Lake Level - More To The Story...

There seems to be many questions and concerns floating around about water levels in Syracuse Lake and Lake Wawasee. It is a pretty simple and efficient procedure to check the water levels at the Syracuse dam.

The person designated by the town to be in charge of the water level looks at the water level on the Syracuse Lake channel side of the spillway. There is a rounded cement wall that creates the spillway. If the water level is too high or above the spillway, the gate is opened to lower it. The reverse is true if it is too low. With the recent drought, the gates have been closed for quite some time.

However, lack of both snow and rain this past year have inevitably led to lower lakes and Turkey Creek water levels than have been experienced in many years. Both upstream from the lakes and downstream, Turkey Creek has very low water levels as does just about every body of water in this area.

"People who weren't here this winter, don't realize how little snow we had before we had the drought. All that makes a big difference in the water level," explained Chad Jonsson, Syracuse Parks superintendent.

According to Wawasee Area Conservancy Foundation board member Doug Yoder, the WACF is looking at partnering with the town to provide the dam with a new water level gauge. The previous one had deteriorated to the point where it was no longer functioning and was removed.

Thanks to the record keeping of county and town officials, the files of The Mail-Journal and the book "Early Wawasee Days" by Eli Lilly, the dam story can be pieced together.

Kosciusko County Circuit Court ruled in 1948 the legal level of Syracuse Lake and Lake Wawasee is 858.87 feet above sea level. This was done at the request of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. What is called the Turkey Creek Memorial Dam was built in 1963 in Syracuse in honor of Col. Eli Lily and to this level. The dam that controlled the water levels earlier was a few feet in front of the current one.

It is important to note at times in its history, there has been more than one dam operating on Syracuse and Wawasee lakes. The historic Dog Leg Dam was set up by evangelist Billy Sunday's grandfather in the area near to the current Pickwick Drive bridge to trap fish before the Civil War.

According to the study being done by retired engineer Bob Eppich on Ogden Point Road, Lake Wawasee is about 14 inches below level as of July 24. "If we get an inch of rain, the level rises just about an inch," he observed. Both lakes levels have increased because of the last few rains. Originally the 1963 dam was controlled automatically but in 1992 it was converted to manual operation. This is how it currently works.
The water level at the spillway on the lake side is observed and adjusted accordingly. This allows both spillway gates to be operational, an advantage to those living on the two lakes as well as on or near Turkey Creek downstream from the structure. It is legally not a dam but a water level control structure.

In 2004 then Town Manager Brian Redshaw asked Syracuse Parks Department Maintenance Supervisor Jim Funderberg to monitor and adjust the water level. Before he took over, it was under the watchful eyes of Michael Brower. When Funderberg retired, the duty passed to Jonsson, who supervises the level now.

More To The Story
Obviously, something that affects as many people's lives as water levels of the lakes and Turkey Creek is a topic that has been fraught with controversy since the first dam was built by the European-descended pioneers in 1834. Downstream Turkey Creek runs through Milford and eventually into the Elkhart River.
According to Lilly's book, Lake Wawasee escaped draining at the end of the 1880s and again in 1893. When the Native Americans spent their time in the area, both lakes, which are really one, were considerably shallower, with many swampy areas. In the vernacular of today, that is called a wetland. There wasn't any dam.

According to several sources, the Panic of 1893 was the worst economic depression in the history of the United States up to that time and may have contributed to the 1893 revival of the struggle over the lake level. Farmers who owned these swampy acres wanted them drained to create tillable land. Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and the Cedar Beach Club, which was made up of Wawasee cottage owners, joined together to fight the drainage. The project was defeated in the Supreme Court of Indiana.

Then, the dam's owner, B.F. Crow, died, also in 1893. His estate owned the dam and 27 acres southwest of the mill race. Wawasee folks wanted to build a dam near Oakwood Park or at the channel where the B & O bridge crosses the water. However, Col. Eli Lilly, the founder of the drug company, secured an option to purchase the dam and the acreage.

By 1895, stockholders had created the Syracuse Water Power Company. The stockholders were, again according to the later Eli Lilly, the B & O, a few citizens of Syracuse and several Wawasee cottage owners.
Most of the acquired land was laid out in town lots and gradually sold. The SWPC stockholders made 100 percent return on their investments almost annually, said Lilly in his book.

This is what Lilly had to say about the town acquiring the dam. "Syracuse became desirous of owning the dam, upon which so much of its prosperity depended; and the company, having the absolute confidence that the town would treasure the property, sold it in the late summer of 1922 for $4,000."

There may be a different version of this story. Basically, most of the lots had been sold off and the stockholders were not receiving the same amount of dividends. They approached the town to take over the dam. This rendition had not been documented at press time, but it has been repeated by more than one source.

There was plenty of controversy about the lake levels and the creek level even after the town took over the dam. Cottage owners with low-lying lots objected to high water levels while others wanted them, especially when motor boats came into fashion.

The town also had to think about its sewage disposal system and the farmers downstream, who didn't want livestock and buildings washing away. It seems the squabbling continued for the next 40 years until 1962 when a committee was formed with representatives from Syracuse, Syracuse Lake and Lake Wawasee. No mention is made of downstream Turkey Creek property owners being on this committee by Lilly.

The services of two professors at Purdue University were secured to make a study of the facts of rainfall, runoff, evaporation and other variables of the drainage area. They formed a schedule of proper seasonal runoff and plans for the new dam. The dam was built as a memorial to Col. Lilly.

Neither the Wawasee Property Owners Association nor the town of Syracuse can locate this study according to Yoder. Both were reputed to have copies of it. It would be interesting to see the Purdue study, although climate change has certainly made its findings obsolete.

While all this was going on the mill race in town was drained and filled in as part of the program causing an uproar among those who lived on or near it and enjoyed its benefits. Many remember this controversy. Dolan Drive runs where the mill race was.