By: Logan Dudley, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2019, Communication and Culture, Bloomington
At its inception in 1820, Indiana University (then the Indiana State Seminary) was located at the modern intersection of Second Street and College Avenue. The site was home to a small spring, and since the arrival of the university’s first handful of students in 1825, the spring supplied the humble establishment with fresh water.
But like all good things, the spring eventually dried up and the university’s ease of access to fresh water came to an end, forcing the school to rely on wells and cisterns to furnish its supply.
As IU continued to grow and expand, eventually moving to its present site in 1885, it became increasingly dependent on Bloomington’s city water supply to meet its needs. To the university’s dismay, around the turn of the 20th century, the city was repeatedly struck by water famines. In a meeting held by the Marion County alumni chapter in 1914, George M. Cook, then president of the alumni association, summed up the series of crises, reporting:
“There have been water famines in Bloomington (i.e. a shortage of water necessitating a temporary shutdown of the plant) in the years 1899, 1901, 1904, 1908, and 1913. There were serious shortages, with prohibition of lawn and street sprinkling, notably, in 1911 and 1912.”
Early on during the period, drinking water was available to students and faculty from one of the campus cisterns, but supplies “for toilets, lavatories, and for boilers of the heating plant” were urgently needed. The water was both cold and unhygienic, causing parents and students to express their concerns to the administration, and the school was nearly shut down.
The University did its best to stay afloat by laying emergency pipes to carry water shipped in to the Illinois Central Railroad until, finally, in 1909 the administration determined that the university needed its own supply.
The Indiana state legislature of 1909 devoted $20,700 to the cause and granted the administration the freedom to devise whatever solution they saw fit. Originally, engineers thought that wells in Griffy Creek valley might provide an adequate supply, but when testing proved them wrong, they took their search further up the valley into a narrow gorge, one that could be dammed to hold a significant amount of water. Over the next few years, the land was purchased and the gorge was dammed.
But once completed, the new University Lake was almost immediately expanded by increasing the height of the dam. In the end, the lake saved IU from imminent closure.
Though problems supplying the university and the wider city of Bloomington with adequate water persisted for more than a decade after the construction of the dam, the water held at University Lake was enough to keep the boilers running, allowing the university to remain open, rather than sending students home to avoid freezing during the cold Indiana winters.
Flash forward to the present, and University Lake is still serving the IU community, though its role has shifted significantly over time. Today, the lake serves predominately as a restricted site for university students and faculty to conduct research locally.
Two such researchers are IU’s professors of biology Dr. Spencer R. Hall and Dr. Jay T. Lennon, who have both cited the lake’s size, convenient location, and especially its level of seclusion and protection as factors that make it appealing from a research standpoint.
Dr. Hall made certain to emphasize how unique a resource the lake really is, one that should not be taken for granted: “I feel extremely grateful that the university had the wisdom to restrict access to University Lake, setting it aside for research and education/outreach efforts for our environmental science communities. It is a wonderful asset for our research program in my laboratory.”
Unfortunately, in addition to serving as a site for research, University Lake also functions as a drainage impoundment for the IU Golf Course and surrounding areas, which can lead to problems for researchers.
In addition to gratitude, Dr. Hall expressed some frustration over the hindrances his lab has faced as a result of the lake’s location, saying, “I really wish that the golf course was not in its watershed. They apply too many nutrients to their land, causing nasty algal blooms at times in the lake. Those algal blooms limit the lake’s ability to serve as a facsimile for the forested lakes we use in neighboring counties.”
Despite such problems, the dam and lake have already exceeded their expected life span. According to Michael Chitwood, Property Manager of the Research and Teaching Preserve located next to the lake, such a dam is typically only supposed to last about fifty years. The century-old dam at University Lake, however, only shows signs of minor decay and will hopefully continue to serve the IU community for years to come, though how exactly it will serve remains unclear.
With construction of the new hospital set to begin near the lake, the features of the land in that area of campus are bound to undergo significant changes in the years to come, and the university will be facing a decision about the lake’s future role.
Though the future remains unknown, the IU community can say for certain that University Lake has been an essential partner in facilitating student life and learning throughout the school’s history. A hidden gem still unknown to most, the lake has made possible feats as large as heating the university and as small as housing plankton for a lab experiment.
In both cases, it has given everything it has in service of the university, a true Hoosier through and through.
Chitwood, Michael. Personal Interview. 24 Feb. 2017.
Hall, Spencer R. Personal Interview. 17 Mar. 2017.
Lennon, Jay T. Personal Interview. 12 Mar. 2017
Myers, Burton D. History of Indiana University vol. 2, edited by Ivy L. Chamness and Burton D. Myers, Indiana University, 1952, 3 vols, pp. 270-76.