State University started an initiative to test and advocate Subsurface Drip Irrigation, which irrigates crops using buried conduits and pipes slowly emitting water right into the soil. According to their website, NWREC “is committed to developing and promoting new irrigation technologies that will be environmentally and economically efficient while conserving and protecting limited water resources.” Many believe that with the decline in aquifer levels and the high financial cost of irrigating, dry land acreage is a good fallback. Thus, a century after Joe Kuska signed on, the Branch Station in Colby continues to lead the way in water and farm research.

To learn more about Colby’s water story, be sure to visit the Water/Ways  Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and Scarcity and Abundance: Water in Northwest Kansas, both on view at the Prairie Museum of Art and History from August 12 to September 24, 2017.

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Saving Water, Providing Jobs: A KERCulean Effort

KERC Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 KERC workers clear timber at the site of Lake Wabaunsee, 1934 (photo courtesy Greg Hoots)

In 1934, Kansas faced two major problems: a lack of jobs and a lack of water. The Water Conservation Program, spearheaded by the Kansas Emergency Relief Committee (KERC), aimed to take care of both at once.

A 1934 flyer for the KERC’s Water Conservation Program declared that, “The Water Conservation Program, as part of the Drought Relief Service, is designed to aid in relieving destitution actually resulting from drought conditions.” The program strove to fulfill its mission by constructing municipal lakes and farm ponds, and repairing levee and flood systems. It employed jobless laborers in order to solve the state’s drought-related problems.

All told, the program built or began construction on 27 lakes across the state, including those located in Bourbon, Atchison, Hodgeman, Linn, Harper, Graham, Wabaunsee, Decatur, Woodson, and Brown Counties. Bourbon County Lake, one of the largest, located near Fort Scott, took an average of 365 men per week for 53 weeks to construct the lake using a dam. The men worked more than 19,000 days in a region starved for work.

Lakes served as reservoirs for municipal water supplies and enabled water-based recreation like boating, fishing, and swimming.

The same, dual-purpose, environmental and recreational thinking went into KERC’s farm pond program, which built 2,992 ponds in 1934 and 1935. In exchange for the labor to build the pond, farm owners signed easements granting county access to the water in case of emergency.

Also important were KERC’s flood relief programs. Somewhat prophetically, KERC set up emergency work relief programs in Kansas during December of 1934. In the spring of 1935, terrible floods ravaged the state. Under KERC’s program, counties telegrammed the nature of their emergency and how much help they needed to the state, who instantly approved work-relief labor to help.

Many counties employed work-relief for preventative measures such as rebuilding levees in advance of the floodwater. These efforts saved property and likely lives. Work-relief labor was also used to bury drowned livestock, repair dams, clean up post-flood messes, and repair roads. One work-relief crew in Cheyenne County rescued a family atop a house floating down the river from Colorado. On its roof, trapped for days, were a rattlesnake, a coyote, and five humans, each too absorbed with their own predicaments to bother one another.

All told, during the 1935 flood, 61 relief projects were authorized in 51 counties, all thanks to KERC’s efforts to both care for Kansas’s waters and its workers. KERC was disbanded in 1937 by order of Governor Walter A. Huxman, in part because many New Deal programs like the Works Progress Administration took over providing jobs for the struggling and transient workers of Kansas. Still, many of KERC’s aquatic projects continue to shape Kansas waters today.
Learn more about Kansas’s water history at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition on display in Eudora at the Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017 and its partner exhibition in at the Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library and Environmental Center in Kansas City, KS.

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Lawrence’s Reluctance to Take the Plunge into Equality

A civil rights protest outside the Jayhawk Plunge, July 3 1960 (Photo courtesy Lawrence Journal World Collection, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries)

A civil rights protest outside the Jayhawk Plunge, July 3, 1960 (Photo courtesy Lawrence Journal World Collection, University Archives, Kenneth Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries)

In 1949, riots erupted in St. Louis when the city desegregated its public pools. As many as 5,000 white swimmers attacked black youths who tried to swim in the newly integrated pools. The unrest injured 20 people and took 400 police officers to break up.

