Located at the confluence of Licking, Perry and Fairfield counties Ohio, about 35 miles east of the State capital, Columbus, lay an inland body of water known today as Buckeye Lake. A result of the massive force of the Wisconsian glacier which 11,000 years ago, as it began to retreat northward left in its wake huge chunks of ice which melted and formed kettle lakes and provided the swampy depression, eventually to be dammed and reshaped by citizens of a young country with an insatiable drive to harness the wilderness. This collaboration of man and nature has produced an area so rich and diverse in historical and geological phenomenon it can be viewed as a microcosm of the history of the United States.
Native Americans called the area now known as Buckeye Lake “The Big Swamp". European and colonial settlers began to explore lands west of the established colonies. The Ohio Company, an organization formed in 1747 to extend settlements of Virginia westward, commissioned Christopher Gist to explore the territory. It was on a trip in 1751 to map the Ohio region that Gist refers in his journal to an area 5 miles west and 15 miles South west about 6 miles from the mouth from the North Side of Licking Creek, as “the great swamp”. Gist is believed to be the first caucasian to visit the Buckeye Lake region. In his book, “An account of the remarkable occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James A Smith”, Smith makes considerable reference to “Gist’s (Christopher) great swamp” while being held captive by the local natives.
At the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War, the United States Congress in 1783 and 1785 reserved certain lands, some that stretched from present day Columbus to the Buckeye Lake region, for the exclusive use of those former citizens of Canada and Nova Scotia who had become, at the very least, ostracized for fighting on the side of Revolutionary troops against England. This land, was appropriately called the 'Refugee Tract'.
In 1801 Elnathan Schofield was commissioned by the United States Government to survey the area. The survey map provides a clear description of the Big Swamp as it appeared at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century. Each square was a mile on a side and contained 640 acres, some plots list the name of the Canadian refugees who had already laid claim to their land.
A growing country and a growing state needed a way to transport goods throughout the land. A canal system was developed in the early 1800's. The system required feeder lakes to supply the water necessary to maintain the four-foot canal water level. Because of their location, areas such as St. Marys, Indian Lake, Lake Loramie, Guilford and Buckeye lakes were to be developed as part of the project. The canal project was formally started by Governor Jeremiah Morrow on July 4, 1825 in a special ceremony in Hebron, Ohio only miles from “the Big Swamp” construction began on a project which would eventually help connect the Ohio – Erie Canals. Construction of the dike blocking drainage into the South Fork of the Licking River began in 1826 to both contain and raise the water level in the Big Swamp. In 1830, five years after the groundbreaking ceremony, the "Big Swamp” was filled with water and was now officially known as the "Licking Summit Reservoir".
An early pioneer to the Big Swamp area was Thomas Minthorn, constructed a log cabin near the north shore around 1820.
With the coming of the canal workers, mostly Irish immigrants, the entrepreneurial Minthorn received a contract from the Canal Commission to provide room and board for the canal workers building the reservoir dam. His "hotel" was located at the site on the west bank of the canal where the canal entered the reservoir on the north shore. Minthorn's yard served as the outdoor kitchen where huge iron kettles contained the various "stews" made for consumption by the hearty canal workers. One source suggests that in these kettles were cooked meat, potatoes, dumplings, corn and other items of "a savory character".
In order to complete the canal and cross over the Licking/Scioto divide, the "Deep Cut" was dug south of Millersport. When this major digging project was finished in 1833, the 303 mile canal route from Lake Erie to Portsmouth was open for travel and shipping.
Not long after the completion of the reservoir and canal, it became evident that the water storage capacity was insufficient for the canal needs. A large addition to the reservoir was planned for the west end of the body of water. Earthen banks were constructed which enclosed an additional five hundred acres of water. This expansion became known as "The New Reservoir". With the enlarged capacity for water storage, the water demands for the canal appeared to have been met. The canal and towpath went from Sellar's Point to Millersport continuing across what is now the middle of the lake. This line of travel marked the division between the original and the "new" reservoirs.
