Early in the history of Worthington the national Chautauqua movement scheduled functions here in Worthington on the Shores of Lake Okabena in an area that has since been called "Chautauqua Park". During the early years of the Chautauqua movement here in Worthington, people came and camped.
Name of Lake
The name "Okabena" is from the Santee Sioux language. In, "Minnesota Place names", Warren Upham says "Okabena" means "Nesting Place of Heron".
The lake was publicly known throughout most of its current history by the name of "Lake Okabena". Those who grew up here and have left to live elsewhere have memories of the lake by that name.
There are early references to the lake on Postcard by either of two names; "lake Okabena" or "Okabena Lake". The 1882 Official State Geology Report refers to the lake with the name "Okabena Lake".
Starting in the late 1980's city government references to the lake have been changed to the name "Okabena lake" on signs and publications. And as time has gone on, all other references are being changed to the name of "Okabena Lake"
Original East Okabena
East Okabena in 1868
Originally there was an East Lake Okabena.
This 1868 map was created by surveyors from the State of Minnesota, during the phase where the railroad was looking for the best route through the area to build their tracks.
East Okabena is shown as separate from West Okabena.
East Okabena in 1882
As of 1882 East Okabena was still a substantial body of water, both in area size and depth. It was 15 feet deep, according to the 1882 State of MN Geology Report.
However, as of 1882, there is an overflow outlet from its south side that did not appear on the 1868 surveyors map that is shown above.
East Okabena in 1888
As of 1888 East Lake Okabena still exists shown on this 1888 plat map of Worthington township 102 range 40. The drainage ditch from the south side of East Okabena did not appear on the 1868 State Surveyors sketch, but had since then appeared on the 1882 Geology Report and the 1888 Plat map. This probably was man made and may have been deepened at some point.
East Okabena Drained in 1899
At a later date in time, in 1899, another drainage ditch was dug giving an additional drainage route off to the east under present day County 5 and towards the east end of Lake Ocheda. This is documented in the Friday, December 8th 1899 Worthington Advance
The natural effect of these changes was to drain East Okabena better.
The Burlington ( later Rock Island RR) built its route to Wilmont across the East Okabena lakebed in 1898-99.
As of 1914 East Okabena Lakebed dry
The 1914 plat map of Worthington refers to East Okabena as "formerly East Okabena lake", "Now dry, having been drained".
Around 1940, a highway roadbed was built across the East Lake Okabena lakebed to allow Highway 59 &60 and also Highway 16 vehicle traffic to and from the south, to be routed around, rather than through the city. Prior to building of this, the north-south vehicle traffic ( to and from Sibley, etc) was routed through the heart of the city. It became what we call the "Beltline". The building of this highway had an impact on the East Lake Okabena lakebed: businesses began to flourish along the Beltline and fill in sections of low area to build upon at road height.
Remaining East Okabena Dry Lakebed
The old East Okabena lakebed extended from the Chicago St Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha railroad tracks off to the SE and includes area extending to the south of the present Hwy 59&60.
Part of the old East Lake Okabena shoreline is still visible as you pass by
in car from Nobles street or Hwy 59& 60. And you can detect portions of the old
East Lake Okabena shoreline if you access Internet Satellite maps.
You can see the trees still grow along what used to be the old shoreline of that section of the East Okabena lakebed.
Apparently East Okabena was NOT spring fed, because there is no current sign
of running water from springs, nor seepage from springs.
Part of the old East Okabena lakebed has now filled in with dredge and other fill and is developed land.
The east end of East Okabena, has now been bought by the watershed and named the "Benona Pierce and Clair Hoven St. John Memorial Wetlands". This is an area that for years was farmed in row crops, mostly corn or soy beans, in years that were not wet years.
Impact of the Railroads on Lake
Impact of Chicago St Paul, Mpls. & Omaha Railway
At the time the C St P, M & O railway (this is the RR that runs along First Avenue ) was built in 1871 there were NO people permanently living in Worthington and there were no permanent buildings. The RR came first then the city developed.
