The Story of Lake Shelbyville

The History of Lake Shelbyville Illinois & Shelbyville Dam

history-lake-shelbyville-illinois-spillway-dam-kaskaskia-river-flood-control-2During the early part of this century floods caused extensive crop damage in the Kaskaskia River Valley. At first low levees built by farmers partially protected about 23,000 acres of the river valley, but such precautions proved to be insufficient.

Prior to July of 1938, a small group of men fought long and hard for development of the Kaskaskia basin. Finally, the Flood Control Act of 1938 was enacted. Public meetings were held in towns throughout the valley. Interest increased until the advent of World War II when the project was obscured by larger considerations.

The idea of a flood water control program was revived in the early 1950′s. Representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers explained that the Federal Government would consider only a comprehensive plan of flood control for the entire Kaskaskia River Basin.

Eldon Hazlet, a Carlyle Illinois attorney, became interested in a unified approach. In 1952, Hazlet organized citizens groups throughout the area to work for the project’s approval. In 1953, under Hazlet’s leadership, the Kaskaskia Valley Association was formed. Mr. Hazlet was named the first president of the K.V.A., and also served as their legal counsel. Three zones known as the Northern, Central and Southern Zones were organized. The Northern Zone was designated to concentrate on the Shelbyville Reservoir. The K.V.A. promoted and coordinated activities related to the entire flood control project. Its sister organization, The Kaskaskia Industrial Development Corporation, concentrated on navigation channel construction and industrial growth along the river. Immediately after forming, the K.V.A. and the K.I.D.C. set out to develop a comprehensive flood control and recreation plan for the entire Kaskaskia Valley. Members of each group went to Washington, D. C. and quickly became involved in congressional committee and subcommittee hearings, trying to gain approval of their plans.

Representative Charles Vursell (Republican-Salem, IL.) took national leadership for the first phase of the project. Representative Peter Mack (Democrat-Carlinville) introduced the initial legislation for the Shelbyville Reservoir and navigation channel in the House of Representatives. Senator Everett Dirksen (Republican-Pekin) took the lead in the Senate, while Representative Price and Representative Kenneth Gray (Democrat-West Frankfort) took the lead in the House.
The Flood Control Act of ]uly 3, 1958 was adopted by the 85th U.S. Congress with basic provisions:

  1. Flood control in the Kaskaskia River Valley .
  2. Flood stage reductions in the Mississippi River.
  3. Supplement low flow for navigation in the middle and lower Mississippi River.
  4. Improved domestic and industrial water supply.
  5. Recreational development.
  6. Conservation of fish and wildlife.

A few years later on January 3, 1962, the United States Corps of Army Engineers set up a real estate office to acquire land for the lake development. The first property acquisition was made on October 11, 1962, for a four acre parcel of land bought from the city of Shelbyville. The acquisition ceremony speakers were Governor Otto Kerner, Senator Everett Dirksen (of Pekin), Senator Paul H. Douglas (of Chicago), William L. Springer (of Champaign), Representative George E. Shipley (of Olney), Mayor William LeCrone, and Colonel Alfred. D’Arezzo, District Engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers.

On April 26, 1963, the first contract for construction was let. The Berry Construction Company and George Walker Construction Company signed a contract for $216,124.41, which provided for construction of a combination shelter and comfort station for visitors to the dam site, a building to house radio equipment, a 200′ steel antenna tower, water lines, and sewage disposal facilities.

Ground was first broken on May 4, 1963. Ceremonies including a huge parade were held, with Governor Otto Kerner serving as official host and with Mayor William LeCrone and Senator Edward Eberspacher serving as masters of ceremony.

Six recreational area plans were revealed on May 13, 1964. The State of Illinois development would include picnic areas, boat marinas, public beaches, camping grounds and a nature museum.

The Dam Administration Building was formally opened on June 15, 1965. The Army Corps of Engineers and the S.J. Groves & Sons Company (of Springfield) signed a contract that called for the dam to be completed in 900 calendar days or the Spring of 1968. Normal extensions due to weather and construction problems could extend this time. Work under the dam contract would also include construction of roads, parking areas, an additional over-look area on the west side of the dam, and installation of a sewage disposal plant. The bid was for $11,614,104.05. The Shelbyville project would require several hundred thousand cubic yards of concrete. A new type mixer was used with a computer control panel that cost $46,000. It was mounted in an air conditioned trailer near the concrete mixing plant. The engineer in charge could mix any density of concrete desired with no guess work involved.

A contract for $1,090,480 was awarded to the Berry Construction Company, in December 1965, for construction of five recreational facilities. This included twenty seven comfort stations, eight picnic shelters, roads and park areas.

Actual work on the dam began on May 4, 1966. It was built in eight sections or monoliths, independent of each other, in case of slippage after construction.

