Tuttle Creek Reservoir has the dubious distinction of being one of the most controversial lakes in Kansas history. Located on Tuttle Creek, named for local resident and Mexican–American War veteran Henry Tuttle, the project may have been conceived as early as the late 1920s as a means of flood control on the Kansas River downstream.
A dam on Tuttle Creek did not become a serious possibility, however, until after 1938, when it was authorized in the Flood Control Act, partly as a safety measure, partly as a source of employment under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Planning stalled for several years due to a lack of funding, but money became available in 1944.
When the residents of the area to be inundated by Tuttle Creek Reservoir realized that matters were coming to a head, a heavy protest effort was launched. “Stop the water where it falls” became their watchword, referring to the proposed construction of a series of smaller reservoirs upstream. A study of the plan was conducted in 1950, but the conclusion was that a single large reservoir would be the most feasible project.
Still, matters might have dragged on had it not been for the Great Flood of 1951. With heavy rainfalls across the Midwest, the Kansas and Missouri rivers became overwhelmed. Eight feet of water covered the business district of Manhattan, Kansas, and similarly disastrous flooding occurred in Topeka, Lawrence, and Kansas City. Residents and businessmen of these cities began clamoring for the construction of a dam on Tuttle Creek and numerous other steams in Kansas and other states, as well. An appropriation was hastily pushed through the United States Congress in the final hours of the 1952 session, and suddenly Tuttle Creek was at the center of a national debate on flood control and dam construction.
Rural interests protested vigorously against the ability of a handful of large cities to destroy cropland and displace locals from their homes. Engineers worked out alternative plans involving small dams, flood-plain zoning, and improvements to river channels in heavily populated areas. Congress hesitated briefly in the face of such a determined opposition and refused to continue funding to the project in 1953. Ironically, however, the Great Flood was followed by an extended drought in 1952 and 1953. Big-dam proponents observed that a reservoir would ensure water quality and downstream navigation in such situations, and funding was restored in 1955.
Charged with the task of building Tuttle Creek Reservoir, the Army Corps of Engineers set to work preparing the land for construction. Roads and railroads had to be rerouted, homes had to be torn down, and entire cemeteries had to be dug up and moved. Construction affected ten small towns, as well as 55,000 acres of farmland. Court orders were necessary to convince some of the residents to leave, and construction dragged on for several years. The reservoir was finally completed in July 1962 and dedicated in June 1963.
An unusual flaw in the design of Tuttle Creek Reservoir was discovered in the late 1980s. Earthquakes across the country as well as historical records of earthquakes in the Manhattan area drew attention to the area of Tuttle Creek State Park. Seismic evaluations, using technologies that were new at the time, were carried out and revealed that the lake is near the most active part of the Humboldt Fault Zone, a series of faults running south through southeastern Nebraska before angling southwest through Kansas. Evaluations indicated that a sufficiently large earthquake could cause the dam to fail and inundate Manhattan. Work began to reinforce the dam with concrete walls and install a system of warning sensors, projects that were not completed until recent years.
Proponents of the big dam project felt justified in their views after major flooding hit the region in 1993. Tuttle Creek Reservoir held the water back for weeks, but finally steps had to be taken to preserve the dam. In late July, all of the floodgates were opened and the waters poured out of the spillway, creating a roar that could be heard clearly half a mile away, sometimes even further. When the gates were closed almost three weeks later, a 20-foot-deep canyon was discovered in what had once been a grassy area used for recreation.
Is Tuttle Creek State Park a success? Opinions vary. Water quality is becoming a major issue, with pesticides entering the water supply and silt slowly filling up the reservoir. Also, many former residents of towns at the bottom of the lake still feel that something of value was lost when their communities were inundated. On the other hand, the reservoir probably saved considerable money in flood damage in 1993, and the park is definitely a valuable tourist attraction, drawing more visitors on a regular basis than any other state park in Kansas.
- Take U.S. Highway 24 northwest out of Manhattan.
- Turn right on Kansas Highway 13 and continue for about 1 3/4 miles.
- Turn right onto River Pond Road and continue about 1 1/4 miles to reach the park office and pay station.