The Chicago St Paul Minneapolis & Omaha Railway built their roadbed running NE to SW between the two lakes. The railroads sent out engineers to survey the area through which they intended to choose a route for their railroad. They chose the best route thought this area to build their tracks.
It would appear that the original Chicago St Paul Minneapolis & Omaha railroad roadbed as built crossing between East & West Okabena was NOT the current permanent earthen structure, but rather, a trestle was originally used and later replaced the solid earthen roadbed we see today. As of 1888 the RR crossed nearly a full block of water in East Okabena.
Impact of Rock Island Line Railroad
The Burlington ( later Rock Island) railroad built across the East Lake Okabena lakebed and along the NE shore of West Okabena, along Lake Street, in 1899-1900.
The building of this RR permanently did away with the gentle sloping sand beach that had been there, any boathouses that had been along Lake Street and the Pavilion that was at the base of 3rd Avenue at Lake Street.
They built up the shoreline height near the shoreline so that they had enough horizontal space between the street and the waterline to operate the trains. They brought in Pink Sioux Quartzite to build the base of their RR to fortify the track from lake waves and spring ice out. This Sioux Quartzite has a hardness of 7 on a scale of 10 with Diamonds being 10. It does not breakup or weather from the forces of freezing and thawing.
Their route across the East Okabena lakebed can be seen in the Interactive Display.
The rail line became less and less used until it was abandoned in about 1882. The rails and ties were later removed. The area then became a park area and was first named Lakefront Park, but later named Sailboard Beach [More on Sailboard beach].
This odd name was given to the project because of the way it was financed. The funding for project was provided by a "whiskey tax" and it came to be named Whiskey Ditch. It was dug in 1897.
Originally, the land between Lake Okabena and Okabena Creek was very low, subject to ponding on quick rains and floods and was an conduit for water moving back and forth between the lake and Okabena Creek.
The 1868 State Surveyors Map showed that there was a connection from Lake Okabena that joined Okabena Creek about where Bristol Park exists. Remants of the still are visible on a 1938 aerial photo.
During the late 1800's there was a drought, and the level of Lake Okabena was very low. People saw spring runoff and precious summer rain running off north to Heron Lake through Okabena Creek.
Local people wanted the runoff water that they saw going NE to Heron Lake to go into Lake Okabena and regenerate the water level of Lake Okabena.
Also, prior to the ditch, any rain that fell just north of the middle of the road that existed beside the lake didn't go into the lake. Instead it flowed north, across the then existing lowland area ( the area has since been filled with dredge fill), toward Heron lake through Okabena Creek.
The project to build Whiskey Ditch consisted of many men digging through a
large hill about where present County Hwy 35 crosses the present ditch, digging
a ditch south to connect DIRECTLY into the lake.
West Okabena is spring fed but East Okabena did not appear to have any active springs.
The following story was told to me sometime in the late 1940's or early 1950's by the dredge operator when he returned to the shore from a days work running the dredge. He had a scary experience during the days dredging when the front end of the barge was pushed up in the water about 3 feet. He wondered if the dredge was sinking. But, when he went to see, it was apparent that there was water boiling up under the dredge, lifting the front end up. It soon settled down. He reasoned that he must have been cutting through a hard mud cover on a strong spring and when the cover was breached it caused a burst of water strong enough to lift the front end of the barge for a while. That winter there was a large area of water halfway between Cherry Point and South Shore that had always previously frozen over, now didn't freeze over. And it now stayed open during winters for many years after this experience.
The following story was told to me by a childhood friend of his experience swimming and wading along Cherry Point and feeling cold water come up from the bottom between his toes. This also, would have been the late 1940's or early 1950's. This same experience has been reported by others
West Okabena Lake Levels
Early geology records from 1882 list the level of West & East Okabena as being 1 foot apart: West Okabena 1570, East Okabena 1569
Present runover level at BOTH the West Okabena dam and the Whiskey Ditch Dam according to the Soil Conservation office is 1576.
