The Great Spirit Lake

I’ve been fortunate to have some outstanding teachers who were dedicated to their jobs and always willing to go the extra mile for their students.  Two of my favorites operated as a team, a husband and wife teaching duo named Henry and Mildred Van de Riet who presided over my 6th grade education.  Actually, Mildred was officially my teacher, while her husband was, I think, school principal and perhaps baseball coach.  Bald, wizened and bespectacled, Henry was probably not as old as he seemed.  He once challenged the 6th, 7th and 8th grade boys to a footrace and beat all of us, even though he ran the race backwards.

As the school year drew to a close teachers customarily took pupils on educational pilgrimages, and it was easy to do with us, since the entire junior high could fit into one station wagon.  We climbed the roadside monument marking the geographical center of the 48 contiguous states near Lebanon, Kansas, gazed at the crumbling brick and stone buildings of an abandoned town - I forget which once - though I’ve come to believe that it was Dentonia in Odessa Township.  We dropped by one of the state’s last active one-room schoolhouses, and on our way home, stopped at Waconda Springs.

I knew very little about Thomas Lovewell in those days, and had no idea that the grounds I wandered that afternoon had anything to do with his legend, but the area certainly stuck in my mind as being unlike anything I had ever seen before or have seen since.

A small rounded hill rose to a height of about thirty feet from the floor of the Solomon River valley.  The hill was a grassy slope for about two thirds of the way around its circumference, with an eroded outcrop of layered stones completing the circuit.  At the summit of the mound was a circular pool thirty feet across, fenced off by a metal railing embedded in a concrete terrace that may have improved nature somewhat to make the shoreline conform to a perfect circle.  A trampled pathway in the grass connected the pool with a cluster of buildings, among them a rundown former hotel and sanatorium, where generations of patients had lain immersed in tanks of Waconda spring water, hoping the magical bath would dispel a laundry list of ailments.  The only building actually open for business that day was a shack where dusty souvenirs were sold at bargain prices.  

If they seemed to be having a going-out-of-business sale, it may have been because the place was indeed going out of business.  I did not know it yet, but the valley was slated to be flooded to create the Glen Elder Reservoir, today known as Lake Waconda.  During the era of my visit, the healing water was no longer being bottled and sold to the desperate, gullible, or curious, but a trickle of it collected in a stone trough at the bottom of the rocky side of the hill, and a tin cup dangling on a chain could be used to scoop up a swig of briny elixir.

Waconda 1908 Dive

How deep was the spring?  No exact measurement was offered publicly.  The word “bottomless” was bandied about.  Visiting in 1870 Kansas Senator Pomeroy declared the waters “fathomless.”  When I was there, a volunteer curator pointed to a faded postcard showing a deep-sea diver descending a ladder to examine the crater.  According to the caption, the diver had explored to a depth of a hundred feet without finding its vertical limit.  I heard two other competing sets of legends about the mysterious pool and its curative waters, which it did not occur to me at the time, were mutually exclusive.  In one version, the water was always level with the rim of the crater, never rising in rainy times nor falling in drought, and possessed magically restorative properties.  According to a second story, the height of the pool rose and fell in unison with ocean tides, and the composition of the contents was virtually identical to seawater, which, as far as I know, has never been hailed as a cure-all, perhaps because, being abundant, it offers no opportunity for a zealous entrepreneur to corner the market.  

Anyway, I was kept awake a few nights by the idea of a “fathomless" column of water lying out there in the lonesome, moonlit Solomon valley, a pool with some mysterious connection to the world’s oceans.  I was also troubled by the thought of that diver plunging into murky depths that seemed to go on almost forever, evidently mingling with seawater deep within the bowels of the earth.  Even after the buildings had been bulldozed and heaped on top of the crater, and the scarred relic had been inundated by the floodwaters of the Solomon River, thinking about Waconda Springs could still give me a shiver.  That was, it could until I came across a microfilm copy of an item printed in the Burr Oak Herald in the 1930’s.

The thing about cold hard facts is that they seldom benefit tourism.  A science class from nearby Beloit had descended on the resort in the 1930’s and spent a day taking careful measurements.  They found the depth of Waconda Springs to be a uniform fourteen feet beneath the brilliant blue surface that was supposedly calm as glass even in a strong gale.  How had that helmeted diver passed the time while he pretended to snoop around the rim of the crater, supposedly hunting for the bottom?  In fact, it’s now known that as early as 1866 a surveyor had estimated the depth of the “fathomless" pool to be about twenty feet.

Waconda Springs did not slip under the waters of Glen Elder Reservoir without a spirited fight.  The owner of the grounds, Dr. Carlos Bingesser, brought in a hydrologist who declared the artesian spring to be the only one of its kind in the world, but to no avail.  The dam was built and the valley was flooded, right on schedule.  I’ve written elsewhere about the Native American legends connected with the place, and I think I fully appreciate why various tribes long considered it a holy site.  Just being there made the fine hairs on the back of my neck bristle.  It was a geographical oddity that seemed completely out of place on the plains of Kansas.

Well, we took care of that.

Historic Postcard of Waconda Springs provided by Hank Zalatel

© Dale Switzer 2023