How the BR lakes came to be

How the BR lakes came to be


By Mukul Verma
Historically, Louisiana State University and City Park lakes have, together, shaped our city.

City Park Lake, circa 1929. At the bottom right, a swamp that was transformed into University Lake.
City Park Lake, circa 1929. At the bottom right, a swamp that was transformed into University Lake.

LSU started out in downtown Baton Rouge where the Louisiana Capitol is now located. By the turn of the 20th century, the university had grown and university leaders searched for a new location for a larger campus. They selected the Gartness Plantation and adjacent land, well outside the city then. Construction of the present campus began in 1922, with classes starting three years later. The growing university’s new location pulled more and more residents into its orbit; the Garden District grew up as Baton Rouge’s new, far-flung suburb.

In 1923, parish taxpayers voted for a bond issue to finance the purchase of land for a new City Park near LSU. Park planners transformed a neighboring patch of marsh into City Park Lake in 1929. But that wasn’t enough; the surrounding swampland was perceived as a menacing place, especially because LSU was now nearby. A newspaper report of the time described the swamp as “a breeding place for mosquitoes (that) was overrun with all kinds of reptiles and animals. It was not a pleasant place.”

Meanwhile, the stock market crashed in 1929, marking the start of the Great Depression. By the early 1930s, Baton Rouge was suffering through the worst unemployment in the state, after New Orleans. Thousands of men needed work, and the Chamber of Commerce recognized opportunity for them in that swamp. In 1933, chamber leaders hatched a plan to drain the Old Perkins Swamp, as it was known then, and to create lakes from it. Funding for the project was expected to come from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s back-to-work programs.

Four donors who owned Old Perkins Swamp donated the property to LSU, but with an important stipulation: the university was obligated to turn the swamps into lakes and parks for public use, and to keep them so forever.

John Mundinger, a civil engineer appointed to the Chamber’s lakes committee, planned the entire project and supervised it throughout its five-year construction phase. The lakes were designed to vary in depth from a few inches at the edges to nine feet in the middle, with “step-off” holes dug in various places, reaching a depth of more than 20 feet.

A ceremony on July 7, 1933, commemorated the launch of this monumental civic project. Baton Rouge’s leaders waxed poetic about the dramatic changes that would follow for the city when “the swamp and all its snakes, frogs, herons, turtles, and wood ducks had fled; when the underbrush and trees had been cut away; when the 273-acre expanse has become a shimmering, beautiful lake.”

Roosevelt’s WPA employed 900 men for the enormous job ahead. Using saws, axes and shovels, those men wrestled lakes from the wild swamp within a few short years. But they also left behind an unseen artifact of the Old Perkins Swamp: thousands of big cypress stumps below the water’s surface.

So many trees were cut down that a for-profit sawmill was built next to the swamp. Cypress logs suitable for lumber were sorted and stacked around the banks of the lakes, which were beginning to take shape. The job of clearing the swamp generated an estimated one million board feet of lumber.

The workers also built a drainage and sewer system that allowed LSU to claim land for Sorority Row, and they formed new land for roads that surround the lakes. The backbreaking work of those 900 laborers removed the threat of malaria-bearing mosquitoes and created a public greenspace that would be cherished by generations of residents from all parts of the parish.

Soon after the project was completed, journalists and others offered a glowing assessment of the beautiful new public amenity for East Baton Rouge Parish’s increasingly urban population.

In a 1938 Advocate article, Orene Muse wrote: “No magic wand was waved. No genie appeared on the scene. Instead, the present lake is a symbol of community leaders’ foresight, and it represents the work of thousands of hands…. Though it was born of travail, the new lake boasts a beauty that has no kin with plebeian need. Shimmering beauty covers the 273-acre tract on a sunshiny October day. Leafy trees mark niches of beauty along the five-mile driveway. Impressive homes have sprung up along its banks. Sailboats may be glimpsed there on a windy day. And, now and then along the banks, a fisherman with a full catch is silhouetted against the sun.”

But those cypress stumps, forgotten beneath the surface, would serve as a silent reminder that the lovely new manmade lakes were once swamps, and man can never fully overcome nature. As soon as the lakes were finished, nature began her slow, relentless attempt to reclaim what was once hers. By 1942, invasive plants had become a problem. Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries spent ten weeks removing water hyacinths from the lakes that year. The plants returned less than a decade later, and the shallow bottom of the lake continued to rise with sediments.

In the 1980s, local government took action to counter the gradual degeneration of the lakes. A company was hired to dredge University Lake but, before long, the firm was stumped. Literally. After discovering so many cypress stumps on the bottom, dredging faltered and the job was abandoned before the whole lake was properly dug out. But the project was not a complete loss; the work that was completed has held up, and University Lake remains much deeper in areas around Stanford Avenue where the stumps were pulled up and the bottom was successfully dredged

Learning from history, current designers have crafted a master plan for saving the lakes. The stumps will be removed and the lakes deepened, but this time the plan recognizes and respects the natural processes at work in the lakes, guided by a human hand. Plants along the shoreline will filter runoff, reducing sedimentation, and the lakes—six of them—will be shaped, with various depths, to provide breeding habitats for fish. The lakes will be deep enough this time, and there will be methods for removing sediment to keep them deep and healthy for decades to come.

Closely wedded in their history, the LSU campus and the lakes around City Park truly transformed Baton Rouge for the better in the first part of the 20th century. The early years of the 21st century will be remembered as a time when Baton Rouge decisively revived and preserved this historic treasure for the city’s future.

This story was adapted from a history of the lakes by Suzanne Turner Associates for the 2016 lakes master plan.

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