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As dredging gains steam, history shows decades of challenges

This view from a playground shows a small body of water at Lake Contrary after storms brought heavy rain to the area in May.

Posted on June 10, 2024

The long-sought dredging machine was on the doorstep of arriving at Lake Contrary a little more than 55 years ago, so the infamous story goes.

Somewhere during the dredging machine’s move to St. Joseph in the late 1960s, in a twist of fate for reasons unclear, the machine was waylaid to Sugar Lake first.

Ivana Calhoun, former president of the Lake Contrary Development Association, still remembers the frustration former president Joan Bennett showed when recalling the story to her.

“Joan said, ‘All right, We’ll agree to that.’ We will help make payments and keep the dredge going,” said Calhoun, who served on the board from 1987 to 2003. “But it broke down seriously enough that the association could not afford the repair work when it broke down at Sugar Lake.”

The machine ultimately never made its way to Lake Contrary, part of efforts at the time to dredge the body of water and use soil to help build a levee to provide added protection from flooding.

“It’s sad, but that was an agreement the county was helping with, from what I understand,” she said.

Officials pushed ahead and funding to dredge Lake Contrary was passed in appropriations by the Missouri House in 1968, according to News-Press reporting at the time. But nothing materialized.

By the next year, the state’s parks director said no funding would be available despite a large number of requests to dredge the oxbow lake.

These events are among the many shortcomings and thwarted efforts to dredge the lake and improve water levels over the last six decades. Attempts in the late ’60s came at a time when the lake was still a much-used recreational spot, albeit at a fraction of what it was in the early to mid-1900s when it operated as a thriving amusement park and resort.

Now, the body of water that was once Lake Contrary is essentially marshland, surrounded by a growing number of declining properties.

“I don’t think anyone ever figured it would get to this point,” said Sharon Smith, a St. Joseph native, Lake Contrary resident and former development board of directors member. “Just kind of disbelief that things got to that condition.”

Gone are the days of boating, water skiing, large crowds for swimming and the famous amusement park rides she once enjoyed as a teen.

As the prospect of dredging Lake Contrary and returning it to a popular recreation spot gains more steam than it has in years, renewed talks in Buchanan County are looking to facilitate development that has eluded the area for more than half a century.

“Lake Contrary can be something great again. But it takes money, time and effort. People who see your vision. Not everybody sees the vision,” said Joni Wescott, St. Joseph resident and Lake Contrary historian.

Lake Contrary: A golden age and decline

Gary Wescott, a St. Joseph native and author, remembers traveling with his father as a 6-year-old boy to see Lake Contrary auction off the last vestiges of its once great amusement park on May 13, 1964.

In many ways, saying goodbye to the merry-go-round and other iconic items marked the end of an era. At its height, it was considered one of the top resorts in the entire country with its combination of park and lake activities.

A sign welcomes visitors to historic Lake Contrary in May in Buchanan County.

Wescott spent two years conducting research for his book released in 2021 called “Lost St. Joseph — Lake Contrary,” which offers an extensive look at the history of the lake, amusement park and St. Joseph’s defining years.

“A lot of people have heard of Lake Contrary that grew up around here, but many people don’t know the history of it being a resort to start off,” Wescott said.

At one time, Lake Contrary was said to be 10 miles long, a quarter of a mile wide and 40 feet deep in certain areas.

The large crescent-shaped lake, called an oxbow lake, was formed when a tightly curved portion of the Missouri River was cut off and isolated from the main channel.

The county’s first settlers in the 1820s aptly named the lake and creek for its unusual characteristic of flowing north, contrary to other creeks. Wolves, wild turkeys, quail and pheasants could all be found roaming the area.

By the late 1890s, St. Joseph’s wealthiest capitalists and visionaries began investing in Lake Contrary. The success of the city’s revered trolley and electric streetcar system enticed scores of residents to visit the growing recreation spot.

