The Origins of Lake Springfield
Brandon M. Keafer
The Great Depression began in the year 1929, and before it came to a close, it sparked many new programs and projects. The nation was in economic turmoil. In 1928 national income was approximately $82 billion, but by the year 1932 it had dropped to a mere $40 billion. That was one of many startling revelations. American joblessness rose from an already large 10 million in 1932 to 14 million the following spring. The high unemployment rate left many banks with no customers. Hence, more than one thousand banks were forced to close their doors in 1930 alone. That was on the national level. In central Illinois the events were equally shocking. Springfield's city officials were compelled to look into ways of improving the plight. One proposal resulted in the Lake Springfield project.
As early as 1857 the Springfield Water Works was organized to provide Springfield residents with water. The company was bought by the city three years later, and in 1911, under newly elected Commissioner of Public Property Willis Spaulding, it was combined with the city's electric power plant at the new river pumping station on the Sangamon River. Later, in 1916, under heavy attack from the newspapers for a recent $50,300 expenditure for a new back-up generator, the municipal utility responded and identified itself for the first time as City Water Light and Power (CWLP). CWLP, as of February 28, 1916, had 296 customers of electricity, but
by the end of that year the number of customers grew to an amazing 700. By the end of fiscal year 1917, however, CWLP had a customer base of 806. A manmade lake was proposed to ensure an ample water supply.
CWLP constructed a new water purification plant in 1926 and immediately enlarged it a year later. Soon after, city officials realized that something had to be done to supply the growing city with more water than the Sangamon River could provide. The first proposal was to drill more wells, but it would have been too costly, and in the long run it still would not have provided enough water. That led to the only possible solution, a manmade lake.
On June 24, 1930, Spaulding's $2.5 million bond to provide funds for the construction of Lake Springfield was approved by referendum. In October 1931 CWLP hired two hundred laborers to begin clearing the land for the lake at a rate of fifty cents an hour, even though the local labor union argued that the wage should be fifty-five cents. Land was cleared from 1931 to 1935, and many miles of roadway, water mains, sewers, and power lines were laid. In addition, construction crews worked to provide the city with a public beach and beach house, six highway bridges, one railroad bridge, and two dams. Construction on the Lakeside Power Station and the Water Purification Plant also began during that period. By December 1933 the lake was ready to begin taking on water from Sugar Creek and its tributary, Lick Creek. It was estimated that it would take approximately seven months to fill the 4,300-acre Lake Springfield, but due to a severe drought, it took eighteen months. Water first ran over the dam spillway at 12:30 a.m. on May 2, 1935. At it fullest point, it contained 21.4 billion gallons of water, covered 4,260 acres, and was a sufficient supply of water for a city with a population of 300,000. At that point, the majority of the construction was complete. All that remained was that of the completion of the Lakeside Power Station, which was finished in March 1936, and the Water Purification Plant, which was finished in October 1936.
One of the most noteworthy aspects of Lake Springfield is its creation in the midst of the Great Depression. The jobless rate in Springfield was at an unprecedented high. Labor gangs were organized to assist the building process, and federal programs, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, provided millions of dollars to cover lake construction costs and laborers' salaries. President Herbert Hoover pointed out that it was an excellent time to construct public improvements to provide employment and bring the prosperity of the country to a higher level. The Lake Springfield project brought into the city $2.5 million in capital, and $1 million of that went directly to local Springfield labor.
If it were not for the expertise and devotion of Willis Spaulding, the lake would not exist today. He sacrificed a great deal of time and energy to insure the lake's completion and success. Many believe that Lake Springfield saved the city. Its construction began in the middle of the Depression and provided hundreds of jobs and more than $1 million in salaries. It also gave the people of central Illinois a stable water and electric supply and provided for various recreational facilities. Ever since the first water flowed over Spaulding Dam in 1935, Lake Springfield has been an asset to the community and surrounding area.—[From Oscar T. Barak and Nelson Manfred Blake, A History of the United States in Our Times; City Water Light and Power, The First 75 Years of CWLP; City Water Light and Power, Lake Springfield; and The Illinois State Journal, June 23, 1930 and February 21, 1933.]