A view of the Citizens Lake beach, looking southeast, possibly in the early 1960s. A concession stand is at center, while a Chicago Northwestern train can be seen on the tracks at right.

From railroad reservoir to recreation park: The evolution of Citizens Lake

MONMOUTH, Ill. — Steam locomotives once ruled the rails, but it has been 70 years since they began being phased out by diesel engines. Consequently, we think very little today about the unique demands of steam transportation — one of the greatest of which was access to water.

Locomotives consumed thousands of gallons of water a day, which was used not only to create steam but also to wash their boilers. It is not surprising, then, that railroads constructed large man-made reservoirs along their right-of-ways, providing ready sources of water. Monmouth still benefits from two such “railroad ponds,” which today constitute Citizens Lake at the west edge of town.

Living in the middle of a flat prairie with no immediate access to a large body of water, citizens of Monmouth were delighted when the CB&Q railroad widened a tributary of Cedar Creek to create an artificial lake to store rainwater for its engines. The earliest newspaper account I could find about it being used for recreation concerned a man falling through the ice in 1883. The pond was used not only for skating but also for supplying ice. In 1886, Sipher Lumber Company harvested ice from the pond that was 12 inches thick.

Swimming and fishing were popular pastimes at the pond, and there is even an 1885 account of a local church using it for baptizing.

A 1912 map shows detail of the M. & St. L. pond at north and the CB&Q pond at south.

The reservoir grew considerably larger in April 1898, when the Iowa Central Railroad constructed its own pond directly north of the “Q” pond, separated only by a small dam. It was also in that year that the first of numerous drownings occurred in the north pond. A young man employed by the Monmouth Brick Co. heard about the new I.C. pond and went swimming with about 20 of his friends. In the view of about 100 railroad men working at the site, he developed a cramp and was pulled under.

In 1903, a 15-year-old boy who was not a good swimmer stepped into water over his head and was lost. Two years later, the drowning of a 12-year-old boy named Carl Burch led to an extensive lawsuit against the Iowa Central. Burch had gone paddling on a large log with his friends and had fallen off. The suit, which contended that the pond was an “attractive nuisance,” was based on a suit the previous year in which a boy had been killed falling into an abandoned mine at the Monmouth Mining & Manufacturing plant. The railroad brought its top lawyers to argue the case, and a jury ruled in its favor, saying the boys went to the pond with the intent of swimming, rather than being drawn into the water merely by its attractiveness.

Because the ponds were not spring-fed, they were also subject to droughts, and by 1905 both railroads were seeking to increase their capacity by raising the height of the dam. However, nearby landowners brought an injunction, claiming raising the water level would leave their land subject to flooding. The CB&Q got around this by purchasing land from the owners, but the I.C. spent two years in court before also purchasing land from the owners.

Despite the ponds’ increased capacity, the railroads were not immune to drought. In the hot summer of 1914, water was already low when the dam broke, sending most of the CB&Q pond contents into the north pond, which by then was owned by the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad. As a result, only enough water was pumped into railroad tanks to get the trains to their next stop, and special trains were equipped with water tanks to carry thousands of gallons of water from Gladstone to the shops at Galesburg. Another drought occurred in 1920, causing M. & St. L. trains to draw water from creeks in Little York and Berwick.

Neither railroad was able to use municipal water in its locomotives. According to one newspaper account, “railroad men say that it is useless for this purpose. Its chemical composition is such that it is impossible to push a car up a gradual incline with steam made from city water.”

Over the next several decades, the ponds continued to be used for recreation, but with no supervision drownings continued to occur, such as in May 1951, when a 17-year-old who had just passed his high school swimming test suffered cramps when swimming in six feet of cold water.

In 1952, the Garfield School parent-teacher organization called a community meeting to discuss the possibility of creating a recreational lake out of one of the two railroad ponds. A supervisor from the Burlington route attended the meeting to answer questions. A citizens committee was formed and by 1954 it had negotiated with the M. & St. L. to lease its pond for $400 per year.

The next summer, the east beach was sanded and a diving raft was built in the center of the lake. Lifeguards were hired to supervise from noon until 8 p.m. By the end of the summer, 65 tons of sand and gravel had been spread and a refreshments stand was moved onto the site. Access was gained through a wooded path that ran just south of Sunny Lane Field. That winter, Monmouth had its first public ice skating rink in many years, as hundreds of citizens descended on the frozen pond.

Fishing in the lake was halted in 1959 so it could be cleaned out and restocked with bass, bluegill and channel catfish. A door-to-door fundraising campaign raised more than $1,000, which not only paid the annual rental fee, but also the public liability insurance fee of $350 per year. Funding became an issue in 1961, when the lake was sold to the Northwestern Railroad, which asked for that year’s rent to be paid in advance.

As the decade wore on, finances became increasingly tenuous. In 1965 the Chamber of Commerce urged that the operation be assumed by “a governmental taxing body to assure its continuation.” In 1966, a campaign was organized to raise $10,000 to operate and maintain the lake. When that fell flat, the board announced the lake would not open that year, but adding a 10-cent admission fee allowed it to open.

The changing shoreline of Citizens Lake is illustrated in images from two eras — a 1941 aerial photo showing the M. & St. L. track still running south of Citizens Lake, and a recent satellite image of the area showing the Route 34 bypass and the portion of the lake dug out to replace dirt used in the construction of the highway overpass.

New hope for the lake emerged in 1973 when contracts were awarded for completion of the U.S. 34 bypass and a highway overpass above the CB&Q tracks. Included in the plans were a 52-acre recreation area to be developed jointly by the city, the Park Board and the Illinois Department of Conservation. The estimated cost of $200,000 was paid from revenue sharing funds. Initial plans were to create a complex with facilities for baseball, tennis, camping, swimming, fishing and boating. The lakes were reconfigured when dirt was dug from their edges to replace dirt dug to construct the overpass.

In the ensuing years, the site has continued to evolve, with the construction (and later closing) of a municipal swimming pool, full-service camping facilities, a bath house, shelter houses, boat launches and baseball fields. A historic truss bridge, built in 1895, was relocated to the site in 1992.

Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.



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Jeff Rankin

Jeff Rankin


Editor and historian for Monmouth College. Avid researcher of western Illinois history for 40 years. FB and Twitter. jrankin@monmouthcollege.edu