“You could get off the train on Sixth Street, get on a trolley and ride down to Lake Contrary and you could either stay at a hotel, there were just a couple, or rent a cabin or pitch a tent,” Wescott said of the lake’s early days.

Lake developers oversaw significant growth. The addition of a new baseball park and mile-long horseracing track, along with leisure activities like camping, sailing and swimming, helped turn Lake Contrary into a landmark destination.

Stories tell of massive bleachers lining the lake’s shorelines as thousands of people watched teams compete in weekend-long boat racing events against rival cities like Omaha.

With the help of Bob Ingersoll, a pioneer in the world of amusement park development, Lake Contrary evolved into a massive resort filled with amusement park rides, dance halls, clubhouses, taverns and hotels. Around the turn of the 20th century, the lake and its boathouse were reportedly big enough to hold more than 200 boats.

Lake Contrary’s popularity grew so much that former president and then-governor Theodore Roosevelt made his way to the park and resort.

“The Missouri militia and military encampments were a big thing here too,” Calhoun said. “It was the vacation destination of the Midwest in the early 1900s.”

As early as the 1930s, Ingersoll lamented how Lake Contrary’s water levels had receded dramatically, but the amusement park continued to succeed through the next two decades despite crushing fires, wars and the Great Depression taking a toll.

“My dad and I used to ride the Chute-the-Chute coaster frequently,” Smith said. “It was just, everything was lights and glitz and good times and no pressure.”

Lake Contrary was able to overcome the damage it sustained during significant flooding in 1949. But just three years later, the historic flood of 1952 devastated the region and Lake Contrary, breaking levees and submerging the park and its attractions. A small tornado hit the area not long afterward.

The string of catastrophes cost the owners hundreds of thousands of dollars. Investment in the park declined significantly after that.

The park reopened for short periods but by 1964, the last relics of decades of Lake Contrary Park history were sold off.

Post-amusement and dredging saga

Dredging involves removing accumulated sediment from the bottom or banks of bodies of water, including rivers and lakes. As sediment and silt builds up on the bottom, it reduces the depth of the water. Dredging strips away the accumulated debris, which can restore the water to its original depth.

“That’s been a topic since the beginning of time with the lake. Literally, there was talk of it in the early 1900s of people getting out there and running like a gold mining dredge to clean it out,” Calhoun said.

Over a century, silt built up in Lake Contrary from river flooding and creeks has lowered its depth exponentially. Contrary Creek was diverted in the 1950s to prevent silt buildup at the lake, but it continued to accumulate from other sources.

Between 1957 and 1988, numerous attempts were made to secure funding to dredge the lake.

“We could not find the funding anywhere. It didn’t matter who we went to, county, state, even one of our board members approached the city,” Calhoun said.

On July 8, 1956, Buchanan County partially dredged the lake near the east shoreline. The goal was to dredge to the point where the lake started to curve west.

The dredging project was paired with the installation of two new pumps on the north and southeast points of the lake that fed water from underground wells 80 to 90 feet deep, a tool to help maintain water levels.

Oxbow lakes naturally fill in over time since they do not have a natural source of water, though the process could take anywhere from several decades to hundreds of years depending on a variety of factors.

Lake pumps were intended to help prevent that, but operating them has been and remains an extremely costly process.

By the next year in 1957, the county and local sponsors were seeking federal funds to dredge the lake even further. Local supporters attended hearings in Washington D.C. to get funding included in appropriations to no avail.

Further attempts to obtain funding through the state legislature in the 1960s came up empty. In 1978, the Missouri Conservation Commission turned down a request from the Chamber of Commerce South Side Development Committee to get the lake dredged.

When Calhoun moved to Lake Contrary in the 1970s, the lake was three miles long. While the days of an amusement park were gone, Lake Contrary remained an often-used recreation spot, especially for fishing.

