Prairie Creek Reservoir’s hidden infrastructure

Prairie Creek Reservoir is far and away Delaware County’s most prominent “natural” feature. The 1,200-acre lake is enormous, but its surrounding grounds are even more expansive, claimed by some to form the second-largest city park in the entire country1! I could have picked an easier target, but I’ve been trying to track down a flowing well somewhere near Prairie Creek for seven years. Although I haven’t found it yet, I have managed to stumble across some fascinating hidden infrastructure along the reservoir’s eastern bank.

Prairie Creek Reservoir as seen on September 17, 2022.

I’ve written lots about my obsession with artesian wells and the lengths I’ve gone to find all of them I can. Early on in my search, I asked local social media groups for leads and zeroed in on a comment someone wrote which recalled a well on the east side of the reservoir at a location “where mowed grass met shrubbery2.” The comment was as vague as it was compelling, given the reservoir’s ridiculous size.

Perry Township, as it appeared in an 1887 atlas of Delaware County and today. Imagery courtesy Google. Copyright IndianaMap Framework Data. Landsat /Copernicus, Maxar Technologies, USDA/FPAC/GEO. 

None of Central Indiana’s big reservoirs are natural lakes. They were dammed from the late 1940s to the 1970s, either by the Army Corps of Engineers to control flooding or by utility companies aiming to provide water reserves for growing cities. Prairie Creek is part of the latter category: in 1957, the Muncie Water Works Company proposed plans to build an earthen dam across Prairie Creek in rural Perry Township about five miles southeast of Muncie, a third of a mile south of the creek’s confluence with the White River3.

Prairie Creek Reservoir, looking northeast, as seen on September 17, 2022.

The plan went through, and the dam was halfway built by January 1959. At 3,000 feet long and forty-two feet tall, the massive structure required 370,000 cubic yards of earth fill! That’s enough dirt to fill three Meijer hypermarkets! The dam’s construction fundamentally changed Perry Township forever, flooding farms that thrived for decades, and the lake was almost full by August, 1961, when the Muncie Evening Press proclaimed “Prairie Creek Reservoir Has Become a Reality4.” 

The foundation of a bank barn on what was once the W.E. Gilmore farm near the reservoir’s eastern bank, as it appeared on April 29, 2023.

The project worked out well for Muncie. During the summer of 1988, the waterworks released 5 million gallons (roughly 1.5 Meijers) of the reservoir’s 7 billion (2,100 Meijers) into the White River to combat a historic drought5. Under normal circumstances, visitors enjoy boating, swimming, camping, biking, and horseback riding there.

The southern part of the reservoir as it appeared in 1961, shortly after it began to fill.

As for me? I like to fish for crappie at Prairie Creek. I’ve stopped along its eastern bank to skip jigs with a rod and reel many times over the years, but that comment about the flowing well hung over my head every time I cast. On my way out, I slowed down far below the speed limit to try and find evidence of flowing wells near areas where mowed grass met shrubbery! Unfortunately, my trips never revealed any obvious evidence of an artesian well from the road.

Eventually, I thought I uncovered a likely location as I scoured Google Earth and noticed two curving lines of bushes located a couple Meijers north of the beach parking lot. One paralleled a drive. I pictured the second one, which appeared more random, from Google Street View above. Thinking the growth might be fueled by the stream of a flowing well, I gathered a friend and hopped in my car to investigate.

A mysterious tunnel north of the beach at Prairie Creek Reservoir, as it appeared on September 7, 2020.

We parked and headed out toward the area in question. Neither tree line displayed any evidence of flowing water, and the one closest to the road even had signage identifying it as a swale that had been purposely constructed to convey water runoff! We were dejectedly heading back to the car when we noticed something that piqued our attention; some bushes piled up in the middle of a depression. Thinking they might presage the site of the flowing well, we walked toward it, only to find something arguably more interesting, a bunker-like tunnel in the middle of the field.

