Glimpse of the Past: Promise for safe swimming at Sibley Park Dam unfulfilled

·3 min read

Jun. 26—In 1936, a wonderful lake was finished next to Mankato's popular Sibley Park. For decades, residents had been asking for a safe place to swim and enjoy the rivers bordering the town.

Early in 1935, a 20-man crew had began cutting brush from the Blue Earth River bottom to form the bottom of the proposed lake.

Mankato engineer Al Kircher, city officials and the citizens were excited they could finally have what they believed would be a safe place to swim in the river.

As things kept rolling along, a nearby dam and dike were completed. Yet the project came to an abrupt halt by mid-summer of 1935.

Work resumed May 18, 1936, on a lake that would average 500 feet in width. Its beach was to be 900 feet long and about 350 feet wide. Delays in getting some materials slowed the work but by late fall the eastern section of the dam was completed.

The dam and lake were dedicated June 23, 1937. At 5:30 p.m. a banquet was held at the Saulpaugh Hotel in downtown Mankato. At least 100 out-of-town guests, including WPA officials, were present. Music was provided by an orchestra of the Local 477 Musicians' Union. After a dinner and speeches, a parade of cars led by the highway patrol and local police went from the hotel to Sibley Park.

A crowd estimated at 8,000 people and 2,500 cars gathered around the park's bandshell to hear the dignitaries speak.

However, one week before the dedication ceremony, 10-year-old John Kenny had dived off the railing of the dam. He was drawn through one of the flood gates that had been opened. A nearby fisherman saved the youth. That same week, the State Board of Health declared the water in the lake to be impure and unsafe for swimming.

On the same day as the ceremony at the park, there were two lake incidents. 15-year-old Raymond Shama drowned after stepping in a hole on the lake's bottom. Another youth needed to be pulled out of the lake after he also went into water over his head.

The Council soon outlawed swimming in the lake. Signs were ordered that read "No Swimming — Deep Pitch Off."

Robert Hopfenspirger had been hired as the lifeguard at the new Sibley Lake. Six days after the grand dedication celebration, his duties changed. His job became keeping people from entering the lake.

After decades of citizens dreaming of a dammed-up lake in the river, two years of planning and two years building, the $2 million (in today's dollars) dam became a boondoggle.

Two things happened to make the disappointment a little less painful for the swimmers. First, one year later, the city built a wading pool for youngsters at Sibley Park that lasted until 1974. Also in 1938, work began on Tourtellotte Pool, also a WPA project.

(This column is the second of a two-part series. Pulis' story was originally published in BECHS' Winter 2021 newsletter "The Blue Earth County Historian.")

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