History of the Baker Wetlands
The Wakarusa and Kansas River floodplains have developed since the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago. They differ significantly from each other. The Kansas River primarily runs through various layers of sandstone and therefore its sandy substrate allows for significant meandering across a very wide basin. The Wakarusa, however, cuts through an area that was less impacted by glaciers and consists primarily of slate, shale, limestone and silt. The channel is more resistant to movement and thus the meanders in the past have been less significant, and its valley is much narrower. Its banks are steep and muddy.
Ice Age Development
For centuries the Wakarusa River flooded, and as it did so the larger particles settled out of the flood waters closer to the bank, and very fine particles would settle into the lower locations to the north. Over the centuries, a natural levee was created along the Wakarusa River due to the build up of these larger particles. The area away from the river to the north ended up remaining lower and consisting of very fine silty soils. For example, the area around the Boardwalk is approximately five feet lower than the ground along the river bank, nearly one mile to the south. There is an additional man-made levee along the river today as well. The build-up of extremely fine soil particles as well as being lower is what has made this area a wetland over the centuries past. The very fine soil particles keeps water from percolating down through the soil very quickly.
This area was historically used by American Indians of the Kanza tribe and then later by various eastern tribes that were moved to this area by soldiers of the European white settlers. Several archaeological sites in the region have been investigated. The closest known site is to the west of US Highway 59 just south of the current movie theater. Also several sites were investigated before Clinton Lake was filled. In spite of extensive searches and years of plowing, there have been no archaeological sites or artifacts located within the area of the current Baker Wetlands.
The current Baker Wetlands is located in Section 18 of Township 13 South, Range 19 East. This section of 640 acres was divided into four parcels of 160 acres each and was homesteaded in 1854. An early historical map of Douglas County dated 4 July 1857 shows that these four parcels were homesteaded by G.V. Eskridge (NW), M. Groat (NE), H. Sebelius (SE - not sure of spelling of last name), and J.N. Coffey (SW). No information has been found about how much agricultural activity was carried out by these early pioneers, and some of these parcels possibly changed hands several times before becoming part of the Haskell Farm. This early map also shows a bridge located less than a quarter mile east of the current bridge on Louisiana Street. At least initially this was a simple raft that was pulled across the river using draft animals. The raft would have been tethered to a rope anchored on both sides of the river. Prior to the establishment of agriculture upstream, the Wakarusa River banks were probably much shallower than today. Agriculture loosens the soil that then flows into the creeks and rivers and acts as the major force of erosion, scouring away the bottom and banks of the river, making the banks deeper and steeper.
Earlier pioneer accounts indicate that before settlement, the wagons along the Oregon/California Trail either crossed the Wakarusa at Blue Jacket, five to six miles to the east, or about 300 yards downstream from the later bridge. According to pioneer accounts, this crossing was managed by using the wagon’s own oxen to lower the wagons down the south (or possibly east) bank, and then the wagons were pulled up the opposite bank by a team of mules that were owned by a American Indian that lived on the bank.
In 1883, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) began purchasing land to establish the Haskell Institute, a boarding school for American Indians. The original purchases were north, located in Section 7. Between the late 1890s and 1902, BIA purchased the four parcels in Section 18. It was indicated that this land was to become part of the Haskell Farm and be a component of the educational mission of Haskell Institute as well as to grow food for its occupants.
Haskell archives indicate that between 1917 and 1927 a number of projects were carried out by the federal government on Haskell’s behalf that were aimed at draining the area for agricultural use. Much of the land was “bedded,” which refers to the construction of linear raised strips alternating with troughs to drain an otherwise very flat field. The aerial photo above clearly shows these strips throughout the entire property. This is a technique that is used in most flat, floodplain fields even today. A large subterranean tile system was also installed in the north-central and south-central fields and drained to the river. This tile was 26 inches in diameter, and because it was literally draining up hill toward the river, it had to keep going deeper and deeper in order to function. This tile was 20 feet below the surface by the time it emptied into the river. A levee was also constructed all the way around the perimeter to keep flood waters out. The levee on the north contained eight or more culverts with one-way valves to facilitate water flowing out of the property and into the drainage canal on the outside. These one-way flapper valves prevented high waters in the canal from flowing back into the agricultural fields. Three drainage ditches were constructed in 1922: the E-W canal on the outside of the north levee, another E-W canal south of the E-W levee through the middle of the area and a N-S canal in the center of the east half that drains to the river. All of the fields within the levee ultimately drained into one of these canals.
