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Nepaholla Dreams (Part One)

By Ron Parks
Opinion | October 31, 2010

COUNCIL GROVE, Kan. - It beckons. An ancient Kansas holy site west a couple of hours or so. Come pilgrim, join me for a visit. We'll do a day trip, we'll journey to Nepaholla.

At Manhattan we get on Highway 24, driving on over to Tuttle Creek Boulevard, moving up the Big Blue River Valley. Just past the dam of Tuttle Creek Reservoir, we ascend into uplands. On the right are the Blue Hills, a land of trapezoidal mounds deeply etched by tree-lined creeks and ravines draining east toward the lake. We turn west toward the town of Riley, passing through gentle folds of agricultural land interspersed with pastures. Just west of Clay Center we cross the Republican, known as the River of Geese by the Kanza Indians. At this point we enter the sandstone hill country forming the eastern edge of the Smoky Hills. Whereas the Blue Hills projected repetitive, geometric lines, this hill country, though mostly gradual inclines and gently arced mounds, surprises with pockets of buttes, saddles, high ridges, and cliffs stippled with outcroppings of rugged, ferruginous rocks.

This is cattle and mixed-grass country, though cedars are invading some of the pastures and trees line the streams, roads, and farmsteads. Just past Miltonvale a ridge parallel to the highway moves into view on the right, this the divide separating the Nepaholla (Solomon) River watershed to the south from the River of Geese to the north. For the next 16 miles the travelers' gaze is riveted by scores of towering wind generators strung erratically along the ridge. Near Glasco we descend into a broad, flat valley a couple miles or so wide, on the left the tree-marked Nepaholla contorts its way southeast through fields of corn, beans, wheat, milo, and alfalfa. A large cattle feeder operation on the right, then the highway trims the north edge of the largest town in the valley, Beloit. The hills surrounding the valley become gentle and rolling. Fifteen miles west of Beloit just south of the highway, Lake Waconda squats low, windswept, and huge. A few miles further a roadside Kansas Historical Marker beckons, its heading: "Waconda (Great Spirit) Spring."

We have traveled exactly 110 miles from Manhattan. The spring can be seen no longer, it being inundated by the lake. The marker tells this story:

"Many moons ago, so runs an Indian legend, Waconda, a beautiful Princess, fell in love with a brave of another tribe. Prevented from marriage by a blood feud, this warrior embroiled the tribes in battle. During the fight an arrow struck him as he stood on the brink of a spring and he fell mortally wounded into the waters. Waconda, grief-stricken, plunged after him. Believing her soul still lived in the depths, the tribes four countless ages carried their sick to drink the healing waters. Here they celebrated their victories and mourned their losses, never neglecting to throw into the spring some token for the Great Spirit."

The story is a romance, a Romeo and Juliet in buckskins in the vein of Longfellow and Cooper and many other writers of their ilk. Not a shred of evidence exists that this legend of Waconda, beautiful Indian princess, stems from the oral traditions of the tribes of the central plains. Rather, the story is a construction of white people, steeped in the conventions of 19th Century romanticism, one of the most popular being the appropriating of Indians as objects to be woven into romantic myths and legends, usually tragic in nature.

Much more interesting and potent is the truth of Waconda Springs, or at least the closest we can approximate to the truth.

The Kanza Indians named the Solomon River for this spring, calling it Nepaholla, meaning "Water-on-a-Hill," an apt description of Waconda Springs and our preferred name for the river. The source of the name "Solomon" is obscure, the best explanation being that the river was named for a French official headquartered in New Orleans whose name, though not actually spelled Solomon, bore it a phonetic resemblance. This vague, uncertain, and uninspiring word pedigree contrasts with Nepaholla, which conveys a precise image of a unique and renowned natural feature of this river valley, a word uttered for generations by the original Kansans in their native tongue, a term, as we shall see, evoking an earth-and-water icon of profound significance in the tribe's sacred traditions. And keep in mind that until the mid-1850s, Nepaholla was often used by Euro American map makers as the primary name of this river. Explorer Captain John W. Gunnison, who led his exploratory expedition through the upper Kansas River valley in early July, 1853, reported he "crossed the Nepeholla and Saline rivers by ferrying on rafts of logs."

The Nepaholla's stream bed of 150 years ago is about two hundred yards south of the spring, which is located approximately three-fourths mile south of the highway marker. The size and shape of the "hill" never failed to impress early observers. It was a symmetrical cone 300 feet across at its base, 150 feet wide at the top, this elevated 40 feet above the valley floor. Nestled in the center of the summit was a 55-feet-wide circular spring basin. The pool's surface reached a few inches below the rim so that a strong wind from any direction splashed water over the rim on the opposite side. The water seeped through the porous encasement of travertine, a kind of limestone. The spring was deep, according to one measurement 35 meters deep. The water was heavily mineralized, especially high in salt and sodium sulphate, its source the underlying Dakota aquifer. According to one theory, the formative process began about eight thousand years ago when the water, elevated by artesian pressure, gradually deposited minerals, mostly calcium carbonate, that concreted into the mound. If true, it means, geologically speaking, Waconda Springs is barely an infant.

