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Shakamak State Park
Shakamak State Park is located in southwestern Indiana. It occupies parts of three counties: Sullivan, Greene and Clay. The park has four hiking trails, a swimming pool and a campground, but it is best known for its three lakes, which provide excellent fishing. The lakes have been closed to swimming since the swimming pool was built, but major swim meets were once held at the park.
The Park Beginnings
Much of southwestern Indiana contains coal, and the Shakamak State Park area is no exception. The Golden Knob coal mine was opened in 1903 and closed in 1908 after shipping out 155,000 tons of coal by rail. Rail lines require very gentle changes in grade (slope) of their tracks. Because of this, they often don't dip into valleys, but fill in an area and build the tracks on top of the fill. This is what was done for the Golden Knob railroad. To get the area around the base of their fill to drain, they installed a five foot drainage pipe.
In 1926, men from the nearby towns of Coalmont, Hymera and Jasonville got together and sent a letter to George Mannfeld, who was Superintendent of Fisheries & Game for the Indiana Conservation Department. They proposed that the state could create a large lake very economically, by merely stopping up the drain pipe. The railroad fill provided a ready made dam, thereby saving the cost of building one. The railroad fill was 800 feet wide at its base and 22 feet wide at the top. It was estimated that it would cost $150,000 to do that work in 1926.
After convincing state officials of the feasibility of a state park encompassing the lake, the counties of Clay, Greene and Sullivan eventually came up with money to purchase the land for the park. The name Shakamak comes from an Indian word which means "River of long fish". The long fish were eels, which were plentiful and considered a delicacy by the Native Americans. The park opened in 1928, but it wasn't until the fall of 1929 that work was complete and the lake began filling up. Governor Harry Leslie and Colonel Richard Lieber introduced the first two bass into the lake in the summer of 1930. The new 55 acre lake was opened for fishing on July 1, 1932.
There was once a pier at Lake Shakamak and many swimming and diving meets were held there. There were 16' and 32' dive towers. Many Midstates Amateur Athletic Union swim meets were held there. One of the participants at these meets was Esther Williams, who later starred in movies and became known as the "Million Dollar Mermaid." Eventually the meets moved to indoor facilities in cities. The pier was torn down, and a new swimming pool was built. Swimming is no longer allowed in Lake Shakamak.
The Park Today
Today there are three lakes in the park totaling 400 acres. Only electric trolling motors are allowed on the lakes. Paddleboats and rowboats are available for rent. There are four hiking trails, and the longest is nearly four miles long. The other three are about 1.5 miles long. The campground has over 100 electric campsites and over 40 non-electric sites. The park has a saddle barn and horseback trail rides are available.
Jasonville, Indiana is the closest town to the park and bills itself as the "Gateway to Shakamak." This city of around two thousand is only three miles away. Jasonville achieved national publicity when they elected a mayor, Bruce Borders, who was also an Elvis Presley impersonator. Borders appeared on David Letterman's show in 1988. David Letterman introduced him to the audience with:
"Ladies and Gentlemen, whenever I go to the polls to vote for a mayor, I always ask myself what is his economic policy.... How does he stand on the environment.... And can he sing 'Love Me Tender'. Please welcome Mayor and Elvis impersonator Bruce Borders."
Borders was a Republican in a heavily Democratic town. His opponent tried to use his activity as an Elvis impersonator against him, and his negative campaigning apparently backfired.