A Lake’s Progress
June 5, 1911
As the University of Kansas continued to construct new buildings atop Mount Oread in the early years of the 20th century, the Board of Regents realized that a major fire on the hill would be likely inextinguishable. The only water supply then available to KU was a small and inadequate City of Lawrence water line that, in the event of an emergency, would only maintain flow for about five minutes. As a result, the Board began taking bids to construct a lake and pump house on the north slope of Mount Oread. The new water supply would be able to provide four 80-foot streams of water for a period up to 48 hours.
Work began on the project in October 1910. The pumping plant at the base of the dam was constructed first. When that was completed, W.W. Gilmore of Lawrence was awarded a contract for $3,250 to build a dam, a short bridge over the spillway, and the spillway itself, with the stipulation that it be completed by March 1 of the next year. The dam was 400 feet long, 60 feet wide at the base and eight feet wide at the top and would hold back four million gallons of water. An electric motor would power a pump capable of delivering 1000 gallons of water per minute. KU Buildings and Grounds Supervisor E.F. Crocker oversaw the project.
Natural drainage and springs had been filling the pond, but city water was used to top it off once the dam was finished, creating a depth of 16 feet near the dam. The new lake was nearing completion in May 1911 when a tragedy marred what had otherwise been a fairly pain-free project. One night that month, as a group of engineering students were returning home after a spring farewell gathering, they decided to strip off their clothes and swim across the new pond.
Leonard Ritchey, a civil engineering major from Cheney, Kansas, began to show signs of fatigue and panic about halfway across. Although Ritchey was a fairly large young man, he disappeared from sight. His companions could touch his body near the bottom in 12 feet of water, but were unable to lift him to the surface. One of the party telephoned James Daniels, the captain of the KU swim team, who arrived on the scene about one half hour after Ritchey first went under. He was able to bring the body up, but efforts at resuscitation failed. Ritchey had a history of heart problems, particularly when swimming, and the coroner ruled the cause of death to be heart failure. His was the first of seven drownings in Potter Lake since its creation.
In spite of Ritchey’s death, opening ceremonies proceeded as planned immediately following Commencement on June 5. There appears to have been no mention of the drowning during the festivities. The University band gave a concert, followed by a “water sports” program, organized and promoted by Athletic Director James Naismith that began at 2 p.m. The event included swimming races, a diving contest, and “water games” such as intra-fraternity tub racing and log rolling. Also included was a “regatta” featuring canoe races. State Senator Thomas M. Potter, a former member of the KU Board of Regents (1901-1909) and for whom the lake was named, was also present at the celebration.
A program at Potter Lake became an annual affair at commencement time for several years. Naismith continued to promote the event, and his influence likely led to the installation of a diving tower and springboard in 1914. Ten years later however, problems with water quality inhibited the use of Potter Lake for swimming. In addition, several more drownings had occurred and the lake’s value was brought into serious question. Finally, the Lawrence city water supply to campus had been improved, eliminating the need for the lake as a fire-fighting reservoir.
KU Chancellor Ernest H. Lindley’s administration formed a committee to study the situation. In February 1924, the committee recommended that because of polluted water, swimming should be banned until the lake could be renovated into a bona fide swimming pool with a concrete lining and a water filtration system. If a pool was not built, the committee suggested draining the lake altogether. The grinding wheels of bureaucracy proved beneficial in this instance; soon after the report was issued, the administration learned that the City of Lawrence was planning to build a swimming facility a few short blocks from campus. Potter Lake and dam were preserved in a relatively natural state.
Over the years Potter Lake came to be a popular place for students seeking peace and quiet in the summer and ice-skating in the winter. After the “swimming hole” days, a seven-hole golf course was constructed on the slopes of Mount Oread around the lake and Memorial Stadium. (Maintenance of the course lagged after World War II, and it was eventually abandoned to nature.) By the late 1950s, silt from various construction projects above the lake was taking a noticeable toll on its aesthetic integrity. The lake, which had once been 16 feet deep near the dam, was now only six feet deep. During periods of low water, numerous discarded items that had been thrown into the lake were easily visible.
