Parks and Recreation
Wyandotte County Lake History
Margie Witt, Director of Parks and Recreation
5033 State Ave.
Phone: 913 573-8327
Park and Recreation Hours: Monday –Friday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
Dam Under Construction | Interurban Line | WYCO Lake Dam | WYCO Lake Map
The Building Of the Lake
The Early YearsAdapted from a speech by Wyandotte County Parks Ranger Timothy H. Johnson
(June 1989 to August 1990)
For much of the public, their only contact with Park Rangers is at one of the parks in a law enforcement capacity. However, rangers have a number of functions, one of which is to help interpret our parks for the public. One of our goals has been to develop our own understanding of the physical, historical, and biological makeup of the Wyandotte County Parks.
These remarks tend to focus on the general events leading up to and during the building of the Wyandotte County Lake and Park. Mike Connor (Director Unified Government Parks and Recreation) will be able to provide some specifics, such as data and dollars.
As we look to the lake, we need to consider the geographic or geologic makeup of the land. The lake is situated alongside the beautiful Missouri River basin, within eyesight of the state of Missouri. In fact, the river appears to have carved the basin out as it flowed to the east. The land below the dam to the north is fertile river silt from deposits over a long period of time.
The first bit of information concerning the lake site’s early years was the comment by two interview sources that there had been a race track in what is now the lake bed. This track is suggested to have appeared in the 1890’s and may have remained in the area until just before the 1920’s. Based on information passed to the family of John Barber, who farmed in the lake region from the Hornuff area, the track was used by Fort Leavenworth command staff to race their thoroughbred horses. The stock possibly came directly from England to be used for fox hunting and jumping. The horses were reportedly ridden by black jockeys who worked in the military stables.
Although unable to verify this through city directories or newspapers of the day, research at the Ft. Leavenworth Military Museum and the Leavenworth Command General College archives indicates such an activity could have been in operation. Zoe A. Tilghman, in a 1926 article for the Kansas Historical Society, “Quarter Horses and Racing in the Southwest”, provides a description that also indicates a strong possibility for such a dirt track. Here is one quote, “no bookmakers, no gates for admission fees, no professional jockeys, no scale of weights. Each race was a match in itself.” Other publications in the Kansas Historical collection have photos of horse and harness racing at the Leavenworth County Fair during the 1890’s.
In the early 1930’s, Wyandotte County, as did the nation as a whole, found itself in the stranglehold of the depression. People without jobs, families without income, many individuals almost without hope.
A second problem in the Midwest was a lack of water caused by drought.
As was the case in national government, state and local governments were searching for ways to create jobs and to establish water conservation, through impoundments.
One major solution was the building of the Wyandotte County Lake and Park. Many different sources point to area banker Willard Breidenthal as a leader in the movement to build the lake. Although some sources, such as the book by Joseph McDowell, “Building a City” and the Wyandotte West Newspaper in 1979, state that Breidenthal bought 1400 acres and then sold them back at cost to the county, park records do not verify this.
Park records do verify that payment was made directly to a number of landowners, both private and corporate. Some land was forced to be taken by condemnation. Breidenthal did own some land and retained some property alongside the current boundaries, which have been passed down through inheritance to grandson George Breidenthal. Part of Willard Breidenthal’s interest may have resulted form his serving as agent on a foreclosure of property from one Mr. Knowlen in February (28th) of 1929 for a bank.
Unquestionably, Breidenthal was instrumental in getting the project started and getting it finished.
The first park records show that in September of 1934, county relief administrator Lester Wickliffe initiated a survey of lake sights to the county. The following year in 1935, the county determined that it needed to by appropriate tracts of land sufficient to from a bed for the lake and necessary approaches on all sides. The project was beginning.
In March 1935, engineering surveys were being made of three proposed sites authorized by the Kansas Legislature, with $120,000 to be spent on costs. Finally, on September 24, 1935 the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution declaring intention to purchase 1400 acres of land on and about Marshall Creek, south and to the east of Wolcott, for the purpose of a country lake and park.
The basis of the site selection was made for seven reasons:
Topography such as to provide a lake of desirable width, length and depth.
Adjacent hillsides are heavily covered with native timber.
The required right-of-way is in the hands of a few large owners available at reasonable values.
It is accessible to existing state and county highways.
The watershed is of sufficient size to provide the lake of a desirable depth.
Borings indicate underlying strata adaptable to construction under economical conditions.
A factor not cited, but which later contributed to the success of the project was abundant wildlife and fish from Marshall Creek. In interview after interview, individuals have mentioned the good fishing in Marshall Creek before the lake.
There were also plenty of snakes, especially copperheads and rattlesnakes. Area farmer Bud Barber tells the story of a Frank Rabuzi who hunted snake on the bluffs in the area where the park was built. One afternoon after a successful hunt, he jumped on the Interurban trolley at the Loma Vista station for a ride back into town. An elderly lady commented how he must have had good luck fishing, as she observed the still writhing gunny sack on the trolley car floor. When told of the contents, she quickly moved to the opposite end of the car.
In December 1935, about 500 men began work on a four day per week shift, for the wage of $45.00 Transportation was the Interurban with a special 25-cent roundtrip fare.
In January 1936, construction began with dredging of mud and debris from the Marshall Creek channel. Clearing went well and other preparatory work was started. Assistance was given in the planning stage form the national park service for shelters and park work.
