Monday, September 29, 2014

Roads less traveled: Williamson Pond

Lucas County has such an abundance of public reserves and recreation areas that it's hard to keep track sometimes. I'm thinking I'll visit a few this fall as the leaves turn, so follow along --- even though the colors are not as pretty now as they will be in a few days.

Williamson Pond, although somewhat obscure now, actually is one of our oldest public areas --- built and owned for many years by the Rock Island railroad, then transferred to what now is the Iowa Department of Natural Resources but maintained and managed by the Lucas County Conservation Board. This is a 126-acre reserve with 30 acres of water surrounded by mixed woodland (many oak and walnut) at the head of English Creek two miles east of Williamson.

More properly called a "reservoir" than "pond," the dam was built during 1912 as the north-south Rock Island line (now Union Pacific) was under construction to supply water to refresh steam locomotives from a tower at what then was Gunwald, soon thereafter Williamson --- a wide spot in the road that developed into a major mining center as the coal fields of northeast Lucas County were opened. The legendary Olmitz and Tipperary mines, as well as later mines to the west and north, were nearby. And so was my mother's family, on the first farm west of the new reservoir. 

Bodies of water this size were rare at the time --- only the C.B.&Q. reservoir on Chariton's west edge rivaled it --- so the Gunwald/Williamson reservoir immediately became a destination for picnics, family reunions, camping expeditions, outdoor worship services, even baptisms.

The pump house was located on the southwest shore of the reservoir, connected to the track-side tower in Williamson by a pipeline, partly elevated near the reservoir, then underground. When my mother was a girl, a full-time railroad employee walked out every morning from Williamson to maintain the equipment, pump water to the tower upon demand --- and fish. He would cross the dam, then use a footbridge across the sluice to reach the path leading to the pump house, then retrace his steps in the evening to  walk home, often with a line of fish distributed sometimes to the Miller, Carson, Cain and other farmsteads along the way. Mother remembered names; I don't.

Today, the most frequently used entrance is a narrow lane off County Road H-20 as it curves down into the valley below the dam (obscured by timber). That leads up to the dam and a newer concrete boat ramp.

Williamson Pond is used mostly to fish these days --- and the fishing reportedly is good. There are no amenities, however, other than the ramp. The woods north and northeast of the resesrvoir are pretty, however, and open to hiking. While it is possible to drive out or walk across the dam to a small island-in-the-sky area near the south shore, the footbridge across the sluice disappeared long ago, so there is no easy access to the southwest shoe.

If you wander around on gravel roads south of the reservoir and have sharp eyes, you'll find a second entrance to the Williamson Pond reserve, a lane twisting through woodland to what once was a more developed picnic and camping area on a point overlooking the lake from the southeast --- very pleasant, but overgrown now; picnic tables a thing of the past.

Curiously enough, had the neighborhood --- then somewhat more populated --- not arisen to protest during the late 1960s, Williamson Pond might today be a substantially busier place.

During 1968-69, the Iowa Bureau of Children's and Family Services and the state Department of Conservation proposed the southeast area of the Williamson Pond reserve as site for the Columbia Forest Camp --- an innovative plan to house and train up to 50 young people age 16-18 in the care of Children's and Family Services.

"Camp" to the contrary, this was to be a creatively designed cluster of permanent structures where the young people would be housed while working outdoors and learning skills related to construction and conservation projects in nearby state forests and other public lands. The Legislature had authorized it, $460,000 had been allocated to pay for it and plans were in hand.

But the Williamson Pond neighbors arose in horror at the thought of all those unrestrained young people (there were to be no barred windows or chain-link fences topped by barbed wire), protesting first at a public meeting at the Williamson School during October of 1969, then submitting a petition bearing 475 signatures against the project later in the fall --- and threatening lawsuits thereafter.

State officials decided not long after that public money could be better spent elsewhere, the plan was dropped and Williamson Pond settled into the pleasant obscurity that it still enjoys.


Brenda said...

Thanks for the glimpse of this beautiful area. You really need to lead tours of your "secret gardens".

Judy White Ferin said...

Frank-I grew up in Chariton in the 40's and 50's, had at least four generations of family farming just East of Williamson and I only recently heard of the Williamson Pond. Wow! Thank you for introducing me to that gorgeous area. Hope I can find it some day. Judy