In 1958, KU decided to drain and dredge the Potter Lake. Once workers disposed of the car bodies, tires, trash barrels, and other debris buried in the silt, they constructed a small silt-catching pond at the south (uphill) end. Some people had high hopes for the revived lake. Biology students and faculty looked forward to the potential of Potter Lake as an on-campus “zoological laboratory.” Another plan proposed building an outdoor theater adjacent to the lake, an idea that was to return 40 years later.
During the troubled years of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Potter Lake symbolized to some the placid world of nature juxtaposed against the violence of the Vietnam War and the voice of authority symbolized by the looming Strong Hall. Among many protests and “sit-ins” against the war and in favor of civil rights, a “Human Be-In” was held at the lake in 1967. The event was an expression of rising sentiments against a de-humanizing “technocracy” that seemed to dictate the course of one’s life, particularly at a time when a student’s grades literally could mean the difference between remaining in college and going to war.
In 1968, Potter Lake seemed to reflect the tensions of those times when complaints surfaced over a foul odor emitting from the pond. University biologists were quick to point out that pollution and decaying vegetation in the silt collector were responsible for the production of methane, hence the unpleasant smell. Beer cans, which did not sink until wind and wave action caused them to fill with water, were a common sight and, in the eyes (and noses) of many, got much of the credit for the odor. It is not clear what, if anything, was done other than a general policing of the area.
By the early 1990s, Potter Lake had apparently recovered enough to support a thriving fish population. KU student John Trager, a Kansas City, Kansas, native and an avid fisherman, had good luck at the lake on a number of occasions. Fishing for bass one day, he reportedly landed 22 of them, on another occasion he caught a stringer of crappie – 17 in all. But Trager’s claim to KU fame came in September of 1992 when he landed a 25-pound, 41-inch flathead catfish at Potter Lake.
In spite of the apparent success of some fish in the lake, it continues to be plagued by pollution. In 1999 Potter Lake made a list of 120 polluted bodies of water compiled by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Algae that has been known to be harmful to animals and fish was found growing at the lake. Again, no action was taken. Mike Russell, director of the department of health and safety at KU stated that little could be done since Potter Lake is fed almost completely by silt-laden stormwater runoff.
Another blow to the health of the lake occurred in March 2000, when a transformer exploded behind Strong Hall, leaking oil into the storm drains, which in turn was swept into Potter Lake every time it rained.
Pollution has not kept people from enjoying Potter Lake, however. In April of 1997, Student Union Activities sponsored the first “Floating Flicks” night. Four king-sized bedsheets covered with reflective material created a screen approximately 11 by 14 feet. The screen was floated to the middle of the lake on a styrofoam and wood raft where it was held in place by lines running to the shore. About 200 people came out to see “The Creature of the Black Lagoon” and “The Abyss.” In 1998, even more people turned out to see “Deliverance.”
In November of 2000, metalsmithing students from the design department at KU were assigned the task of creating jewelry that would float. Matti Mattson, a visiting art instructor from Finland, told the students to create boat-like examples of their jewelry and test them on the waters of Potter Lake. Twenty-six design students placed lighted candles on their jewelry pieces set them afloat on the water.
Not everyone looks on Potter Lake with favor. In 1999, architect Hugh Greer contemplated turning the Potter Lake area into an amphitheater. According to his perspective drawing, the lake would be drained, a stage constructed where the dam is now, and the basin dredged and filled with theatre seats. Such a project would alter drastically the aesthetics of the north slope of Mount Oread.
During its centennial year of 2011, efforts were made once again to clean up the lake. The lake was drained, sediment removed and switch grass was planted on the south side of the lake near a new sediment basin designed to assist in the maintenance of the lake.
Potter Lake continues to define the campus area west of the Campanile. In spite of ongoing pollution problems, it has been and continues to be a popular place to unwind. Completed over 100 years ago, Potter Lake has become one of the oldest fixtures on the Hill.
Department of History
University of Kansas