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Heartland Outdoors

Carlyle Lake turns 50

Thu, July 06, 2017

CARLYLE – Eldon E. Hazlet never lived to see Carlyle Lake full of water, anglers, boaters and sailors. But generations of recreational users can thank Hazlet and others like him for their hard work to make the largest man-made lake in Illinois a reality.

Fittingly, there’s even a state park along the shores of Carlyle Lake that carries Hazlet’s name. Because without him, there might not be a Carlyle Lake.

The story of Carlyle Lake’s creation traces back to 1938 when the reservoir was first authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938 and the Kaskaskia River Valley Project.

The Kaskaskia River had long been a source of flooding problems for local residents and farmers and a group of Clinton County citizens started working in the 1930s to find a solution. While the 1938 act seemed to be an answer, World War II understandably diverted attention from flood control for awhile.

But eventually the concept of a lake in Carlyle found a new champion in lawyer Hazlet, who came to the community in 1950.

“Like all great leaders, Eldon Hazlet was known to be a compassionate listener,” said Jackie Taylor, assistant operations manager at Carlyle Lake. “He heard the complaints about the rampaging river and its toll on local crops. He heard of the Flood Control Act and the efforts in the past to develop the region.”

And he was uniquely suited to do something about those problems. Before long, Hazlet was named president of the Kaskaskia Valley Association and was toiling behind the scenes in Illinois and Washington to push for flood-control lakes.

Thanks in part to his efforts, Congress decided to fund a study that eventually recommended building major reservoirs at Shelbyville and Carlyle, as well as a downstream levee system.

By 1957, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineerss had a comprehensive plan for the Kaskaskia River Basin Project that was to include the Carlyle and Shelbyville reservoir projects. Congress then passed the Flood Control Act in July of 1958 and groundbreaking on the Carlyle Lake dam was started in October of 1958.

In building the dam, workers had to clear more than 1 million cubic yards of soil to reach bedrock. Then more than 8 million yards of earth were used to build the dam and another 130,000 yards of concrete were poured to create the spillway.

Acquiring the 26,000 acres needed for the lake took time and, in some cases, created ill will with residents who were forced to give up their land. In some cases, homesteads were moved to higher ground or other locations.

Other issues included relocating the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad at Keyesport in the fall of 1965 at a cost of $7 million, according to the Breese Journal, which provided much of the background for this article.

Cemeteries were also an issue, as an estimated 600 burials in seven cemeteries were relocated and three cemeteries on the edge of the lake were raised.

Through it all, work continued on the reservoir, aided in part by very favorable weather that often had work running ahead of schedule.

Unfortunately, Hazlet did not live long enough to see the lake fill. Liver cancer claimed Hazlet at age 44 in 1966 – one year before the gates at the dam were closed by Gov. Otto Kerner on June 7, 1967.

“Much of what we celebrate here today was due to his tireless efforts,” Kerner said at the gate closing. “To his memory then, I do hereby designate the west shore of this reservoir as Eldon E. Hazlet Conservation Area.”

In the years since, Carlyle Lake has served a wide variety of roles and has been an economic force for local communities. According to Colonel Anthony Mitchell of the Corps’ St. Louis District, the lake:

• attracts 2.5 million visitors per year with an estimated $80 million in visitor spending done within 30 miles of the project;

• has helped prevent $1 billion in flood damage in the past 10 years;

• provides a water supply that serves more than 100,000 people;

• provides wildlife habitat for a wide variety of species and offers recreational opportunities for many, including serving as host site for the annual Illinois High School Association state bass fishing championships.

“Balancing the lake’s many purposes – conservation, flood control, water supply and quality, recreation opportunity, and navigation – is no easy task. It takes commitment from the community, the citizens, and stakeholders to achieve success,” Col. Mitchell said. “Yet here we are celebrating 50 years of success. Fifty years of the Corps partnering with countless organizations, citizens, and stakeholders – and those same entities partnering with each other, all for the greater good across four major regions of the watershed.” 

“And yes, some famously fantastic sailing,” he added. 


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