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Sacred springs now covered by Glen Elder Reservoir

  • Published Monday, April 1, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Ad Astra

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating the state’s history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, “Ad astra per aspera: To the stars through difficulties.”

Early Indian tribes believed some places were more sacred than others and were the spots where humans and the supernatural mingled.

In Kansas, that place was Waconda, the Great Spirit Springs. The word was originally taken from the Kansa word “Wakonda.” It was anglicized to “Waconda.”

Located in Mitchell County near Glen Elder, it was a place where Native American tribes believed God created a fountain of mystic medicine and the spirit of the sun.

The Native Americans believed it was a place that could cure disease, a place where the spirits of animals lived in the underworld and a place where humans could go to make contact with the animals’ spirits and acquire knowledge and power.

The Pawnee, Wichita, Kaw, Potawatomi, Crow and other tribes were known to have visited the springs. The water was sacred and open to any group, friendly or not.

Geologically, it was a natural artesian spring whose waters were filled with minerals and salts that over time seeped from the water and formed a crater-shaped limestone rock mound that rose several feet above the ground. Inside the crater was one of the area’s largest saltwater springs.

It was considered so unusual that in 1870, Kansas Sen. Samuel Pomeroy – the man who introduced legislation that led to the creation of Yellowstone Park – would write after touring the Solomon River Valley where Waconda Springs was located: “At first I declared it the Crater of an Ancient Volcano. The Water occupying it’s hallow centre is fathomless, and about 200 feet in diameter in a perfect Circle! It is always brimming full and running over on all sides. … The hills about it were as sacred … as those about Jerusalem.”

But by the 1870s, the Native American tribes who valued and treasured the sacred site were being driven from Kansas.

When European settlers came to the area, they created a “Lover’s Leap” legend about an Indian maiden named Wakonda who came across a wounded man crying for water. She hurried to the spring and brought him water in a deerskin bag.

The two discovered they were from rival tribes, but by this time they were in love. The girl’s father wouldn’t allow them to marry. A war broke out, and the wounded man, named Takota, was killed by an arrow. He fell into the springs, and Wakonda, who had been watching, ran to the water’s edge and with raised arms appealed to the gods, then plunged in after him.

By the 1880s, one man began bottling and selling water from the site. The water was sold throughout the nation for its medicinal properties. Another built a nearby sanitarium. Soon Waconda Springs became known as a hotel and spa. Bathtubs were installed. And, by the turn of the 20th century, the slogan of the day was that water from Waconda Springs would “clean your works until your works work.”

According to the Kansas State Historical Society, in 1908, a deep-sea diver explored the depths of the springs. He didn’t reach the bottom of the springs but did return to the surface with objects that decades earlier Native American tribes had respectfully left as offerings.

During the 1940s, geologists from the University of Kansas used sonar and determined the springs were more than 100 feet deep.

But by then, there was a movement to build Glen Elder Reservoir. In 1951, when much of Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City experienced flooding, flood control projects were built throughout the state.

The Glen Elder Reservoir was completed in 1968, covering all traces of Waconda Springs.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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