Commodore Steve Harris – May, 2019
On May 21, 1894, the State of Ohio passed an act entitled An act providing for the dedication of the Licking Reservoir as a public park. It read, in part…
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Ohio, That the body of water known as the Licking reservoir, situated in the counties of Licking, Fairfield and Perry, contained within the metes and bounds of the land owned by the state, be, and the same is hereby dedicated and set apart forever as a public lake, to be known by the name of the Buckeye lake.”
Thus, 125 years ago this month, our lake was “born.” The “lake” at that time, however, was far from the recreational paradise that we know — or even that which our predecessors knew a century ago! An abandoned canal reservoir, it was basically a stump-filled containment with a leaky earthen dam, locks, and weirs. Shallow and in many areas impassable, it was hardly an area conducive to boating and recreation. Its management and planned improvement was placed under contol of the Ohio Board of Public Works.
George Watkins was a canal man. Born and raised near Portsmouth, Ohio, he spent much of his career working on the Ohio-Erie Canal and served as its last Superintendent. After the last canal boats passed through the reservoir in the 1890’s, the former canals and reservoir became a hodge-podge of semi-public water supply, waste disposal, and flood control. In 1906, he was elected President of the Board of Public Works. In addition to other duties, he was charged with the maintenance of over 300 miles of the former canal system and it reservoirs — most of it in disrepair — including the newly designated “Buckeye Lake.”
The 1894 act of the General Assembly did not magically transform the old, neglected reservoir into a “real lake” however. Lacking any significant funding, Watkins had a monumental task ahead of him in making the lake into a usable public park. Fortunately for Watkins, he found an enthusiastic group of Columbus and Newark businessmen who wanted to form — of all things — a yacht club in central Ohio… and he knew just the location!
For years, the press had still referred to Buckeye Lake as the “Licking Reservoir.” While there was some recreational use and early development as a resort area, it wasn’t until the first “official” meeting of the new Club, held on Orchard Island on May 6, 1906, and once the Club adopted the name “Buckeye Lake Yacht Club,” that our lake was referred to by its now-familiar name.
In adherence to a key point of our mission statement — The Improvement of Buckeye Lake for Boating Purposes — the officers of BLYC worked tirelessly during those early years to encourage improvements of the old reservoir. On July 6, 1906, officers of the Club hosted state officials on a tour of the lake during which the leaky locks and weirs were inspected, areas impassble due to vegetation were pointed out, and they encouraged the state to cease all drilling for oil under the lake. After much refreshement and, by all accounts, an enjoyable day on the lake, promises for improvements were secured. Within the month, repairs were begun and the seasonal lowering of the lake levels was slowed. In the coming years, many more improvements would come. As a result, not only did the Club flourish, but also the entire area. The Interurban brought visitors to the lake from all over Central Ohio, the park and nearby hotels became popular destinations and Buckeye Lake began to come into its own.
In recogntion of his leadership in improving the lake, and for his support of BLYC, following his talk at the Club’s Tar Social in 1908, the Club spontaneously voted to rename our home island from Sunken Island to Wakins Island, as it has since been known. Unfortunately, Mr. Watkins died suddenly of a stroke in 1911 and would not live to see the great improvements that followed.
In the epilogue of his book, The Story of Buckeye Lake, Joseph Simpson wrote in 1912…
“Some day Buckeye Lake will be a grand spot compared with what it is now. It may be fifty years hence or longer when expensive buildings and fine grounds will beautify its shores. With ponderous machines, shallow place now harboring useless herbage will be deepend and broadened, when wide canals and islands will appear forming unique building spots to be adorned with beautiful residences, and gardens and trees, including tall spear pointed poplars in the distance.
The reader may smile at our picture and call it ‘a fancy,’ but someday it will come true, too true alas, when you and I and hundreds of others will be dead and gone. The people of Central Ohio need such a spot.”
Indeed Buckeye Lake is now a “Grand Spot” and one enjoyed by the people of central Ohio as Simpson, and certainly George Watkins and the founders of the Club, envisioned.