Lessons in Lake-building
Springfield slakes its thirst at last
October 16, 1975
For decades, Springfield had trouble providing reliable, clean water to its citizens. The city finally did something about it in the 1930s (thanks in part to federal public works largesse). By the 1970s, that lake was judged—controversially—inadequate for a growing city, and talk began about whether and how to augment it. This piece begins with my account of the building of the first Lake Springfield, which I thought was interesting in the context of the campaign to build a Lake Springfield II and which (I also thought) shed light on what the city might expect from another such effort.
There was a time, before the First World War, when water drawn from Springfield city mains was so thick with silt it was said to be necessary to brush off the dust after a bath. In those days the city took its water from the vast galleries and tubular wells buried deep beneath the banks of the Sangamon River north of town. Adequate during the cooler months, the antiquated system was strained beyond capacity during the steamy summer weeks, and it was frequently necessary to pump water directly into the system from'the river to quench the city's thirst. That water, however, was filthy with silt and sewage dumped into it by Decatur and other towns upstream, and every July and August the mayor issued boil orders like they were Independence Day proclamations.
When drought hit, even direct pumping wasn't enough. In 1903, for example, water levels dropped so low that dying fish had to be dragged from the stream bed and buried along the banks to prevent the contamination of what little water remained. Firemen—who knew there wasn't enough pressure in the mains to blow up a balloon—waited nervously for word of fire in the city, and anyone caught watering a lawn was fined by the police.
By 1923 the purity of the city's water system had been much improved, thanks mainly to a new chlorination plant, but its capacity was still no better than adequate. While city engineers were busy sinking more and deeper wells along the Sangamon, the City Council was busy developing a master plan for the "improvement and extension of Springfield." Most of the work was being dope by young Myron West, a Chicago city planner hired by the Zoning and Plan Commission and instructed to study the city's future educational, industrial, recreational, and transportation needs and recommend ways in which those needs might be satisfied.
West's final proposals, presented to the commission in May of 1923, were well received by the public and the council alike, and the "West Plan" was soon formally adopted as the official city plan.
Among West's proposals was one calling for the construction of a huge artificial lake on the Sangamon northeast of the city to insure "a water supply for the rapidly increasing domestic needs" of the Capital City. This part of the plan was touted enthusiastically by boosters of every stripe. The notion of a lake on the Sangamon was elegant in its simplicity. Build a dam, and in one stroke the city solves its water supply problem, guarantees itself a sound future as an industrial center, and provides a unique water playground for its people. People talked about the Sangamon reservoir as if it had already been built—Realtors, for instance, began subdividing the river bottom and selling lots for "lakeside cottages"—even though no official action had been taken on the proposal.
But West had been more optimistic than practical in his assumption that a lake, if built, would have to be built on the Sangamon. West had no engineering data to justify his selection of sites, and had not even examined the terrain around his proposed impoundment. He had ignored a study done in 1914 as part of the Springfield Survey project that calculated that nearly 200,000 people lived on the Sangamon watershed upriver from the capital. Water from the river, the report warned, was too dirty for use as a municipal water supply.
A preliminary field survey done in 1927 by Springfield engineer W. B. Walraven indicated that at least two other sites—the valleys of the Sangamon's South Fork and Sugar Creek—might be better reservoir sites. Following Walraven's advice, the council commissioned the consulting firms of Pease, Greeley, and Hanson of Chicago, and Burns and McDonnell of Kansas City to study the question in depth.
Burns and McDonnell, noting that "popular fancy had visualized Lake Springfield as an impoundment project on the Sangmon River," made a careful comparison between that site and several others on the South Fork, Sugar Creek, and Spring Creek. The results were not encouraging. The Sangamon reservoir would require the purchase of large-amounts of land (at least 13,000 acres, according to one estimate), the construction of several costly dams, and extensive (and expensive) modification of at least five railroad and highway bridges.
The Sugar Creek site, on the other hand, was nearly ideal. The flood plain was wide and deep, bordered by steep-shouldered bluffs, and easy to dam. No major roads crossed the valley, and the cost ($2.8 million, compared to the $7 million required for the Sangamon project) was reasonable. The engineers, at least, were convinced: if Springfield was to have a lake it was to be on Sugar Creek.
The City Council agreed. A referendum vote seeking approval for the issuance of the $2.5 million in bonds needed to cover the costs of the lake was scheduled for June 24, 1930.
The campaign to win voter approval for the project was spearheaded by Willis J. Spaulding, then Commissioner of Public Property. First appointed water department superintendent in 1909 by a reform mayor who'd run on a "Clean Water, Clean Politics" platform, Spaulding had been elected the city's first utilities commissioner two years later. Stubborn and quick-tempered, Spaulding, like every politician, talked of an elected official's duty to the people, of his sacred responsibility, of the need for men in public life to raise above petty politics. What made Spaulding different from every other tax-eater of his era was the fact that he meant every word of it. He'd purchased the allegiance of the voters not with jobs and favors and election-day cash but with his tireless advocacy of the people's right to an efficiently and honestly run water system. Spaulding survived six elections (and would survive two more before his retirement in 1943), and would have been dismissed as a laughably romantic dreamer had it not been for that fact—he knew how to win.
Most of the fights he had won he'd won alone, or nearly alone. In the fight for the lake, however, he had plenty of allies. The Republican Illinois State Journal (once his bitterest enemy) and the Democratic Illinois State Register were both squarely behind the project, as were his fellow council members and most local civic and business groups. What opposition did emerge during the referendum campaign came from frustrated North Enders still smarting over the abandonment of the Sangamon reservoir proposal. As Spaulding himself noted, "(Some persons) would like to make it a sectional matter and array the north side against the south side. They are willing to stop the growth of the town unless it grows their way."
The issue survived such carping, however, and was approved by a three to two margin. As soon as the vote was official, the city began acquiring some 8,500 acres of lake property. Not every owner was anxious to sell. Many families had been on their land since shortly after the country was opened to white settlers in the early 1800s, and resented being driven off—one man patrolled his ground with a shotgun rather than surrender land to the city—while the rest, saddled with debts and the Depression, sold whether they wanted to or not.
While land was still being acquired, CWLP workmen began the job of clearing the lake area of timber. They felled trees, pulled stumps, and hauled away logs from nearly 4,300 acres at a cost of $40 per acre. Once the land was cleared, construction gangs brought in their tractors and mule wagons and began hauling dirt and concrete for the main dam across Sugar Creek (later dubbed Spaulding Dam), the dividing dam between the Sugar Creek and Horse Creek valleys, a beach house, the Lindsay Bridge (named after poet Vachel Lindsay, a friend of Spaulding), access roads, and sewer facilities.
Gradually the lake began to fill. One by one the brown water swallowed old Crow's Mill, the quarry near Cotton Hill, the covered bridge across Sugar Creek—relics of the town's past sacrificed for the needs of the town's future. Month by month, through the drought of 1933–34, the water crept up the valley; it did so slowly that many were beginning to suspect that Spaulding was pumping water into the lake from the Sangamon to conceal the fact that the lake would never fill up. Finally, on May 2, 1935, one-and-a-half years after the completion of the dam. the first water spilled over the top of the dam gates. The lake was finished. ●