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MEMORIES IN FOCUS:   Hope springs eternal for Central Park landmark

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO FROM MARION HISTORICAL MUSEUM

A 100-foot retaining wall built in 1913 in an attempt to increase visits to the historic springs in Marion’s Central Park was short-lived, collapsing two years later. The spring was declared unhealthy in 1921 and buried in 1947 before drying up in 1951. The location was unearthed in 1965 and restored as a grotto in 2001.

Central Park’s grotto of recirculating water, built in 2001 at the location of Marion’s historic park spring, is but the latest in a series of attempts to preserve and enhance the historic setting.

In June 1860, when members of the Billings, Griffith, and Shreve families settled in Marion, they chose the location in part because of the spring.

It was one of several in eastern Marion County spawned by the western edge of the Ice Age geological uplift that formed the Flint Hills. That uplift also is why the area sometimes feels minor earthquakes.

Two different aquifers — one with water originally suitable for drinking, the other heavily laden with sulfur — drove a multitude of springs in the region. Many still exist.

The famous Lost Spring along the Santa Fe Trail, the Crystal Lake spring that provides Florence’s drinking water, springs that feed Marion County Lake and Spring Creek, and a mixture of both sulfur and clear springs at the historic Chingawasa Springs / Carter resort northeast of Marion all are part of the same system.

The spring in Central Park proved one of the hardiest, continuing to flow despite drought in the 1860s, and its hill-sheltered location provided a natural campsite when the Billings, Griffith, and Shreve families arrived.

The first major improvements occurred after the park was purchased by the city in 1894.

Work on a permanent approach to the spring began in 1896, but much initial work on Central Park was wiped out in a severe wind and hail storm in 1899, which also destroyed a nearby standpipe that provided the city’s water supply.

After excavation and addition of a paved approach and stone retaining wall in 1900, the spring became a popular tourist attraction and place where hundreds of people came to drink daily.

In 1901, the spring’s output was 480 gallons per hour — 11,520 per day.

That’s not a lot compared to the more than 172,000 gallons released daily by Marion Reservoir.

But it was enough for temperance-minded Record editor E.W. Hoch to quip: “This ought to be sufficient to appease the thirst of all without the assistance of any ‘joints.’”

Beer joints, taverns, and saloons were favorite targets of civic leaders in those days.

The 1900 improvements included an artisanal cut-stone retaining wall with beaded joints and secure caps.

Stonemason William Jenkins extended the wall to the northwest in 1903.

The community then united behind a park improvement fund drive in 1909. The drive was led by the city’s largest merchant, W.W. Loveless & Sons, donating 10% of its cash sales from one Saturday in July, which because of harvest was traditionally among the biggest retail days of the year.

In 1913, a portion of hill just north of the spring was leveled. The west bank of Luta Creek, which at the time abutted the spring, was edged with paving. An eight-foot-wide pathway was added. And the original retaining wall was extended 100 feet by contractor Will Moore at a cost of $350, the equivalent of $9,000 today.

The work, captured in the rare accompanying image by Marion photographer Carrie Miller, did not last, however.

The retaining wall, with much more irregular stones and irregular flush mortar, collapsed two years later.

Portions were rebuilt later that year, and in 1916 a pipe was laid from the spring across the park to a public drinking fountain at the stone-arch bridge over Luta Creek on Main St.

Four years later, however, tests determined that the spring, as well as most private wells in Marion, had become contaminated by septic systems.

Soon afterward, Luta Creek, which had meandered east across the park to the spring, was straightened into its present location on the west side of the park.

Contaminated water from the spring continued to flow into a minor streambed that was a vestige of the original path of the river.

Portions of that old channel can still be seen south of the spring.

The northern portion was filled in, and the remains of the spring’s retaining wall covered over, in 1947 after physician and mayor Ralph R. Melton determined that the stagnant, contaminated water emerging into what had become a swampy backwater constituted a health hazard by providing a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The present drive to the rear of Central Park was added at that time.

Extensive flooding in 1951 sealed the fate of the now piped-away spring, causing the original location to dry up.

In 1965, crews unearthed the old spring location. Plans to create a grotto there began circulating in 1977 and came to fruition in 2001.

Even before the spring dried up or became contaminated by septic systems, there were questions about its healthfulness.

Most water from Flint Hills aquifers is extremely “hard,” with high levels of dissolved solids from weathered limestone, resulting in calcium and magnesium levels that typically exceed standards for drinking water.

The water may be becoming even “harder” today, as carbon dioxide from fossil fuel exhaust in rainfall increases the weathering.

Last modified Oct. 17, 2019

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