On July 8th, 1871, The Ohio State Journal reported that “the almost useless condition in which a part of the Ohio canal has remained for nearly a year has occasioned a drain upon the resources of the reservoir that has nearly exhausted the water greatly marring the beauty of the scenery and rendering boating unsafe, at least for ladies, in consequence of myriads of snags an stumps concealed just under the surface of the water which it is impossible to avoid. Notwithstanding these facts, an unusually large number of people have visited this popular resorts (around the lake) during the present season”. The article goes on to remark on the changes certain individuals (A O Springer, Andrew Shell, as well as Mr. Minthorn) have brought about to enhance the areas around the Licking Reservoir as proprietors of the various establishments that catered to hunters and fishermen. It was predicted that a railroad connecting the Reservoir with the 40,000 inhabitants of Columbus, “a gentleman of wealth and influence could raise in 2 hours, stock sufficient to erect a magnificent and commodious hotel upon some one of the many beautiful sites to be found in the vicinity of Millersport.”
The Ohio Canal continued to operate until the early 1890's however the railroads had taken over much of the freight and passenger service demands. In the late 1800's, five railroad stations began serving the Buckeye Lake area: Avondale, Thornport, Millersport, Hebron and Lakeside. The canal was closed as a source of transportation.
With the canal's closing, of course, the question arose concerning what to do with the reservoir. In May, 1894, The Ohio General Assembly passed an act dedicating the Licking Summit Reservoir as a public park. The reservoir was now to be known as "Buckeye Lake". At the time of its dedication as a public park, the lake covered about 4000 acres with over thirty miles of shoreline. It was seven and a quarter miles in length and about one and a quarter miles across at its widest point.
Kyle Armstrong states “that it took the iron horses to drag the Lake from her obscurity and to awaken her as a resort for pleasure seekers from outside her immediate neighborhood,” the first of which arrived in 1875. These railroads aroused the slumber lake to greet many times more visitors that ever before. Trainloads of excursionists drawn by iron horses came for holiday weekend outings at the newly accessible playgrounds.
In the March 31,1893, Cols Dispatch headlined Reservoir Cottages - new idea for utilizing state land – The State Senate passed a joint resolution affecting people in the counties closest to Franklin on the south and southeast.
In 1894 the General Assembly of Ohio reserved the Licking Reservoir for a pubic park to be know as Buckeye Lake.
At the time of its dedication as a public park, the lake covered about 4000 acres with over thirty miles of shoreline. It was seven and a quarter miles in length and about one and a quarter miles across at its widest point. For twenty-five years, 1904-1929, the interurban line--known originally as The Columbus, Buckeye Lake and Newark Traction Company"—daily brought pleasure seeking vacationers to the lake shore.
By 1900, only 25 years after the first iron horse come to its shore, Buckeye Lake was well established as the “Playground of Ohio”. Thousands of people were coming from all over the state’s midsection for brief and extend vacations. There was an amusement park at the end of the trail from Hebron and Captain Dell Fisher's little passenger steamers were making regular scheduled runs from landing to landing through channels in the snag studded basin.
Even though by 1900 the canal was through as a commercial waterway and the railroads had taken over and awakened the lake as a pleasure resort, the Ohio Canal Commission still persisted in the pretense of necessity to maintain the waterway in readiness to pass commercial craft - should they appear again. Lock tenders, toll collectors and maintenance crew were retained on the public payrolls to 1910. Protest of multitudes interested in the lake for pleasure boating and other recreation purposes were resisted stubbornly by bureaucracy firmly entrenched between canal embankments, Kyle Armstrong notes.
In 1902 the state legislature passed an act for the control and management of lakes, reservoirs, and state lands dedicated to the use of the public for park and pleasure, report purposes by this action administration of the lake was transferred from the Ohio Canal Commission to the Board of Public Works, the chief engineer of the public works. In 1904 George Watkins, “the Father of Buckeye Lake” was made a member of the Board of Public Works, whose influence in the joint administration of these waters was gaining ascendancy.
Cabins, cottages, new hostelries and other business sprung up like wildflowers along and at ends of the trails. Improvements of the lake began taking shape in 1904 and Sayre Brothers Marine, still thriving today, was founded.
One of the major tasks was removing tree stumps left over from the days when the dense forestland was filled with water to create the reservoir. Each autumn the work would start and “stump skippers” would begin their work, after the basin was drained to expose submerged tree trunks sticking out of the water. Stumps were then uprooted from the shallows. After a hard freeze trunks in the deeps were cut off just over the ice and left where they fell.
In 1906, the Buckeye Lake Yacht Club was organized at a meeting at Leachmann’s in Columbus.
Click on Amusement Park or BLYC to continue the story of the Playground of Ohio.