Land around the enigmatic ingress appeared to slope towards it, as we discovered. Photo taken September 7, 2020.

The portal to whatever my buddy and I stumbled across was about six feet long, four feet deep, and featured a rock floor. The opening was too narrow to climb down but seemed to lead to a rectangular tunnel that extended toward the shore. A pair of concrete hatches, one of which featured two worn metal handles, sealed most of the opening. One was sitting off to the side, and it looked like some of that shrubbery I’d been looking for as a sign of a flowing well had been recently mowed.

Imagery courtesy of Schneider Geospatial and the Delaware County Assessor’s Office.

In person, it was obvious that the land around the tunnel was graded to direct water to it. That’s part of why I thought it might have been a flowing well from a distance since they often sit in valleys due to the piezometric surface of the water table. The depression is even more evident in satellite images. The image above clearly shows a diamond-shaped cut into the earth. The mystery portal is near the bottom right of the red circle. It looked nothing like any artesian well I’d ever been to. Instead, I think we found an old trench drain that leads to a corresponding opening in the blue circle near the shore.

Image courtesy of the Delaware County Assessor’s Office.

Building a reservoir isn’t as simple as building a wall at one end of a creek. The process of converting 2,500 acres (400 Meijers) of farmland to a body of water was an enormous civil project that required a lot of adjacent infrastructure to direct water toward it- after all- Prairie Creek drains 10,863 acres of land6! Aerial images taken in 1967 show the trench drain we uncovered, but images from 1961 taken while the reservoir was filling don’t show any grading on the site.

Prairie Creek’s dam and outlet tower, as seen on September 17, 2022.

Although we left Prairie Creek without finding a new artesian well, my buddy and I didn’t walk away empty-handed. We located an interesting, if not fascinating, piece of hidden infrastructure that rewarded us for our troubles! It would have been cooler to poke around the outlet works that act as the reservoir’s drain, but the 36-foot-tall tower6, bridge, and stilling basin are firmly off-limits to regular people like me. Maybe one day I’ll get the water company to sanction a visit. I would love to see the underpinnings of how Muncie stays hydrated.

The artesian well I’ve been hunting around the reservoir isn’t my only focus at Prairie Creek. I’ve heard of another one submerged at the lake’s southwest corner, and believe that the bridge that took County Road 450-South across Prairie Creek itself was left in place twenty-six feet below the surface. Last year, I bought an underwater drone to check both of them out. Until I do, I’ll take finding this trench drain as a small victory. Meanwhile, I hope someone chimes in about that well on the eastern bank!

Sources Cited
1 Mozo, J. (2021, May 5). 10 Muncie Must-Sees That Will Take Your Breath Away. My Indiana Home. Web. Retrieved May 25, 2023.
2 Munson, B. Lost Muncie (2015, August 9). I am pretty sure there is (or was) one on the east side of the reservoir, north of the swimming area [Comment]. Facebook.
3 Junk, B. (1957, April 25). Detail Plans for Giant Reservoir. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 1.
4 Loy, B. (1961, August 26). Prairie Creek Reservoir Has Become a Reality. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 91.
5 Davis, S. (1988, June 9). Drought Aid Now Sure for All Counties. 
6 Loy, B. (1959, January 17). Concrete Work Nearly Done, Half Of Dirt Placed for Reservoir Dam. The Muncie Evening Press. p. 12.

4 thoughts on “Prairie Creek Reservoir’s hidden infrastructure

  1. Prairie creek is leased by the city from Indiana American
    water for 99 years….the city does not own…the parks dept runs it…you might want to check some other facts…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was shocked to read your claim that Prairie Creek is the second largest city park in the U.S. I am very surprised that you would repeat such a claim just because someone said that in the Muncie newspaper. You should have confirmed such a claim with multiple sources. Just because it has been in print, or on the internet, does NOT mean that is true.

    Looking at a list of the 100 largest City Parks in the U.S. Praire Creek isn’t even considered. If it were, it would rank 57th.

    Liked by 1 person

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