Tuttle Creek State Park is located on the northeastern edge of the Flint Hills. Its habitats are quite varied, ranging from marshes to tallgrass prairie. While the woodlands at this park are not extensive, they contain diverse species, such as oak, hickory, walnut, and maple, among others. The grasslands take center stage, however.
Wildlife species vary with the landscape. The lake harbors an impressive array of waterfowl and shorebirds, while smaller ponds attract bald eagles, muskrats, and beavers. The grasslands are home to an abundance of birds and mammals, ranging from the coyote to the greater prairie chicken, as well as some uncommon and hard-to-spot sparrow species.
Rockhounds will love the opportunities available to them at Tuttle Creek State Park. Limestone boulders and outcroppings are visible in several places, but the highlight is the canyon near the spillway. This part of the park, already conveniently excavated by the flood waters of 1993, is packed with fossils.
An abundance of wildlife and an extensive system of public lands makes hunting excellent at this park. Many hunters have enjoyed successful duck hunting in the marsh, while deer and turkey are readily available along streams. Other options include dove, quail, pheasant, and squirrel.
For practice and educational programs, stop by Fancy Creek Range in the Fancy Creek Area at the north end of the lake. Targets are provided for both archery and firearms. A new archery range is also available in the River Pond Area.
Flathead and channel catfish reign supreme at Tuttle Creek State Park. However, crappie and white and largemouth bass can be caught in brushy areas, and saugeye are frequently present near the dam. For trout fishing, try your luck at Willow Lake in the River Pond Area below the dam.
- Cottonwood Trail: This easy hiking trail is about a quarter mile long one way and runs through the eastern side of the River Pond Area. As you walk, you will learn more about the flora and fauna of the park.
- Cedar Ridge Trail: A handicapped-accessible loop through the Cedar Ridge Area, this trail is open for hiking only. The trail is about 3/4 of a mile long. Woodlands are the highlight.
- Blue River Trail: This mile-long loop through Outlet Park is sandwiched between the River Pond Area and the Big Blue River. The wildlife viewing opportunities are particularly good on this interpretive path. Hiking only.
- Western Heritage Trail: For hikers only, this trail follows the Big Blue River for 1 1/4 miles one way. If you like riparian landscapes, you’ll probably enjoy this scenery.
- Carnahan Park Trails: The main trail system at Carnahan Park on the east side of the lake is a five-mile loop for hiking and horseback riding. This trail is challenging, but the wildlife and scenic views make it worthwhile. There is also a 12-mile linear trail that heads north before doubling back to follow the west side of Carnahan Cove. This one is not for the faint of heart, since it is poorly marked and frequently waterlogged.
- Fancy Creek Mountain Bike Trail: A tough six-mile loop, this trail for both hikers and bikers loops through the Fancy Creek Area. The rough terrain, many hills, and rocky ridges combine to create one of the steepest mountain bike trails in Kansas. It is frequently used for competitions.
- Randolph Equestrian Trail: The better maintained of the two horse trails at Tuttle Creek State Park, the Randolph trail system offers 13 miles of great views. Woods, prairie, lake, rocks—you’ll see it all. Open for both hiking and horseback riding.
- Spillway Cycle Area: East of the River Pond Area is a 45-acre strip of land, mostly but not entirely wooded, set aside for bicycles and small motorized vehicles. Several trails accommodate all skill levels. Visitors are requested not to use the trails when muddy.
- Tuttle Creek ORV Area: Open to both motorized and non-motorized vehicles, this 310-acre area on the east side of the lake was designed to be challenging. Be prepared for some rough terrain. Visitors are requested not to use the trails when muddy.
For a little sightseeing, head up to the Kansas Highway 16 bridge across the northern part of the lake. This bridge holds the distinction of being the longest in Kansas. As you drive across, scan the marshes to the north of the bridge for remnants of Old Randolph, the only town to be rebuilt elsewhere after inundation by the reservoir.
Boating is a major attraction at Tuttle Creek State Park. The reservoir is considered an excellent sailing lake, while River Pond provides calm water for canoes and kayaks (rentals available). All boaters, however, should exercise caution, as Tuttle Creek Reservoir contains many submerged hazards.
Tuttle Creek State Park offers a particularly diverse lineup of organized events, as well. Organized hikes, youth hunts, and eagle watching are just the beginning.