Located between State Avenue and Washington Boulevard, bordered by 11th Street and Waterway Drive, Big Eleven Lake is a green oasis in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. Originally designed as part of the Waterway Park Complex in 1911 by the landscape architecture firm Hare & Hare, the 3.8-acre park is a beloved outdoor spot that has been enjoyed by Kansas City, Kansans for generations.
Big Eleven was originally conceived of as the northern anchor of the larger park design. Before construction of the park complex, the Waterway Park site was considered to be an “unsightly hole”. Situated 30 feet below Minnesota Ave, the site posed construction obstacles and therefore the lowest and central point of the park became be the focus of the design, a sunken water garden with a reflecting pool, flanked by two lakes to the north and south. The sunken garden featured native plants and water lilies, fed by natural springs. The southern lake was located at the current Waterway Park site. Unfortunately, the lower lake and sunken garden were filled in in the 1930s due to the high cost of maintenance. Waterway Park remains a popular neighborhood park and the sunken gardens site is currently used as a city parking lot.
Many upgrades have been made to Big Eleven over the years, including the construction of a concrete base and native limestone borders on the shore, a WPA project in 1934. This project required the draining of the lake and many local people watched with interest, expecting to find skeletons at the bottom of the lake. In early days, ghost stories about the lake flourished. Locals would tell of ghostly figures that emerged from the water at night and of murders and bodies dumped into the water. In the end, only a gold watch, an old tire, and a few tin cans were excavated. The stone bandstand, with cast iron light posts was also added in the 1930s.
Big Eleven has hosted Chautauquas, festivals, baptisms, fishing competitions, and more over its lifetime and continues to be a popular spot in downtown KCK. The lake is a favorite destination with local fishermen and the Kansas Fish and Game Commission has kept the lake stocked with catfish, bass, and carp. In recent years, pollution and algae blooms have posed problems for the lake, and made it unfit for swimming and wading and have threatened the fish population. An oxygenation system was installed in the late 1980s to clean the water and to help the fish survive. Because Big Eleven Lake is a shallow urban lake with a concrete bottom, it tends to have warm water and few aquatic plants to help remove nutrients. Efforts are underway to monitor the water quality of Big Eleven and to improve it so that the lake may continue to be enjoyed by the community for generations to come.