Historically, the Great Plains were inhabited by native peoples. The region was added to the United States by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Major Stephen Long explored the Platte River valley, producing a map called the Great American Desert. In 1841, westward expansion started. Ironically, that so called desert became known as America's breadbasket.
As early as the 1880s, farmers and ranchers started looking for solutions to drought cycles. Championing this movement was Charles McConaughy, a grain merchant and mayor of Holdrege. His first idea was to build diversion canals to draw water from the river.
McConaughy and Minden banker George Kingsley led a water association and went to Washington DC -- where with the help of Senator George Norris and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan they secured funding for an irrigation study.
The first dam near Keystone was finished by the mid 1930s. As the great depression hit America and the dust bowl parched the plains, the canal idea evolved into a massive dam and reservoir plan.
The Public Works Administration, part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program, approved a $20 million loan to start construction in the spring of 1936. A temporary town called Kingsleyville was built at the dam site to house workers, even including a school for their children. There were no fatalities during the project, but there was one close call when Bob McCoy fell into and through a 600 foot long pipe. He returned to the job after two weeks in the hospital.
This large scale project took nearly five years to complete. Over 26 million cubic yards of earth had been moved for its construction. In February 1941, the lake began to fill. In July of that year, the dedication ceremony took place, with over 2000 people attending.
The two staunchest supporters of the dream never saw it fully operational. Kingsley died in 1929 and McConaughy died in April 1941, a few months before the dedication. However, the dam and lake bear their names.
This report is a much shorter version of a longer documentary that will play in the Lake McConaughy Visitors Center as part of their Water Interpretive Center hall; check that out later this summer as the lake celebrates 72 years.