West Muncie: A boom gone bust

It’s not been that long ago that I went out in search of an artesian well and wound up walking up and down the bottom of a lake.

A natural basin east of Yorktown led to the creation of a tourist community known as West Muncie.

I’ve been a big fan of artesian wells for a long time. They’re weird phenomena, and a book about a local historian led me to believe that there were eight in Delaware County. So far, I know for sure that two flowing wells he discovered have been capped, but I’ve found eleven here so far. Not that there’s a competition, or anything! I’ll write about artesian wells in depth sometime in the near future.

An example of a capped artesian well I found in northeastern Delaware County. We’ll come back to this in the future.

At any rate, my search for more led me to this lake bed. In 1892, the Western Improvement Company -headed by a guy named George Love of New York City- platted a new community about six miles west of Muncie. Appropriately, it was named West Muncie and the settlement abutted the community of Yorktown. The company’s layout consisted of thirty-eight 40 x 125 plots -all speculatively based on the prospects that the gas boom brought- and the community included curvy and attractive streets named Adaline, Weller, New York, Russ, and Cooley. A strawboard factory was drawn to the site, as were two glass plants and other industrial pursuits lured by the promise of “free factory sites and free natural gas.” The most prominent feature of the development was Lake Delaware, Delaware Lake, or Gas Lake- take your pick with regards to its name. Buck Creek was dammed immediately south of Cornbread Road near what was then the New York Central System’s tracks, now Conrail.

This advertisement for the West Muncie development appeared on page one of the April 7, 1892 edition of the Muncie Daily News.

Measuring 3/4 a mile long and 1/2 mile wide, Lake Delaware was eighteen feet deep and big enough to allow a miniature steamboat run by Carey Crozier to ply its waters over a popular route. The three-story Lakeview Hotel was erected near the present site of Yorktown’s Lion’s Club Park. It consisted of seventy-two elaborately-furnished rooms and contained, per Mrs. D.O. Skillen (wife of a partner in one of the community’s new glass factories), a “nice” lobby with leather armchairs and gas heaters.

The Lake View Hotel was a massive building that sat near Lake Delaware, otherwise known as Gas Lake, for less than ten years. Image courtesy of the Yorktown/Mount Pleasant Township Historical Alliance.

The hotel’s grand opening was held on February 22, 1893, in ceremonies that occurred seven days after the dam first broke, which cost $10,000 in damages (around $284,000 today) that needed repaired prior to the big day. If that hadn’t portended future problems, the 1893 smallpox epidemic in Muncie surely did: Whereas upwards of half-a-dozen trains used to bring visitors to West Muncie from as far away as Cincinnati on a Sunday morning, the epidemic caused traffic to fall off just as rapidly as it’d come to the new community. In 1896, the dam, made of “piling and earth” failed for the second time thanks to a major flood that inundated the property and ruined the entire enterprise.

Another photo of the angling topography that led to the creation of the lake that West Muncie was platted around.

The West Muncie post office was discontinued in 1902. Around that time, local boosters had plans to convert the hotel into a sanitarium, but that didn’t happen: the hotel remained standing as the home of Minor Sears, who eventually dismantled the majority of it. Later, a portion of the old hotel became home to the Chambers family and eventually its last timbers were removed to be used for several houses in Yorktown. No one’s sure if any of those homes still exist today- one I tracked down has definitely been demolished.

This topographic map, courtesy of the Delaware County Office of Information and GIS Services, shows the old lakebed via the thick lines, which represent the steep elevations that made up the bed of the lake. The dam was where the banks converge near the center-left of the image. Today, there’s little left of the prospective resort aside from West Muncie’s streets, the natural basin that once formed the lake around Buck Creek, and some plats if you get on the county assessor’s Beacon page and poke around.
This article appeared on page 4 of the April 7, 1902 edition of the Muncie Star.

During the 1930s, the Mt. Pleasant Township Community Club, headed by Yorktown Postmaster Oscar Shively, drew up plans to create a new, bigger-and-better lake at the former site of West Muncie. At the time, it was thought that a new reservoir with a seventeen-foot-tall concrete dam that measured 200 feet long could create a new 300-acre lake and not interfere with any natural drainage. The original dam hadn’t utilized the rock base of the river bed, it seems, and Shively’s concept intended to drill holes in to it in order to “lock” the new dam down and prevent it from washing away.

The hotel was four stories tall and featured an observation deck under its dome, which was cut off in this photo. Image courtesy of the Yorktown/Mount Pleasant Township Historical Alliance.

Shively’s plan, as visitors to the area might surmise nowadays, was unsuccessful. West Muncie also didn’t become home to the Muncie Water Company’s new reservoir in the 1950s after officials settled on an area upstream of the city.

As far as the artesian well I thought I’d located in the area was concerned, I think I stumbled across an old spring, since there was no casing or no tell-tale rust sign nearby. In retrospect, the timeline for an artesian well didn’t make sense either: Most of Delaware County’s flowing wells were drilled during the gas boom as wells for natural gas. Over time, faults in the piping or other random phenomena caused water to flow up to ground level through a water table framed by impervious rock. It didn’t really make sense for a gas well to be drilled seventeen feet under a lake funded by the gas boom.

Here’s the old bed of Gas Lake or Lake Delaware along Buck Creek, to the right of the image.

Today, the area of the lake is defined by its natural topographic features and a decided lack of water aside from the creek. Although my search for an artesian well left me empty handed here, it was fun imagining a steam boat zooming around eighteen feet above my head while I searched for it!

One thought on “West Muncie: A boom gone bust

  1. I had never heard about any of this. The brief period that was the gas boom would have been a fascinating time in which to live. It is certainly fascinating to read about today.

    Like

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