Clinton Lake

Rumors about the construction of Clinton Lake begn circulating in the early 1960s. Many rural landowners grew anxious about the possibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers taking their property by eminent domain. In 1960, Congress passed Public Law 86-645, also known as the "Rivers and Harbors Act," which required federal agencies to “make reasonable effort” to distribute information to local residents about the possibility of land acquisition related to public works projects on waterways.


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Informational brochure distributed to local landowners by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1966.

In 1966, the Corps of Engineers published a small booklet entitled “How the Government Will Acquire Land for the Clinton Lake,” which explained not only how, but why the government needed to obtain private land. According to the booklet, the Corps would attempt to purchase land through a negotiation process. If an agreement with the landowner could not be reached, the Corps would resort to property condemnation. The fear of condemnation often scared residents into accepting below market prices for their property. The booklet justified private land acquisiton with the idea that Clinton Lake would serve as an economic asset to the entire state of Kansas.

Following the announcement of land acquisition, the real estate transactions that followed often proved long and complicated, with each realty case transferring through multiple federal representatives, including Corps apprasiers and negotiators, many of whom provided local residents with contradictory information that resulted in further tension between the Corps of Engineers and Wakarusa River Valley landowners. Many individuals fought in vain against lake construction in an attempt to save not only their land, but their sense of identity tied to place.



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Lawrence Journal-World article reporting on the progress of Clinton Lake construction, 1974.

After several delays in funding approval, construction on Clinton Dam began in 1972. The dam across the Wakarusa River measured over 9,000 feet and impounded 7,000 acres of water, creating 72 miles of shoreline. In addition to the earthfill dam, the Corps hired contractors to build a concrete outlet, an excavated spillway, and a series of blacktop roads that permited construction equipment into the dam site. 

The financial burden of reservoir construction fell upon the U.S. government as federal expenditures for water resource development in Kansas steadily increased throughout the 1960s. In 1971, the Corps submitted a request to President Richard Nixon for $4 million in public works funding. By 1972, Nixon approved an additional $8.5 million for the Clinton Dam project, with $10 million in funds planned for 1973. In total, the Corps predicted that Clinton Lake would cost nearly $50 in federal funding. However, these federal funds only supported the construction of the dam and flood control pool. As a result, the state assumed financial responsibility for any additional infastructure required for recreational facilities and municipal water supply. 


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Informational brochure about Clinton Lake including a map of surrounding recreational activities and campsites, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, undated.

Although Clinton Lake was primarily advertised as a means of flood control, promises of recreational opportunities and wilderness preservation garnered significant public support for the project. Five different parks scattered around the lake would provide over 450 campsites, nearly 50 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding trails, and almost 400 acres for backpacking and walk-in camping. Additional recreational infrastructure included swimming beaches, picnic areas, shelter houses, boat ramps, and a marina. 



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Political cartoon about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, published by the Kansas City Star in 1975.

Throughout the construction of Clinton Lake, from 1972 to 1982, rural residents from the Wakarusa River Valley protested against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whom many viewed as destroyers of their land and livelihood. Overall, the Wakarusa communities felt unseen, unheard, and unappreciated as the Corps of Engineers continued to justify the construction of Clinton Lake with narratives of flood control.

As a federal agency, the Corps of Engineers recieved scrutiny from local media in the form of political cartoons. While some people viewed the Corps of Engineers as builders of the nation, especially after the completetion of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s popular interstate highway program in the 1950s, others believed the Corps represented an intrusive arm of the federal government and possessed too much power.


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Lawrence Journal-World article reporting on the establishment of the Clinton Lake Museum, 1983.

In order to protect local interests, residents of the Wakarusa region formed the Clinton Lake Landowner’s Association, which advocated for the landownership rights of Wakarusa River Valley citizens. An auxiliary group, the Clinton Lake Historical Society, or CLHS, was formed with the goal of gathering and preserving the region’s history, which many feared would be lost forever beneath the lake. This anxiety was not only rooted in an intense fear of the unknown, which often accompanies displacement, but the idea that the disappearance of regional history meant the erasure of one’s identity.

In 1983, Martha Parker and the CLHS established the Clinton Lake Museum, later renamed the Wakarusa River Valley Heritage Museum, as a means of preserving the history of nine rural communities displaced by the construction of Clinton Lake.