It is not known why there is this six (6) foot difference between the West Lake Okabena level 1882 Geology Report and the current ( 2006) runover level of 1576.
More information on West Lake Okabena water levels can be found on the DNR web site at: http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind/showlevel.html?id=53002800
Inlets: sources of water
West Okabena gets its water from;
1. Direct rainfall on the lake
3. Runoff of precipitation and melted snow from;
a. There is a natural flow in from the land west of the lake that flows into Sunset Bay
b. There is a natural flow from Okabena Creek that flows from NW of town.
This has been enhanced by the building of Whiskey Ditch and changed in nature by
the dredging filling of Centennial Park.
c. There is a natural drainage into the lake from the Cherry Point area
d. There is a natural drainage into the lake from the NW by the College and Vogt Park:
this is somewhat spring fed.
e. The street drain runoff from certain sections of the town
( Brownish areas on left on map below).
Outlets: Where does the water go
There are these known possible outlets for water from West Lake Okabena:
1. Evaporation of approximately 45 inches over the 9 ice-free months (5 inches per month)
2. The Lake Okabena Dam overflow when water rises above 1576 feet above sea level
3. The Dam on Whiskey Ditch flowing into Okabena Creek
4. When the water gets sufficiently high, the lake will overflow into the town at the corner of Lake Street and 7th Ave and run through town to Okabena creek
5. There is a historical outlet flowing out of Sunset Bay into Tripp Slough and then on through slough areas into the west end of Lake Ocheda. This has not been visibly active in recent times.
Bottom studies: Depth of Lake
There have been a number of studies done of the bottom of Lake Okabena. Most of these studies were done in the winter, through the ice, during the years that silt was being dredged out of the lake ( 1939 to 1983) and were done to guide decisions on where to dredge the following summer.
These bottom studies did not test the same spots as other studies which would explain why they came up with different maximum water depths.
The bottom of Lake Okabena was set by the Des Moines lobe of the Laurentide Ice Sheet as it melted sometime between 14 and 12 thousand years ago. This same glacier also formed the rest of the lakes in SW Minnesota.
Lake Okabena has a natural bottom of clay, sand and gravel that was formed by the glacier. Once you get down to the level where clay begins, you are at the bottom as it was set by the glacier.
There are a few places in several of the bottom studies [ 1944 and 1956] where they could not get beyond water, silt, gravel, etc and could not find what is normally thought of as hard bottom. That being clay.
Since the glacier left, there has been silt deposited by erosion and by wave action against the shoreline. But, the clay bottom is as it was when the lake was created by glacier, except in certain spots where dredging has taken out some of the clay and created deep spots.
There are FOUR areas of the lake where there are deep spots that were created during the dredging of the lake. These are the deep spots that show up on the current Depth Chart.
The present Lake overflow dam was built in 1941 through a joint venture between the state of Minnesota Conservation Department and the Works Progress Administration6. The pedestrian-bike bridge over the overflow dam was added at a later time.
The lake dam is set to overflow at 1576 feet above sea level
Prior to 1941, though there was some sort of a dam structure there, It is not clear whether there were drainage pipes going under the C St P, M & O railway bed, or if there was an open stream.
Correction: Prior to the WPA Okabena-Ocheda Flood Control project in 1941-42, the flow out of West lake Okabena flowed over the Rock Island RR tracks and through the Rock Island RR underpass. Water flowing over the top of RR tracks is a very unusual arrangement.
Evidence of a dam in the same location exists on the 1914 plat of Worthington5.
Evidence of a dam in the same location exists on the north side of the early bathhouses.
There have been times when the Lake fills so fast that the normal overflows cannot drain all the water away fast enough. At those times, it runs over the edge of the lake into the city along Lake Avenue and meanders off to the NE to Heron Lake. The corner of 7th Avenue and Lake Street is one of the first areas where this flooding starts.
An article on general flood protection is available from the Daily Globe 9/26/1991
Flooding occurred in;
2. 1938: flooding occurred 35 years later on September 13, 1938, it also flowed out of the lake through the Rock Island underpass into the old East Okabena lakebed.