In 1988, News-Press reports said Lake Contrary was between 4 and 8 feet deep, depending on the area. That same year the state’s conservation department director shot down another request to dredge it, saying doing so would be too expensive and would stimulate lakeside development to the detriment of fish and wildlife.

“Yes, it’s sad to see the lake. That’s the response I got from Missouri Conservation when I approached them about money to dredge,” Calhoun said of later attempts.

Calhoun and others like Jim Bowers, nephew of Anna (Bowers) Ingersoll, Bob Ingersoll’s wife, made one of the last big attempts 12 years ago to get the lake dredged. Bowers spearheaded a proposal that included three dredging plans ranging from $6 million to $11 million.

“The Corps of Engineers was going to cover quite a bit of the cost. But as an area we had to come up with 35% of whichever plan we were going to go with,” Calhoun said.

The high cost of maintaining the pumps and declining financial contributions prevented the association from being able to raise enough money to see the plan through. Talks of raising property taxes to get the funds were discussed but never implemented.

From lake to marshland

When Smith looks out from the back patio of her Lake Contrary home now, the area no longer resembles the once-proud description of lakefront property.

Lake Contrary resident Sharon Smith works in her garden planting flowers on Wednesday in south St. Joseph.

“It’s lakefront property without a lake,” she said. “It’s probably been at least the last two years that it’s just slowly gotten in the condition it’s in now.”

Smith moved to Lake Contrary 21 years ago to be closer to the water and the fond memories she had as a teenager. The lake had receded from what she remembered, but it was beautiful and clean for the most part, albeit unpredictable in its water levels.

“Over a period of time, you know, every year it seemed like it was either higher than it was the previous year or it was lower,” Smith said.

Large fish kills starting in the early 2000s were a troubling sign that Lake Contrary’s health was deteriorating. Swings in the lake’s water level continued until just a few years ago when it seemingly all but dried up entirely.

“When we have our patio falling down into what used to be a lake and the wall getting weak because there’s no water, you know, it kind of gives you a different feeling of desperation,” Smith said.

Calhoun and her husband removed their pontoon from the lake 12 years ago. She acknowledges the lake is at the end of its life. While she knows the lake’s natural water level declines have been brought about by a century of silt buildup, a lack of dredging and changes to the management of the Missouri River accelerated its decline in her view.

In 2004, the Corps of Engineers made significant changes to how it manages the Missouri River to better protect the habitat of endangered fish and birds. Part of the changes included keeping more water in reservoirs up north to boost the river’s flow, among other measures.

“We knew this was going to happen. We knew it was going to starve us of water,” she said. “There was a clear line.”

Lake Contrary has dozens of pressure relief wells that remove excess moisture from under the levee, feeding water into Lake Contrary when the Missouri River reaches between 14 and 17 feet for three consecutive days.

“That has not happened consistently for 15 years at least. Right now, it was 10.89,” Calhoun said. “As long as the river would maintain 12 to 13, 14 foot like it used to, then we would stay normal at normal levels for most of the summer, the pumps would come into play once in a while.”

In 2022, with the lake all but gone, two aging pumps at Lake Contrary were removed, one being replaced with a new submersible pump.

As time passed with little traction and the lake gradually disappeared, properties declined, interest and motivation waned and costs for lake maintenance skyrocketed.

Smith laments the current state of the lake and the condition of surrounding properties.

“People think that because the lake looks like it does, they might as well just add to it, you know, put their junk out,” she said.

A public meeting held by the county in March to discuss dredging options — the first traction in years — offers hope for Smith, Calhoun and others who believe the potential is still there.

With a price tag that could range in the millions to dredge, getting residents and businesses involved in discussions needs to be a vital part of developing a long-term and sustainable plan for success, Smith said.

“That’s a lot of money. And there’s got to be more work involved for that amount of money in order to get it back to where you can use it. And, you know, it’s tasteful,” Smith said. “But it doesn’t go without hope that something can’t be done.”

The extended version of the video story can be found here.


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