An aerial map dated 1937 shows that through these agricultural activities all but three small parcels had been plowed. The northwest 140 acres had been converted to cool-season grasses for pasture. A windmill was located on the north side of the the canal (about where the Boardwalk exits on the west end) that filled a concrete tank on the south side of the levee as well as another concrete tank located south of the shed near the north gate. The three small parcels that weren’t plowed were apparently maintained for hay and consisted of 15, 10 and 35 acres. It is likely that much of this hay was cordgrass, which was heavily used for thatching roofs of outbuildings. It does not make very good hay for animals to eat, but these may have been the only hay fields available on the Haskell Farm.
In 1934 the educational mission at Haskell changed and no longer included agricultural training. BIA began leasing the ground to local farmers. Then in the 1950s, a significant portion of the acreage was declared by the Department of the Interior as surplus land. Parcels of this land were given to the city to construct Broken Arrow School and South Junior High; to the county to build Broken Arrow Park; to the State Biological Survey, which was later transferred to the University of Kansas; and another 20 acres to the Kansas Forestry, Fish, and Game Commission, which later became the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks. What remained was an odd-shaped parcel of approximately 573 acres.
One of the purposes of forming the State Biological Survey was to acquire the remaining Haskell property in Section 18 for the purpose of creating a wildlife refuge. Dr. E. Raymond Hall, then director of the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and the State Biological Survey, was mainly responsible for the early efforts to save the Haskell Bottoms, as it was commonly referred to. Hall attempted to have control of the 573 acres transferred to the State Biological Survey for the purpose of developing a largely urban refuge, styled after one in Los Angeles. The area would largely be managed for waterfowl because none of the large reservoirs currently in Kansas had been constructed yet. Hall anticipated that development of the refuge would be funded through continued farm leases as the area was converted back to wildlife habitat. It was then discovered that the Quit Claim deed through which the transfer would occur, would prevent earning money from the property for 30 years. Several other attempts were made to have the University of Kansas carry out the effort with funding coming from the state. None of those plans were successful.
Baker University Acquisition
This remaining parcel of 573 acres was transferred as surplus government property from the Department of Interior to the General Services Administration. Several commercial ideas had surfaced for the land, such as a municipal golf course or a regional airport. Before his retirement, Dr. Hall came to his longtime friend, Dr. Ivan L. Boyd, at Baker University. They concluded that a smaller university with less red tape, bureaucracy and overhead might be able to make the process of preserving this property work. In April 1967, the property was transferred to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Through the encouragement of Hall and Boyd, Baker University President James Edward Doty filed a successful application in May 1968 to receive the parcel of land for the purposes of education, research and preservation of the remaining virgin wet meadows. Baker University received the property free of charge through a 30-year Quit Claim Deed in August 1968.
Dr. Ivan Boyd believed that even though the area no longer drained as effectively as in 1920, with the construction of Clinton Dam in the next couple of years it was unlikely that flooding of the area would be frequent enough to convert the area to wetlands. Such efforts would also require expensive earth-moving, costing money that he didn’t have. However, Dr. Boyd was able to continue to lease the farm ground and pasture in exchange for labor and use of the farm equipment instead of cash. This would control weeds and trees and allow him to establish several small single-species stands of big bluestem, switchgrass and indiangrass. The ground was too damp to establish little bluestem. The seed from these stands were then harvested to provide seed to replant more and more of the farm ground. During these early years, Dr. Boyd also had to contend with a substantial land fill and several pieces of large, abandoned construction equipment. The dump had been originally created by Haskell Institute, but the lack of gates encouraged local residents to use it as well. This was located along both sides of the river levee south of the current natural gas facilities. Once the influx of additional trash was stopped through construction of larger and larger gates, the refuse was bulldozed into a pile on the south side of the levee, along with 200 yards of construction rubble hauled there over the years from the Haskell campus. Fortunately, before 196, most of the trash was nontoxic and biodegradable. Much of the scrap metal and tin has been removed, and recycled and the paper and wood products have long since decayed.