One surprise in 1936 was the discovery of a human skeleton in a shallow grave. There was no record of any burials in the area and because of pearl buttons the remains were thought to be that of someone other than an Indian. No record is given for what happened to the skeleton or its identity.
One early problem was discovered to be the blue clay soil on which the dam was being built. It proved to have greater leakage or seepage than planned for. The US Army Engineers prescribed immense pilings to combat the problem.
In July 1936, the first of a number of strikes took place. At issue were wages of $1.25 for hoisting engineers, and $.75 to drivers, no one outside Wyandotte County to get a job until the labor pool exhausted, and employees must be hired by the Wyandotte County employment office.
In 1937, there was steady progress on the dam, roadways, and preliminary buildings. Work was basically hand labor. Lumber was milled on sight, shingles carved on site, and stone gravel quarried from the pending lakebed.
Then September 19, 1937, disaster. The dam collapsed. It was 90% finished. Several sightseers were driving across at the time when a crack appeared, but drove to safety.
The dam was estimated to weigh 2 million tons. The part, which fell, was estimated to weigh 300,000 pounds and it fell 50 feet. The drop caused the land to the north to shift completely, closing a 16 foot drainage ditch. The highway north of the spillway was made impassable when the dirt shifted. There was no quake, which caused the dam to fall; however the movement of the dirt caused a small earthquake of its own.
The old timers said, “I told you so.” There are indications that railroad engineers for the Missouri Pacific line which was just to the north had warned of problems with some underlying ground when putting in their track. Possible the old Missouri channel had robbed portions of the land of its solid moorings.
The project was in serious jeopardy.
It was several months before the work on the dam and park project was restarted. Basically, during the winter all work was halted as engineers, politicians, and WPA officials cussed and discussed matters.
Cost of rebuilding and completing the project was estimated at $2,611.839.77. I have no idea why the estimate includes $.77. Reconstruction of the dam alone was set at $1,873,900.00 dollars.
The WPA was very hesitant about approval and in March Frank Holcomb, Chairman of the County Commissioners was opposed to any large additional expenses. However, as negotiations cleared the way, some work was restarted in the summer of 1938 on shop buildings, etc.
Summer pay scales in 1938 were:
Skilled workers (69 hours per month) = $78.66
Semi-skilled workers (79 hours per month) = $62.40
Unskilled workers (107 hours per month) = $49.25
As fall approached, large numbers of workers picked up until approximately 1400 men were on site. Short strikes by certain trade unions slowed progress for about one week each in October and November.
One death was reported in 1938, near the area of the spillway. Former KCK City Councilman George Dunn reports his father-in-law was a crane operator in the site area when it happened. Apparently a bulldozer operator parked his unit outside a work shed and went in. A mechanic went to the back of the unit to check some mechanical items, but the operator came back out and without looking drove backwards over the victim. The crane operator’s oilman wanted to look at the victim and after doing so missed three days work from the trauma he suffered.
During the winter of 1938, large work crews were kept on the job to catch up. Approval for the rebuilding came from President Roosevelt for the necessary WPA money. New dam plans called for the construction to be just south of the original dam. Army Corp engineers worked 18 hours a day monitoring every step, which included spreading the dam out to absorb weight.
In February of 1939, work had progressed in the park so that fish hatcheries were started. Plans were made on keeping only desirable fish in the lake. Short strikes continued with various trade groups in March of 1939. In April the county passed a resolution for money to keep 2,000 men on the payroll.
A major problem for filling the dam was the dredging of sand from the Missouri River and moving it to the Marshall Creek project. Over 2 million cubic tons of sand was needed. In September of 1939 there was actually a shortage of workers.
1940 was a year when much of the project began to take on a look where people could recognize finished work. Seven and a half miles of road were opened, which further aided maintenance. Stone rip-rap was added to the face of the dam to prevent erosion.
In February 1941, the announcement was made that the county would become owner and maintainer of the park by the WPA. $25,000 was given as the top cost for maintaining the facility. Frank Brown, county commissioner and Roy Ferguson, draftsman for the project pointed out that $25,000 was plenty for salaries of a supervisor, fish hatchery supervisor, caretakers, seasonal wood cutting, and lifeguards. They were somewhat over optimistic.
The spillway was a final problem for completion, as funding for it was separate from the dam and park project. At times it appeared it would not get completed to a lack of funding.
Again, small strikes slowed work at times during the summer. However, most work kept pace. A 50% reduction in WPA workers left staff at about 235.
1942 was a year in which finishing work was completed on the project such as seeding the dam. The spillway was still no yet finished.
By March of 1942, over six million dollars had been invested in the park project by all funders. About one million came from Wyandotte County. Finally, in June the county agreed to fund the spillway work, which was halted when WPS funding was cut off.
In 1944, water was finally allowed to start impounding. By April of 1944, the water was 45 feet deep at the control tower and covered about 125 acres. In May, heavy trains put water over 5 highway’s old route. By year’s end, 200 acres of water covered the lakebed, the state fish and game commission had stocked the lake and the beach was 80% completed.
The final major problem of the dam project came in 1945, when seepage caused the lake to lose a large amount of inflowing water.
The Wyandotte County Lake and Park was just about ready.