As a decades-long lake resident, I had been told that Gun Lake was originally a series of 5 or so lakes interconnected by a river until the dam was constructed, creating a unified lake. I had also heard stories of the local farmers dynamiting that dam from time to time? Thank goodness, that in 1957, a person named J.W. Hamp took the time to assemble and record the historical and legal details surrounding the creation of the Gun Lake Dam in a report called “A Brief History Of The Problems In Connection With Organization, Construction, And Maintenance Of The Gun River Drain With Some Significant Legal Details”. OK – the title is a bit wordy – but it was a fascinating read! Most of the following details come from that; other details come from copies of long-ago local newspaper articles, that Jan Lippert gave me.
The truth is, that Gun Lake has ALWAYS looked pretty much like it does now. I’ve seen a map from 1873; and the lake is clearly recognizable as the large, single body of water that it is now. In the past, the massive, 20,000-acre “Gun Swamp” that formed the southern edge of the lake acted like a dam, to keep the lake at a fairly consistent level. The Gun Swamp was popular with waterfowl hunters; but was good for little else…… until someone planted a crop on a dry patch.
Local farmers who were able to drain a few acres, reaped rich harvests from the fertile, muck-laden soil. The first Petition To Drain was received by the Allegan Drain Commissioner in 1892; others followed in 1896, 1897, 1900, 1908 and 1915. A newspaper headline from 1912 declares “Onion Fields Will Replace Big Marsh”! Farmland was selling for the unheard-of price of $150-$200 per acre by 1914! However, Gun Lake was also becoming a popular recreation area; beautiful resorts, hotels and cottages were being built; and the lakefront property owners realized that draining the swamp was also going to lower the level of the lake by 2′ or so. (THAT is where the concept of several deep lakes interconnected by a river must have come from – and probably happened as the lake levels fluctuated during the process of finding a happy medium for both sides).
In 1905, the Gun Lake Protective Association got a Circuit Court Injunction to halt drainage within 2 miles of the lake in order to preserve the natural water level. In 1913, another Restraining Order against draining was issued against the Drain Commissioners of Allegan and Barry County, even though a proposal to build a dam was included in the project (It sounds like there was a fear that Gun Lake would still drain itself via groundwater?). In 1921, a Circuit Court Order officially set the Gun Lake water level at 744.32′ above Sea Level, Civil Engineers felt confident that the lake would NOT drain through the groundwater table, and an earthen dam was built by the Intercounty Drain Commissioners quite a way downstream from the current dam. IF that dam was ever dynamited – it would NOT have been by the farmers – they didn’t want more water downstream to ruin their croplands. If it happened at all, it was probably the work of hunters who wanted to restore the wetlands?
By the late 1930’s, it was apparent that the drain needed to be cleared because cropland was flooding, but was stymied by the Court Injunction of 1905. Also, fears of flooding downstream on the Kalamazoo River due to the additional swampwater added the Plainwell Paper Mills to the fray. In 1946, another Petition To Drain was filed with the Allegan/Barry Intercounty Drain Commission. By that time, though, members of the Muck Growers group had met with members of the GLPA and the Michigan Dep’t of Conservation, to work out a compromise that would lift the injunction against drainage, by building a permanent, water-level-preserving dam closer to the lake. The first dam installed was 50′ wide; but it was discovered that this didn’t allow enough water to escape during high-water periods, so our current 72′-wide dam was built in 1951.
One thing was very apparent, as I read these articles and reports: the Gun Lake Dam benefits both the lake owners AND the downstream farmers. Take away the dam, and we’d all be left with nothing.