One May evening a year ago, a friend and I, while encamped at a state park a few miles east of the Waconda Springs site, sat on a bench elevated twenty feet or so above the floor of the Nepaholla valley, drinking beer and observing the evening's advance. We were, in fact, sitting atop a one-half-scale reconstruction of the Waconda Springs. Behind us, a wrought iron fence encircled a concrete pool approximately one-half the diameter of the original spring basin. The replica, completed just a few years before, is made up of 17,000 cubic yards of compacted dirt. Its summit offers a good view of the lake and the Nepaholla valley. We watched a red-tailed hawk circle about us several times, maintaining a consistent radius as it went to and from its nest in a pine tree a hundred yards south. Frequently, I found myself gazing to the west-southwest across the lake's shimmering platinum surface.

We discussed the day's canoe trip on a segment of the Nepaholla. Then we turned to the pros and cons of the replication.

"Best not to," I said. "A replica can never capture the essence of the original. It's a 21st century construct using 21st century technologies for 21st century purposes. It's just one more dislocation, a further diminishment. Best to put up a wayside exhibit, provoke their interest with text, photos, and drawings, just leave it to their imaginations."
"Got to hand to the people who did this," he responded. "They cared enough about the springs to put this here. And it does give me an understanding of something that's really kinda' hard to picture otherwise. My hat's off to them."

What I considered a kind of idolatry he considered necessary explication in three dimensions. Further discussion was pointless. Besides, I'm not really sure who was right.

What I do know is that in pre-settlement times it must have been extraordinary to come up on the real spring, a stony mini-volcano-like mass rising up over the flat, grassy river bottom. It was a singular feature of the central plains, its size, symmetry, and mysterious pool of water a surefire way to evoke wonderment. And it did just that.

The Kanza's veneration for the spring is reflected in the tribe's name for it: Ne Wohkondaga, or "Spirit Water." According to Isaac McCoy, who visited Waconda Springs in 1830, "the singularity of this fountain" induced the Delawares and other eastern tribes relocated to Kansas to call it "Spirit Water" as well. The Pawnees' name was kicawi caku, or "Spring Mound." This tribe considered the spring, according to anthropologists Douglas Parks and Waldo Wedel, a "location of an important animal lodge where mysterious powers were reputedly bestowed on individuals." McCoy wrote that The Kanza, Pawnee, and Potawatomie "in passing by this spring, usually throw into it, as a kind of conjuring charm, some small article of value." The spring, wrote geographer Walter H. Schoewe, "was held in great reverence and esteem by the various Indian tribes who, even in late years, when passing by threw into its waters various small articles of value." Many relics, including beads, medals, rifles, arrowheads, and bows and arrows, were, in fact, fished out of the spring.

With Euro American occupation, entrepreneurship came to Waconda Springs, starting in the 1870s with the bottling and national marketing of the spring's mineral waters under the moniker "Waconda Water." In 1884 a health spa was established there, and over the years a complex of buildings was developed at the site, including a 48-room, four-story stone sanitarium. In the late 1800s adjacent to the sanitarium were dog and horse race tracks, a saloon, and a gambling house. By the first decade of the 20th century the gambling and liquor dispensing had dissipated, but the health spa revitalized to flourish throughout the first half of the century. In 1965 the spa closed, its fate sealed by the impending construction of the Glen Elder dam that three years later impounded the Nepaholla waters. Prior to inundation, the stones of the bulldozed sanitarium were dumped into the spring, completing its transmutation from holy site to trash pit.

Today, while recreationists and their boats periodically thrash across the lake's surface, the Spirit Water spring, submerged mute in the murk of its watery grave -- with no beautiful Indian princess poised tragically on its slimy rim -- endures.

SOURCES: Kansas Historical Markers guidebook, 25; Kansas Place-Names, John Rydjord, 109; Beginning of the West, Louis Berry, 1168; Bulletin 140: Geology and Ground-Water Resources of Mitchell County, Kansas, Warren G. Hodson, USGS, (April, 1959), 37-39; "The Great Spirit Spring," Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, G. E. Patrick, 1906, V. 7, 22-26; Brochure: Waconda Springs, available at KDWP office, Waconda State Park; History of Baptist Indian Missions, Isaac McCoy, 411-412; "Pawnee Geography: Historical and Sacred," Parks and Wedel, Great Plains Quarterly (summer 1985), 155-158, 175; Solomon Valley Post, 6-15-1989, (contents of speech by Gregg Doud).

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