Waconda Lake: A Piece of History

Waconda Lake

The Outdoor and recreation enthusiasts who visit Mitchell County, Kansas each year know Waconda Lake as the state’s third largest reservoir and Glen Elder State Park as one of the top spots for camping, fishing and family outings.  What many don’t know is the rich history and romantic legend of the Waconda Springs that rests deep in the Kansas water.

Thousands of people visit Waconda Lake and Glen Elder State Park each year for the spectacular boating, barbecuing and camping opportunities during the spring and summer months.  Even more visitors take advantage of the lake’s nature trails, world-class fishing and exceptional hunting. Unfortunately, many go without taking in one of the most interesting pieces of history the area has to offer.

Waconda Lake was named for the mineral spring Waconda Springs which was located in what is now the middle of the reservoir.  The mineral spring that preceded the lake was a much studied phenomena because of its rarity to the area and certainly to the Midwest. The mineral spring sat in a wide mound that rose above the Solomon River Valley some 40 feet. The spring itself was 50 feet in diameter and its depth is still a subject of debate. The rarity of the water was recognized by Native Americans and early settlers alike. To the early settlers, and generations after, the mineral water was valued for its perceived medicinal purposes, but to the Native Americans the Waconda Spring was much more.

Native American tribes believed that water from Waconda Spring had great healing powers. Nearly every plains tribe visited the spring at one time or another including the Pawnee, Wichita, Kaw, Kiowa, Sioux, Arapahoe, Comanche, Miami and the Cheyenne. The reason for the migration to the spring was to pay respect to the “Great Spirit Spring”. They would make offerings to the Great Spring by tossing beads, weapons and other important items into the spring as an offering.

Although there are several variations of the legend of the “Great Spirit Spring” the following is the most widely told. Wakonda was the daughter of an Indian chief whose tribe often roamed the Solomon River Valley. One day while walking near the spring, Wakonda came across a wounded warrior from a rival tribe. She helped nurse him back to health and they fell in love, but since they were from rival tribes they were forbidden to marry.

War soon broke out between the two tribes and in a battle by the spring the young warrior was mortally wounded. Princess Wakonda watched as the killer blow sent her beloved warrior into the spring. She dove in after him and never resurfaced. Legend has it that it was her who gave the “Great Spirit Spring” its healing powers; hence the namesake.

Commercialization of the Mineral Spring was soon discovered by explorers and early settlers as they passed through Kansas on their expeditions. Among the first visitors was General Zebulon Pike who learned of the spring from the Native Americans on his way to Colorado (where he discovered Pike’s Peak). It was some 60 years after Pike’s visit that a settler first claimed the property. It did not take long for the settlers to learn of the spring’s supposed healing powers and to subsequently capitalize on the the mystical water.

The first business venture was started by a man named Burnham. He established a bottling operation at the spring and began packaging the water for distribution. Burnham labeled the water Waconda Flier, although it later became known as  just Waconda Water. The distribution of the water spread country-wide and even won a medal for mineral waters of superior medicinal qualities as the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.

In 1884 a stone structure was built near the spring and served as a hotel and resort for people who wanted to experience the healing powers of the water.

Throughout the years many improvements were constantly made to the building and the grounds. Waconda Springs became an institution for people from all over the country to come relieve what was ailing them. At its peak in 1932 the operation was in full swing. Water was pumped into every bathtub in the 60 room facility in order to accommodate all the guests.

In 1951 a flood devastated eastern Kansas. There was a demand for flood control so this disaster would not repeat itself. The Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corp of Engineers concluded that the best solution to the flood control problem was to put a dam at Glenn Elder, just east of the spring. The dam would cause Waconda Springs to be completely overtaken by the new reservoir.

Owners of Waconda Springs and others who appreciated the rarity of the mineral spring in Kansas fought to stop the dam from being built. They even had a respected hydrologist inspect the springs and testify on their behalf. He concluded that the spring was the only one like it in the world. The threat of another disastrous flood in eastern Kansas won out and the efforts to save the Waconda Springs failed. The dam was built and the reservoir was formed, leaving Waconda Springs buried at the bottom of the lake.

ABOUT WACONDA LAKE (GLEN ELDER RESERVOIR): The third largest reservoir in Kansas, it lies at the confluence of the North and South forks of the Solomon River. The reservoir, known locally as Waconda Lake, covers Waconda Springs, a site sacred to generations of Plains Indians. The best times to visit are during the spring and fall migration seasons, when thousands of birds stop in the area. You can expect to see huge numbers of mallard ducks and Canada geese. Watch for redhead, lesser scaup, green-winged and blue-winged teal, common goldeneye, and bufflohead. The best views are from the dam and the north end of the causeway near the goose refuge. On the North Fork of the Solomon River, riparian woodland of cottonwood, elm, oak, and hickory supports many songbirds. Watch for wood ducks among the dead trees standing in the water. In winter, scan the tall trees near the lakeshore and along the rivers for bald eagles. Common loons may be present during this season. Red-tailed hawks are frequently sighted throughout the year. Ring-necked pheasant, greater prairie chicken, and mule deer inhabit the grasslands and croplands. In the bottom-lands watch for white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, beaver, and raccoon. Listen for great horned owls and coyotes at night.

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