A few years later, Kansas City’s public pool at Swope Park, its crown jewel, opened in 1941 as a whites-only facility and became the target of an NAACP lawsuit on behalf of three black children who wanted to swim there. Instead of integrating the pool, the city shut it down. In courtroom proceedings at the time, a city representative said pools in particular needed to be segregated because of “the natural aversion to physical intimacy inherent in the use of swimming pools by races that do not mingle socially.” Regardless, the city integrated the pool peacefully in 1954, after an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case fell in favor of its young, black petitioners and toppled segregation.

The road to aquatic equality was rocky in Missouri’s two biggest cities, but by 1954, both reluctantly accepted that all races could access the public swimming facilities. However, Lawrence in northeast Kansas took much longer in providing equal access to public pools.

As late as 1960 Lawrence’s residents refused to fund a municipal-owned swimming facility. Lawrencians voted down municipal pool ballot measures in 1949 and again in 1964. The closest equivalent to a public pool for black children was the Kansas River, where many drowned. White children, on the other hand, swam at the Jayhawk Plunge. Officially, “The Plunge”, owned by Bertha Nottberg, operated as a private club and was thus exempt from civil rights legislation as exemplified in Brown v. Board of Education; unofficially, Nottberg sold single-day tickets for 25 cents to children who were not members as long as they were white.

A Lawrence group called LLPD, Lawrence League for the Protection of Democracy, took issue with Nottberg’s discriminatory practices. The group, led by University of Kansas Professor of Economics Harry Shaffer, looked to pressure the city to pass an ordinance claiming pools were included in the public entities covered in recent Civil Rights legislation. The city dragged its feet due in no small part to the pool’s technically private standing.

A group of about 30 black residents loosely affiliated with LLPD, perhaps spurred into action by the unhurried response of the mostly white leadership, began picketing Jayhawk Plunge on July 4, 1960. Nottberg put slats in the pool’s chain-link fence so swimmers could not see the picketers.

Nottberg, fearful of the negative economic impact of being a political flashpoint, and of operating an integrated pool, offered to sell her pool to both the city and the LLPD. Neither entity was interested.

The biggest counter-argument to forcing Nottberg to integrate the pool was one of politics. The city, as well as the LLPD’s opponents, were deeply uncomfortable telling Nottberg how to run her private business, even though it was functioning as a public pool. According to historian Rusty Monhollon, opponents of an integrated Plunge were more concerned with private property than race:

“The effort to take the Plunge also testified to the potent forces impeding racial equality in Lawrence and the limits of liberalism in challenging those forces. White racism was one such force. But many Lawrencians defended segregation through their opposition to the activist, liberal state and a steadfast belief in the rights of individuals to use their property however they wanted.”

Indeed, soon after the picketers took up residence outside the pool, a counter-protest covered the ticket booth: an anonymous Nottberg ally plastered the pool with flyers that said “what happened to the personal rights of private industry to operate at a profit?” and “KU does have a pool, what’s wrong with it?” The flyers sent a clear message: the protesters were “outsiders,” affiliated with KU and not Lawrence, agitating a local business owner and trying to tell her what to do with her business and hard-earned money.

On July 11 of that same year, someone put 11 carp in the pool and 11 more on LLPD president Shaffer’s doorstep along with a threatening effigy, followed up with telephoned death threats.

On July 12 Nottberg closed the pool, citing financial losses. She leased it to Kansas City businessmen who ran it more like a private club, erasing any possibility of integrating that particular pool.

It would take several more years for Lawrence to pass a referendum and build an integrated municipal pool. For the black children of Lawrence, finally, the time would come to be able to take a dip on a hot summer day without needing to fend off the currents of the mighty Kansas River.

Learn more about Kansas’ Water Story at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, on display in at the Eudora Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017, and its partner exhibitions.

This article is based primarily on Rusty L. Monhollon’s article “Taking the Plunge: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Desegregation in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960,” written while he pursued a PhD at the University of Kansas. The article can be read in full here.

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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.

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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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