ANGOLA — In a different era, dredging reshaped Steuben and Noble counties, having lasting impact on agriculture and the value of our lakes.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s agricultural expansion was the major economic driving force in Steuben County. The same held true in Noble County, where onion production was a valuable enterprise.
The arrival of the Lake Shore railroad in 1870 had provided transportation of our agricultural products to new markets. The development of steam powered dredges made it possible to move large amounts material to create a deeper waterway. Since most of the Steuben County’s upland forests and prairies had already been converted to farmland, the main method left to obtain more farmland within the county was to drain the swamps and lower the lakes.
Many landowners within the Pigeon Creek watershed had significant amounts of wetlands on their properties and when the Indiana legislature passed a drainage law that allowed for the formation of a system to fund improved drainage the wheels were set in motion.
George Shrimplin and others petitioned the Steuben County Circuit Court in 1901 to have Pigeon Creek, from Cedar Lake to Mongo, become a regulated drain. This petition was granted and in 1902 a bid was accepted to dredge this natural meandering stream that connected the Pigeon Creek chain of lakes. The purpose of this dredging was to provide improved drainage for agricultural lands in the watershed of this stream.
The following lists the details of the dredging contract as reported in the Oct. 29, 1902, edition of the Steuben Republican: “The number of cubic yards to be excavated as estimated is practically 800,000. This, at the contract price per cubic yard, amounts to $47,430. The other expenses approximated will make the cost of construction about 42 percent of the estimated benefits. … Two large steam dredges will be used at two places on the line, one in Fremont township and the other at the outlet of Long Lake. The ditch will be a deep one and will change very much the past. Long Lake will be lowered about 9 feet. Bower Lake 6 feet and Golden and Hogback lakes each about 9 feet. … The ditch west of Hogback to the county line will average about 10 feet below the present bottom of the creek.”
The Angola Herald stated that “when completed this will be the greatest public improvement in the county since the construction of the Lake Shore railroad.”
The description of dredges was reported on Jan. 7, 1903 in the Steuben Republican: “The boat for the dredge which is to begin work east of Fremont in the Pigeon Creek ditch was launched. It is 20-feet wide and 84-feet long. … Two 25-horse power engines will provide power for the outfit, which will include 25 light dynamo that will supply the necessary light. The cook boat containing the cooking outfit, dining room and sleeping quarters … will trail behind the dredge. A coal boat will also be necessary to carry the fuel. Two shifts of men will be worked, making the day 12 hours for each, and the machinery will stop 12 hours on Sunday.”
The second dredge boat that started at Long Lake was bigger at 30-feet wide and eighty-four feet long. These boats started dredging in February and March of 1903 and finished in October of 1904. Over these two years the two dredges completely changed the landscape of the Pigeon Creek watershed.
The Steuben Republican used the following article from a Noble County exchange “which may serve as ‘pointer’ to land owners who feel that the ditch tax will be a burden. Two years ago, most people would have hooted at the idea of that onions in large quantities could be profitably grown in our midst but time proves all things. The dredge redeemed from a state of worthlessness acres of muck land which seems especially adapted to growing of onions. … Thousands of bushels was Noble County’s product this year with double that next year.” The Wolf Lake area still has an Onion Days festival each year thanks to the ditch tax and the dredge.
Progress reports appeared in Steuben Republican over the two years of dredging. No articles in opposition to this project could be found in any of the local newspapers.
Several cottages had been built in Moonlight Bay on the north side of Long lake as part of the tourist activity centered around the Pleasant Lake area after the arrival of the railroad in 1870. Not a single comment about their shoreline being lowered about 9 feet was in the newspapers.
The dredges and their operation attracted many sight-seers. A boat ride from the town of Pleasant Lake across Long Lake to see the boat dredge in operation cost a dime.
The project had many challenges. When the dredge was being built at the starting point east of Fremont it took a team of eight horses to transport one large piece of the dredge from the railroad to the construction site. One dredge ran out of coal and had to wait a few days for a new supply to arrive. The dredging barge had to be towed across Pigeon Lake with row boats when it went from its inlet to the outlet. The barge dredging downstream of Long Lake sank. It took several days to get it afloat again. In the winter when the water froze in a lake behind the dredging operation coal and supplies had to delivered by wagon directly to the dredging site.
As the dredge lowered the water level in the creek two wells went dry in Flint. Several more were expected to go dry the following summer as the water level would decline further with more dredging downstream.
One concern was raised near the completion of the project. Was there going to be enough stream flow to keep the new channel free of sediment build up? It was stated that “the ditch throughout its entire length has fall enough to practically keep itself clean, if the farmers … are careful not to let their stock tramp the banks and loosen them causing the ditch to fill.” The Steuben County Drainage Board currently collects from landowners in the Pigeon Creek Watershed about $33,000 per year for maintenance of the George Shrimplin Regulated Drain.
The magnitude of other impacts are: Before the dredging Scott Township east of Angola was known for many years as the “Great Swamp.” In Harvey Morley’s 1955 “History of Steuben County” he states “Several thousand acres of wet and unproductive lands had been reclaimed.” Also, he states that “Pigeon Lake had been lowered five feet. About ruining it as a summer resort.”
The lowering of Hogback Lake by about 9 feet decreased its surface area by 52 percent from 307 acres to its current 146 acres. There is a similar impact on the acres of wetlands within the watershed. The 2014 Pigeon Creek Watershed Management Plan estimated there were about 38,700 acres of historic wetlands in this watershed. The current wetland acreage is about 18,000 acres. This means that the Pigeon Creek dredging converted about 20,700 acres or 54 percent of the original wetlands to farmland or other uses. Most of these acres are now productive farmland. Also, many residents and businesses have built near the ditch channels and the lowered lakes. Only a few acres of wetlands have been restored.
The original dredging and subsequent watershed activities have made any return to the pre-dredging hydrology unrealistic. The decision to dredge in 1902 has left a permanent impact on the landscape of Steuben County.
Pete Hippensteel is a retired biology professor from Tri-State/Trine University in Angola. He also is one of the founding members of the Steuben County Lakes Council for which he serves as its technical vice president. His recent 200-year history of Steuben County’s lakes is in its fourth printing.