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The waters of Lake Shawnee that now attract fishermen, boaters and campers from across the country emerged from the Great Depression.
Sure, when workers began laying the first rocks on the 2,200-foot-long, 55-foot-high dam above Deer Creek, plans called for creating a recreational center. But the project, which began in 1935, was rooted in bringing jobs, and it did. A crew of 400 workers found work for 30 months constructing the more than $1 million Federal Works Progress Administration project.
In the midst of a drought, the lake filled slowly and opened to fishermen in September 1939. At the opening, Lake Shawnee was less than a quarter of the lake’s current 410 surface acres size. Yet, 5,000 anglers showed up with one boasting to have caught 14 pounds of bass within 45 minutes of opening using the one fishing pole to which each fisherman was limited.
The lake remains a popular spot for fishing and is kept stocked with trout, catfish, bass and crappie, said John Knight, director of Shawnee County Parks and Recreation. Fishermen are at home in the southern portion of the lake, where boats that cause wakes aren’t allowed. That area of the lake also is utilized by rowers and sailboats. Paddleboats, kayaks and canoes are available for rental at the marina.
The golf course is one of the most popular spots at the lake with 40,000 to 45,000 rounds played there each year.
“The golf course is one of the busiest public golf courses around,” Knight said.
The park also features the beautiful Ted Ensley Gardens, which burst with color in the summer, an arboretum and numerous beautiful wedding spots. Lake Shawnee also is a popular spot among athletes with baseball and softball fields. In 2009, lighting at the girls softball complex was updated, and a major renovation of the baseball complex should yield six baseball fields and one multipurpose field in time for the start of baseball season in April 2010.
The mix of entertainment options attracts campers with park workers spotting license plates from every state but Alaska and Hawaii. With high gas prices and then the down economy, park campgrounds have been hopping with visitors from northeast Kansas who are looking for a vacation that’s close to home.
The park is encircled by a wide, seven-mile concrete trail completed in 2008, although additional spurs to the trail are planned. The trail is highly visible to help with safety and remains busy all year long. Parks workers even clear it of snow in the winter.
“The thing that really has really changed the whole complexion of the lake was the implementation of the trail,” Knight said. “It brought a lot of new users to the lake.”
● Lake Shawnee Trail — The seven-mile trail loops Lake Shawnee and was completed in 2008. It is a minimum of 10 feet wide and gives runners, bikers and joggers a view of everything the park has to offer.
● Ted Ensley Gardens — The gardens provide a colorful and soothing spot in the park. The 23-acre gardens burst with a variety of trees, shrubs and flowers peaking out from natural and a man-made landscaping. Follow the paths to see waterfalls, fountains, rockscapes, bridges, pergola, gazebo and a sundeck. The gardens are a popular spot for weddings, celebrations and pictures.
● Arboretum — Developed in 1995, the arboretum features about 400 trees representing more than 100 varieties, landscaped beds and a water pond with bridge. It also includes a path.
● Golf Course — This 18-hole, par-70 golf course was constructed in 1971 on a wooded, rolling area of the park where golfers can sneak peaks at the lake. The course and golf shop are open daily, except Christmas Day, for public play and special events.
● Marina — Find paddleboats, kayaks and canoes for rental each summer at the marina, where you also can purchase concessions. To fish, a state fishing license is required, but lake goers no longer need a Lake Shawnee fishing license.
● Campground — Find year-round recreational vehicle camping near the wooded shores of the lake. Campgrounds include restrooms, laundry, concessions, electrical and water hook-ups, dump station, showers, swimming beach and picnic tables. Boat dock slips are available to registered campers.
● Swimming Beach and Waterslides — The sandy beach sits inside a protected cove at the lake and features shaded picnic areas, a sand volleyball court, suntan deck, a 109-foot waterslide and a 65-foot waterslide. Opens at noon daily and operates from Memorial Day weekend into August.
● Nine shelters (including the Yacht Club, two gazebos and pergola) may be rented from April to October, and five feature kitchens. Reynolds Lodge, The Garden House and Shelters three and six are available year round.
● Tennis Courts — Eight lighted courts, which were replaced in 2002, can be used throughout the year. Lessons offered in spring, summer and fall.
● Heated Fishing Dock — This metal flotation structure, which was replaced in 2003, is heated in the winter to allow for fishing.
● Lake Recreation Building — The building is used for a preschool, evening recreation programs and a summer day camp.
● Windsurf Beach — Beach provides lake access for windsurfers.
● Disc Golf Course — This 18-hole course sits on the east edge of the lake and is a competition site for the Dawn to Dusk Disc Club.
● Associations — Associations located at the lake include the Topeka Rowing Association, Shawnee Boat and Ski Club, Shawnee Yacht Club, Shawnee County Girl’s Softball Association and the Shawnee County Amateur Baseball Association.