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Background Image The construction of Wyandotte County Lake Dam, circa 1938

Dam, That Took a Long Time

Each year, thousands of anglers, hikers, and boaters enjoy Wyandotte County Lake, a manmade lake that has been a 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.

In July 1936, the first of a number of strikes took place, as the WPA laborers demanded a raise. They also demanded that only Wyandotte County residents be hired, at least until the labor pool ran dry. Although it was resolved, it proved not to be the end of the strikes. Nothing, however, prepared the laborers 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. Rebuilding started nine months later at the end of July 1938 with the new dam 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 is the best trails in the area! Birders from all over eastern Kansas come out to the lake to see the migrating waterfowl. All of these activities would not be possible if this lake was not here.

Image courtesy of Mr. and Mrs. F.L. Schlagle Library

 

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