3. 1969: flooding occurred 31 years later on June 28, 1969 during a sudden 6.37 inch rain within a six hour period of time. According to the Daily Globe (6/30/1969) "The Okabena grade road separating mudhole bay from the Lake Okabena was under water and closed to traffic". And further, "Almost half the community was under a cover of water". also see;
Daily Globe 1/29/1997 "asking for disaster relief not new to area" an article on the `1969 flood
At one time Worthington generated its own electrical power and steam heat for the center of town, with a coal fueled steam plant on the shores of Lake Okabena. Electric power for parts of Worthington was generated as early as 1895.
In 1947-48 a shoreline water exchange facility was built on the shoreline of West Okabena to provide cool water to cool the Power Plant steam generation facility and provide fire fighting water to the center of town.
Originally built in sometime between 1929 and the early 1930's, the grade has been a delight to sportsman and those who value the special view of the lake provided from the advantage of the view from the grade. It was originally build from the rock salvaged from the "Castle School" building that was demolished to make room for Central Elementary School to be built.
We don't know, for certain, why the grade was built across the bay rather than going normal land route around the south shoreline. There may have been a public health reason why they chose to build this road across the bay and avoid building a simple road around the south side of the lake. There was a Tuberculosis Sanatorium on the south east side of the bay. At the time this was built, Tuberculosis was a very contagious and serious disease. Infected people were isolated for public health reasons. Travel routes to the Sanatorium area were limited. Building a road around the lake past this contagious disease sanatorium may have been deemed a public health risk. This Tuberculosis Sanatorium was run by Dr Slater, who donated some land as a park, originally named "Stoney Point", but later renamed "Slater Park".
Early Dredging Experiment
In the early 1930's an experimental dredge pump was purchased by a local
philanthropist, E.O. Olson, and put to use making lake improvements and in
assisting the building of the Grade as described in these two Daily Globe
The information in this section is currently being researched and will be modified from time to time. More current information on the project to document The Dredging of Lake Okabena can be found on the Facebook Group. This can be seen at:https://www.facebook.com/groups/dredginglakeokabena/"
Basic Dredging program Information
Dredging Lake Okabena was used as a method to create & improve city parks around Lake Okabena and as a method to reverse the silting in of Lake Okabena, to return it to its earlier depths.
There is an unanswered question as to how many dredges Worthington went through. WPA provided a dredge, one they brought here from Ortonville, MN, that was used from 1941 on and then sold it to the city in 1943.
Some basic information on the dredge and program was gleaned for a document in the files at the soil Conservation District. This may have been one of the final dredging permit applications, perhaps 1983 [see it here].
The dredge took mud/silt/sludge off the botom of Lake Okabena and put it up on shore in areas where the fill was needed to develope Parks, Rereational areas, housing areas and business and industrial areas
The mud/silt/sludge was pumped into fill areas on shore through a long pipe
There are numerous silt fill areas on the North side of the lake, on the South and West side of the lake, on the South East side of the lake and in the old East Okabena lakebed
Gradually over the years of dredging, the removal of large amounts of silt and the natural wave action of the lake allowed the lake to cleanse itself and bring a return of clean sand on the shores and a decreased muddy bottom for swimming and lake water sports.
The dredging program stopped in the 1984. The dredge was then stored and later sold.
Commercial Ice Harvest
Ice blocks were cut from the lake during the winter by Worthington Ice Co. to be used to cool local ice boxes in the summer( prior to the modern refrigerator) and furnish the ice to the RR for shipping refrigerated foods. Ice blocks, up to 22 feet long, 22 feet wide and 1.5 feet thick were cut from the winter lake ice. Some were stored in a building located near the Hwy 59 & 60 Viaduct. Some blocks were loaded into railcars and used for refrigerated rail shipment of foods.
Lake Okabena was one of only a few lakes on the railway line between Mpls & Sioux City and had a position near the C St P, M & O railway.
