Old Photos: At The Bottom Of The Tuttle Creek Lake

In June 1960 the Life Magazine published the following report about the imminent flooding of the Tuttle Creek Reservoir.

Forlorn End For a Valley.

In the verdant farmlands of the Blue River valley in northeastern Kansas, where 3,000 people found themselves in the path of progress, only a sorrowful handful still stayed near ghost towns. The reservoir for the Tuttle Creek flood-control dam would inundate 15,000 acres. In many cases it would swallow up the farms and limestone homesteads built up by the owners’ pioneer ancestors.

The cost of resettling and the beginning of new lives came high. New property usually costs more than the fees awarded for the old. It was a sad wrench, especially for the old people. But the uprooted Kansans have one consolation. They will live near what will eventually be the state’s largest recreation area.

Bitter sign was built by Men’s Club, believing dam putting town under 75 feet of water unneeded. © Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

Probably the eeriest photo of all – this place is at the bottom of the lake.

The lingering remainder of Bigelow’s former 300 residents gather in front of the town Post Office, where the flag still bravely flies.© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

Leveling home of Mrs. Amelia Grub built of limestone in 1876, a two-foot-thick wall is pulled down. Owner’s son razed it to get stone for shed. Government crews clear most of the reservoir basin.© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

Old rocking chair on porch of abandoned house.© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

Cleburne, KS, US © Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

Carpenters salvaging lumber from house being demolished to make way for new dam.© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

House being demolished to make way for new dam.© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

Land being cleared of houses to make way for new dam.© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

Relocation Of People Of Blue Valley, Kansas, Site Of Tuttle Creek Dam.© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

© Time Inc.Thomas Mcavoy

  • There is a large farming family near where I grew up who were bought out by the government when Tuttle Creek was built, using that money to buy farmland further east (and a little south) in Kansas. I think it worked out well for them, as the land they bought in north-east Kansas was probably more fertile than what they probably had in the flint hills. Most of those evicted were probably not quite so fortunate, however.

  • DLavenburg


  • Noble Rot

    I was living in Manhattan in ’93 when they opened the dam and let all of the excess water out. A few months later you could go out below the dam and check out the impressive canyon in the spillway caused by the erosive affects of millions of cubic acres of water rushing down the river.

    Also, there was a legend that the dam was build on top of a geological fault. 

    • There is a link in the first paragraph to the US Corps of Engineers page on Tuttle Creek,it says that original design from the 1930’s did not account for a possible earthquake. They went back later on and fortified it to withstand strongest possible earthquake.

    • It’s true: the humboldt fault line goes directly below the lake, near the dam itself. If your’re careful, you can see the actual fault line (in the limestone rocks), just after driving across the Dam. 

      I’ve got some photos from the floods of ’93, but they’re not particularly stunning.

    • Jerry Lindeen

      The fault line runs through the spillway area on the east end of the dam and diagonally up the lake. Corps of Engineers claimed back in the 70s that a 2-3 inch slip in the fault line would wash the dam out in 3-4 days; don’t know and hope they never find out. I can assure you that the fortification was not done to withstand the strongest possible earthquake; that is impossible. It was done in 1973 because of high levels in the lake caused the east end of the dam to shift triggering the seismic sensors to alarm. The east end of the dam shifted 11 inches before getting enough rock hauled in to stabilize it. There was a bridge that collapsed in Topeka, Kansas and the Corps was asked to close the gates to lower the water level so search crews could search for cars that fell into the river. Water can flow into Tuttle Creek 7 times faster than they can let it out and there were heavy rains that year and the lake level was already high. I lived below the dam at that time and recall being VERY nervous about the lake being so high. They said at the time it was the highest it had ever been. I’m not sure water even reached the spillway gates. I did not learn of the shift until later; it was never reported in the media. I had an Uncle that was in sales and he crossed the dam every day at that time and after several days of being delayed because of all the dump truck activity he asked a flagman what was going on and this was what he was told. Jerry Lindeen.

    • canamm

      It’s not a legend. It’s known as the Humboldt Fault line.

    • Babagranny

      The fault is not a legend. You can see the line of the fault in the wall that was cut for the spillway. In any case, faults are not uncommon and don’t necessarily mean they will move in the lifetime of this lake. The dam has been built with extra safety measures so it can withstand pretty much movement anyway. I still live in Manhattan and lived here in 1960 when the lake was filled for the first time.

