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.

 

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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..

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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.

Inside the Dam

The Milford Dam logbook, charting every change in flow levels since 1968

The Milford Dam logbook, charting every change in flow levels since 1968

Ken Wenger, Park Manager at Milford Lake in northeast Kansas, loves that every day his job can look different. One day he can hop in the pickup and patrol the park, another day he can be on a boat inspecting the lake and 32 acres of the dam facing the lake. Today, his job is to lower the dam’s outflow, from 8,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 200cfs.

The Milford Lake Dam operates a sophisticated flood control system with gates that allow water to discharge into the valley below through a conduit under the dam. Levels vary based on the depth of the lake, the amount of water flowing into it, and the wildlife and water supply needs downstream.

Today, though, Ken needs to stage down the outflow a little bit every hour in order to dry out the conduit. To go from 8,000cfs to 200cfs at once would not be good for the downstream river channel or the fisheries program.

Once the conduit is dry, for the first time in ten years, government inspectors will need to walk through it to assess the systems and status of the Milford Dam. Ken is excited to see this rare view of the dam where he has worked for so many years, and his enthusiasm bubbles through his normally measured demeanor.

He heads out of the office and across Highway 57 towards the dam itself. He opens one barbed wire gate, unhitches a cable and opens yet another barbed wire gate. Security is important, as any tampering with the dam could lead to catastrophic flooding for the cities downstream, including Junction City. It has only gotten tighter since 9/11, and he will not allow any photos to be taken inside the dam. He used to give tours to elementary school students, but soon that too ended.

He opens a heavy, groaning steel door into a tall, cavernous concrete shaft that looks like something from another world. He descends down a narrow staircase spiraling around the outside of the shaft until he reaches the control room, where twin sets of levers sit in the middle of a concrete floor. It’s technology from the 1960s, original to the dam – a paper tape with a series of numbers indicates the flow level, and Ken pulls a lever while he watches the tape crawl by. When it hits the desired level, he releases the lever – one small motion controls the massive gates that hold back unimaginable amounts of water.

After returning to the office building, Ken displays the log book where he records such adjustments. It is the only logbook Milford has ever had, filled with scrawling handwritten data on every single adjustment made to the dam since it opened. It’s decidedly analog and old-school in a charming way, just like pulling a lever and watching numbered paper tape scroll by. But old school or not, it works – and you could say the same thing about Milford Dam.

To learn more about Kansas’s water story, visit the Smithsonian’s Water/Ways touring exhibit, on display at the Geary County Historical Society & Museums from January 6 to February 18, 2018.

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Grant Avenue by Boat: 25 Years Since the 1993 Junction City Flood

Milford Reservoir rushes through a channel cut in Highway 57 along the top of Milford Dam during the 1993 flood (Photo courtesy Geary County Historical Society)

Milford Reservoir rushes through a channel cut in Highway 57 along the top of Milford Dam during the 1993 flood (Photo courtesy Geary County Historical Society)

In mid-July 1993, 32” of precipitation fell in Geary County in northeast Kansas, home to the Milford Dam and nearby Junction City. On July 19, with the lake at crisis level, Milford Dam Project Manager Brad Myers maximized the water going through the dam into the valley below, which kept the lake from cresting the dam but unfortunately caused flooding.

Despite efforts at the dam to manage outflow without washing away any of the dam’s infrastructure, waters along Junction City’s Grant Avenue continued to rise. The nearby Smoky Hill River also caused concern. Hundreds of Junction City residents flocked to parking lots to help fill sandbags despite the summer heat.

The situation at the dam continued to worsen. On July 24, in order to prevent the dam from collapsing, construction crews cut a channel into Highway 57 along the top of the dam.

Large portions of Grant Avenue, including businesses and mobile home parks, were evacuated that day – 3,500 people had to leave their homes. Hundreds camped in the high school gymnasium on cots provided by the Red Cross and the army. The next day, Governor Joan Finney declared the dam site and surrounding region an emergency area. By 8:30 that evening, three feet of water covered Grant Avenue. The depth of Milford Lake, normally 65 feet, rose to 101.18 feet. To try to save the dam, Myers and the Army Engineer Corps developed a contingency plan that involved using massive stone reinforcements for the channel over Highway 57. Junction City residents stood in their yards and saw Army Chinook helicopters hauling house-sized boulders towards Milford.

On July 26, the output-level of the dam finally fell, a good sign. Soon after, residents were hard at work cleaning up.

Heather Hagedorn, curator of the Geary County Historical Society, commented that, “one of the greatest impacts the flood had on Geary County was the sense of community that arose out of the disaster.  Neighbors worked together, children worked alongside adults, all to help stem the tide of the flood through sandbagging efforts. While these efforts were not always successful, they created a network of support within the community that is still remembered.”

Learn more about Junction City and Geary County’s water stories at the Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition at the Geary County Historical Society & Museums facility from January 6 to February 18, 2018.

To learn more about local water history, check out the partner exhibition in Marion from February 24 to March 24, 2018.

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