According to the Nobles County Historical Society, over 45,000 TONS of ice were taken from Lake Okabena. The ice harvest peeked in 1940 and declined until it ended in 1956.
Prior to 1899, there was a boathouse waterslide/toboggan slide at the base of 3rd Avenue and Lake Street. It was eliminated in 1899 when the Rock Island railroad built along the lake.
A Toboggan slide was later built by the City Parks Department on the lake near the west end of present day Ludlow Park and was taken over and kept going by the Seratoma Club. The toboggan ride went out onto Lake Okabena ice towards Chautauqua Park.
Seining of Rough Fish
The seining of rough fish was done as noted in a Daily Globe article from August 1931 1931/8/13.
In the late 1940's and 1950's, and in some recent years, during winter, the lake was seined, through the ice, to remove rough fish, like Carp.
Winter Ice Boating
Lake Okabena winter ice was fun for Ice Boaters
The local VFW Club maintained a clubhouse on the west side of Lake Okabena for a number of years
A small nightclub existed on the west side of Lake Okabena, just north of present day Sunset Park. For while it was named either "Hogan's Place" or "Harry Hogan's Place". Later it was know as "Mary's". It was located outside the city limits. At that time there were only gravel roads. So, it was rather remote.
Prior to 1899, there was a boathouse waterslide/toboggan slide at the base of 3rd Avenue and Lake Street. It was eliminated in 1899 when the Rock Island railroad built along the lake.
After the development of the Bathhouse & Waterslide facilities next the lake overflow, a boathouse addition was built out into the lake on that facility. It does not appear on early photos of the Bathhouses, so it is assumed to have been a feature added in the later years of the Bathhouse & Waterslide complex.
Later, after the elimination of the Bathhouse & Waterslide facility, a boathouse facility was built on the northeast side of Ehlers Park ( then called Sunrise Park) at the waters edge along the stretch where the boat landing and pier are now for a period of time. Residents could lease a place to keep their boat there. There were two parts to this faciity. At least one part of the structure had lifts inside the stalls to lift boats out of the water for storage. This facility was eliminated in two stages Sometime after the 1950's.
Through the 1940s, Worthington’s park department also maintained a “deer pen” on the Ehler’s Park site ( then called Sunrise Park). White-tail deer were popular creatures and in that era they were found only in the woods of the north. Hap Ehlers, Park Dept head, erected a large pen and a shelter and there were four/six deer kept there. Worthington joked, “That’s our zoo.” It was a popular place to take kids.
Early Bathhouses & Waterslides
There were a number of Bathhouses & Waterslides and boathouses on Lake Okabena. These various facilities were built by local businessman and/or the Worthington Bathhouse Association, not by the city government.
Primitive boat rental facilities with primitive water slides existed on the shore by Lake Street until the building of the RR tracks there in 1999-1900
Bathhouse & Waterslide facilities were developed in around 1905 and were located on the south side of the dam and lasted until the 1930's.
Early in the history of Worthington a Worthington Postmaster, M.P. Mann built on the first point near the city. The famous woman flyer, Emilia Earhart was known to summer there as a little girl and most likely learned to swim on Lake Okabena. Most of the photos of the M.P. Mann house are from the lake side having a pointed steeple. The steeple was removed in later years. The elegant side was the other side, which is pictured in the later photos. The building was torn down sometime in the late 1920's or early thirties and replaced by the brick residence that still exists.(East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, By Susan Butler, p49).
Amelia Earhart, her sister, her parents and pals from Atchison, Kansas, came north to spend part of several summers with their friends, the M.P. Manns, on Lake Okabena. Amelia did swim and boat on the lake. The visitors took most of their meals and the girls sometimes had rooms at Twitchell’s boarding house, which was at the intersection of Lake Street and Seventh Avenue.
Chautauqua Movement in Worthington on Lake Okabena
Lake Views from early Postcards and Photos
Here are various general early views of Lake Okabena.
You can Click-n-drag the top of a large photo to move it