A.L. Lake’s depth, silt, scum, sewage and fire

Published 7:30 am Friday, October 23, 2009

It was my intention in the last column to check on several myths and do updates on Albert Lea Lake. Again, the last column was inspired by a 1926 news article found by local historical researcher Kevin Savick and also the “Mythbusters” television program. Instead, I ended up trying to verify the 25-mile shoreline mentioned for this lake. I determined that this printed myth couldn’t be confirmed or was plausible and therefore busted.

There were several other topics in the news article about this lake published in the June 3, 1926, edition of the Freeborn County Standard worth further comments or mythbusting.

First, I have a personal policy to give full credit and to quote exactly the material from another source. Thus, in last week’s column I’m fully aware of the word moraine being misspelled three times with two r’s in the Standard’s news article about Lake Albert Lea. This error was emphasized by the Tribune’s spell checker and the dictionary.

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Second, Alfred Christopherson is quoted in the 1926 article as saying the lake off Moraine Point has a rock and gravel bottom and the depth is six to eight feet in depth. That may have been a fact back in 1926; today this lake’s maximum depth is 5 1/2 feet, according to Matt Levorson’s Web site.

Third, Alfred said most of the lake bottom was then “washed-in mud.” That’s a fancy name for pure silt.

Fourth, he said this lake never became covered with the green scum that was on Fountain Lake during the summer 83 years ago. That’s certainly not true this year, and the proof could be seen on the part of Albert Lea Lake just to the south of East Front Street.

Fifth, the 1926 news article did mention the fact that city sewage was being emptied into the upper part of this lake. In that era a stream or lake was a really handy and cheap place to dispose of waste water and other undesirable refuse. Adding to the local problem back then was the Wilson & Co. plant, located next to the Shell Rock River and the area called “the channel.”

While doing research on this particular lake at the Freeborn County Historical Museum Library, I found many older news articles based on the continuing contamination of a once-pristine prairie lake.

A few years ago I was involved in helping to write a series of Tribune articles based on this lake and its problems. This is when I found out a part of the upper lake was so filthy with flammable oily scum that the surface actually caught fire.

This may sound like a real myth. The Tribune’s editor at the time asked for definite proof about a fire on the lake. To confirm that this really happened, I was able to provide this quote from the Dec. 11, 1922, issue of the Tribune:

“For a time several local concerns were allowing creosote, oils, fats and other ‘gooey’ substances to run into the sewer emptying into the lower lake. This practice kept up until one day a large portion of the thick water in the channel and upper lake actually caught fire. When this took place the City Council took the matter up and ordered that no more of the (allegedly) inflammable stuff be dumped into the city sewer. Whether this practice still continues or not, we do not know, but evidently there is enough already in the lake to destroy life — even the bullheads are having a hard time to keep right side up.”

I might add here that the upper lake is named Fountain and there’s a difference in elevation of about five feet with the lower lake, which is apparent at the Bridge Avenue dam.

I should add also that the Wilson & Co. property was not within the city limits until the early 1960s. Thus, the Albert Lea City Council couldn’t really tell this firm what to do with its waste and offal back in the 1920s.

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.