Dr. Ivan Boyd was also interested in establishing a diverse prairie, not one with the half-dozen forbs that might be included in CRP mixes today. His students collected thousands of seeds from local prairies and performed various tests on the seeds to determine what conditions caused them to germinate the best. He established 50 study plots to the north of the present gas company site to conduct their various germination studies. From these studies, several fairly diverse prairie plots were established.
Dr. Ivan Boyd was killed in a tragic tractor accident March 18, 1982 while conducting a prescribed burn with his students. He was 78 and died doing what he loved to do: preserving native habitats and teaching students.
When Dr. Roger Boyd became manager of the area in 1982, no major changes were planned. Roger was able to finish planting the few remaining cultivated plots to prairie grasses and some forbs. These were not as diverse as some of the earlier plots, but at least they were predominately prairie. Through contacts with some of his former students, Dr. Boyd became aware of the possibility of funding through the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to restore wetlands. Working with Jim Minnerath and Greg Kramos, a plan was devised to use Partners for Wildlife Program funding to reverse the drainage patterns established by BIA in the 1920s. Breaks in the levees over the decades had allowed water to flow in at high stages but just as quickly, flow out as water receded. Beginning in 1991, these breaks were repaired, several access roads were elevated so they would remain functional, several levees were constructed to develop manageable pools and water control structures were installed. These activities increased water levels after rains for short durations while still allowing the water to disappear fairly quickly.
Dr. Boyd and his students discovered several brick chimney-like structures of unknown function and discovered several sink holes in the north central field. It was assumed that the sink holes were associated with a drainage system, but the origin and destination of this system were not known. Again, one of Dr. Boyd’s students came to the rescue. He discovered a large plume of clean water coming out of the bank of the Wakarusa River. Upon investigation, it was discovered to be coming out of a large pile of rocks on the bank, but the river was too high for the source to be seen. This was before the availability of inexpensive GPS units, so the students lined up at each of the sink holes and chimneys with a pole and flag and discovered that they were all in a straight line. A search in the Haskell archives produced a map of an elaborate scheme to tile the entire section. Through various investigations it was determined that only a portion of this plan had been completed. Another grant in 1995 allowed excavation of the tile close to the river. Once excavated (the tile was 20 feet deep at that location), a 50-foot section of the tile was destroyed and plugged with clay to prevent it from working. This had a major positive impact on water retention: It was like putting the plug back in the bathtub!
The next major project was building a large water-control structure at the south end of the large north-south canal (Mink Creek on the site map). All surface waters would eventually exit through this canal. This was funded by Western Resources. More photos.
Since the restoration of the original wetlands was begun in 1991, a number of other enhancements have been completed. A Boardwalk has been constructed out of recycled plastic lumber near the north gate. This was built between 1992 and 1994. It was built in five sections by the Baldwin Boy Scouts. The section leaders were Jon Boyd, John Paden, Ben Tutschulte, Mike Curran and David Pressgrove. The information kiosk was built in 1994 by Nate Kettle for his Eagle Scout badge, and the storage shed was built later that same year by the Boyd family. Construction of these projects was provided by a long list of volunteers, but the bulk of the funding came from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Western Resources and Jayhawk Audubon. The observation blind was built by a group of Baldwin Boy Scouts under the leadership of Dr. Boyd and one of his students, Scott Kimball, in 1998 and largely funded by Jayhawk Audubon. In the summer of 2007 Alex Coffey built the pergola near the center intersection for his Eagle Scout project. This was jointly funded by Jayhawk Audubon and Wakarusa Chapter of the Sierra Club. The most recent project was the picnic pavilion which is a quarter mile west of the east parking area on Haskell Avenue. The pavilion, educational panels and location map were funded by the Spiva Timmons Foundation. Other enhancements include nesting structures throughout the property for Wood Ducks, Eastern Bluebirds, Tree Swallows and bats.