The contractor encountered several delays. The most unique was the discovery of several tunnels and shafts from an ancient coal mine near the dam site. The mine shafts had to be located and filled solidly with special concrete so that the water behind the dam would not undercut through these abandoned mines and weaken the dam. S.J. Groves & Sons Company hired a subcontractor, the Di-Kor Company (of Carmi), to drill a series of exploratory holes to determine the extent of the old coal mining operations at the dam site. They brought in three portable drilling rigs on June 8, 1966. The Corps moved the dam 230 feet south of the original location because of this problem.

During the summer a coffer dam was built along the dam site to protect the construction against flooding. The Illinois Central Railroad bridges were raised. All cemeteries below flood stage were moved to Quigley Cemetery. Relocating of the cemeteries contract was awarded to the Yolk Construction Company (of Tacoma, W A) for $20,000. Cemeteries above flood stage were fenced in. Another contract was let to the Natural Gas Pipeline Company of America for alterations to their gas pipeline at five different locations within the reservoir area. The Texaco Cities Service Pipeline Company had a contract for alterations to their pipeline for $97,958.

Engineers, also, found a layer of deteriorated shale, from 1″ to 6″ thick, which delayed work another two weeks.

About eight miles upstream, the Findlay bridge formally opened on October 10, 1967. Lieutenant Governor Samuel Shapiro was the master of ceremonies. The cost was $1,419,16,by O’Neill Brothers Construction Company from Danville, IL. The bridge is unique because it is the longest inland bridge on a secondary road in Illinois. It has 42 spans and is 3,170 feet long.

The old City Waterworks dam, by the Route 16 bridge, was torn out on April 30, 1968. Heavy rains began in April and lasted through October, delaying construction almost two full months.

Two water towers, two pumping stations and 26 miles of 12″ water mains were constructed for the area Water System which provided water and sewer facilities to the recreational areas. The land owners each received a free tap for a water line to the water system in exchange for access across their property. Total cost was $1,100,000.

On Tuesday, June 24, 1969, the Kaskaskia River was diverted from its old channel over to, and through, the dam spillway. Work was then started on the final phase of the project, the construction of an earthen dam across the valley floor. Workers toasted the event with champagne. Seventy-six workmen were employed on a three shift basis ,during the dam’s construction. Again, the rains came, and two more months of work were lost.

On Route 121, three bridges were built and 11,941 feet of pavement was replaced. Fifty miles of new secondary roads were made and fifty-four country road bridges were removed.

A new bridge was built on Route 32 and 5,752 feet of pavement was replaced. The road was to reopen May 1, 1967. Howell Asphalt Company from Mattoon, bid $955,291 for the contract. On August 1,1970, the dam’s gates were officially lowered. On August 28th, it became official-the lake was to be named “Lake Shelbyville”.

Dedication of the $56,000,000 Shelbyville lake was on September 12, 1970. The day long celebration featured Governor Richard B. Ogilvie as official host, and actor Pat O’Brien served as honorary master of ceremonies. Other speakers were Mayor James O. Finks, Senator Charles Percy, Representative Clarence Springer, Representative George Shipley and Representative Paul Findley. Also, singer Peter Palmer was present.

The development of access areas began after the Lake Shelbyville project became operational. The Dam East and beach area, Lithia Springs Access Area, Opossum Creek Access Area, Coon Creek Access Area and Lone Point Access Area were open in 1970.

In 1972, Wolf Creek and Eagle Creek State Parks were opened under the control of the State of Illinois. Wolf Creek covers 1,966 acres and Eagle Creek 2,174 acres.

Then Wilborn Creek, Whitley Creek and Sullivan (“Bo” Wood ) Access Areas were opened. Dam West Beach and boat ramp areas were opened in 1974. The Corps also built picnic and shower areas around the Lake. The Sullivan Beach and overflow areas were opened in 1975. The Corps released two wildlife management areas to the State of Illinois to operate.

The original Lake Shelbyville Visitor’s Center was dedicated on July 4, 1980. Historical time-line displays inside were furnished by the historical societies of Shelby and Moultrie Counties. June McCain and Janet Roney (from the Shelby County Historical and Genealogical Society) and Sue Durbin (from the Moultrie County Historical and Genealogical Society) worked with the Army Corps of Engineers and Interpreters,

Al Lookofsky and Dale Phillips. The artifacts and displays chosen to be included in the center were picked under guidelines that required the item to be connected to the history of the Lake Shelbyville area.

Four State of Illinois Conservation Officers served the Lake, two in each county. There were seven reservoir Rangers. The Illinois Department of Conservation, in addition to the management of fish and game here, was to develop a state park and four satellite access areas. The Shelbyville project was part of an overall plan to develop water resources of the entire Kaskaskia River Basin.

Excerpts taken from the book “Shelbyville Past and Present” Written by the Chautauqua Historic Book Committee in 1991

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