    • newq

      Some slight misunderstantings in this thread. The Humboldt fault is actually near Wamego, several miles to the east and runs for severeal hundred miles from Nebraska to Oklahoma. It’s also two or three miles below the Earth’s surface deep, deep, deep in the Precambrian basement rocks. It will slip every century or so and make a big quake that could threaten the dam, but in the late 2000s, they did a strengthening project by injecting concrete beneath the dam to make a huge underground wall to stabilize the soft sand beneath the dam. The fault line that is visible in the spillway canyon is no longer active and runs almost perpendicular to the Humboldt fault. I think geologists believe it to be unrelated to the Humboldt fault as it was formed in a different time in geological history. It’s also much shallower and not subject to the same kinds of tectonic forces as the Humboldt is. The Humboldt is relatively “recent” and represents the scar where the North American continent briefly tried to split in half 100 million years ago.

      In any case, that’s the urban legend: that the dam was built on an active fault. It wasn’t. The fault that runs near the dam isn’t the Humboldt fault and it isn’t active. The dam was, however, vulnerable to quakes before the strengthening project. In theory, it should be okay now. In theory…

  • Name

    Some clarifications on incorrect information in the posted information. 1973 was the 2nd highest level the lake has reached in its history, elevation 1025 above sea level, and was about half way up or 10 feet on the spillway gates. Normal lake level is elevation 1075.0. The dam did not shift 11 inches in 1973. The highest level of the lake was in 1993 where it peaked at 1.77 feet above the top of the spillway gates, elevation 1137.77, which the spillway gates were opened and released approximately 60,000 cubic feet of water per second, creating the canyon referenced. The spillway is capable of releasing close to 600,000 cubic feet per second if the lake were ever to approach the top of the dam elevation, so the probability of 7 times that amount of water entereing the lake is not possible. The tower and spillway were designed to withstand earthquakes in the original design, but the technology to analyze the earthen dam was not available then. An earthquake in California and subsequent near failure of the Lower San Fernando Dam in 1972 caused the Federal government to look closer at all of its dams and found that Tuttle Creek was suseptible to earthquake damage. The fault line in the spillway is an inactive surface fault and even if it did move, would not generate enough energy to fail the dam. However, the Humbolt Fault that is referenced is capable of a large earthquake and is a deep fault, several miles below the surface, but it is 10-15 miles east of the dam, closer to the town of Wamego KS. This fault runs roughly from Oklahoma City, OK to Omaha NE. The dam was seismically rehabilitated to withstand earthquake damage in the early 2000’s and is now designed to withstand a maximum credible earthquake of 6.6 magnitude, the largest geologist believe could happen in the area. The largest ever recorded in the area is closer to 5.1 magnitude in the late 1800’s. During a large earthquake, the dam would likely still receive damage, but the rahabilitation work completed is intended to prevent full failure of the dam so that it does not create a loss of the lake’s stored water and subsequent large flooding that would occur. If the dam were to fail, it is estimated that the peak flows would be as high as 6 times that experienced during the 1993 spillway release.

    • Pat Osborne

      How much of our money was spent on the recent “shoring up” of the dam? Keep in mind that many people north of Manhattan who had dealt with water flow had plans for smaller dams in strategic locations that would control Big Blue at a lesser expense and heartache than what was done.
      My grandparents were among the last to be “bought out” at Cleburne. They lived for years without a post office or grocery store or coop because those had already been bought out. With most of their local population gone, there was no work for my grandfather who was an handy man carpenter. Their pleas to hasten their buyout went unheeded for years before the govt. came through with the whopping amount of $5,000-$6,000 for their acres, home and outbuildings. signed: Still bitter

  • farmgal

    This was my mother home w her family she was but a little girl when it took her home and family business away.

  • deanna Hall

    My family farm was also taken by eminent domain in the Cleburne / Mariadahl area. The Mariadahl area had a beautiful stone church built by my ancestors and named after Maria Christina Johnson – my great great great great great grandmother who came here from Sweden. I was the youngest of her descendents when the church had to close- was torn down – and the cemetery dug up and moved to another location. Not only did the eminent domain issue take a person’s home but also their business ( their farm) as well as their inheritance of the valley that their ancestors had homesteaded and settled. Many up and down the road were related. When their farms were taken from them they had to scatter across Kansas, into Nebraska and further to try to find other farms for sale. I believe that Tacitus – an earlier poster was incorrect – the soil in the valley was VERY fertile as it was river bottom not “flint hills prairie”.

  • chrisfrommactown

    I was born several years after the 51 floods but my folks lived in Council Grove at the time just two blocks from where the Neosho ran through downtown. Anybody who lived through that flood year knows how important the big dams have been. Topeka was particularly hard hit that year. No major flooding has occurred since Tuttle Creek and Milford were built.