The Elections and Oakley Dam

Some things never change. Some things always do.

Forty years ago: the 1972 Elections. Fates hang in the balance: fates of candidates, the future of the country, and the fate of the Sangamon River. And highly popular incumbent Richard Nixon was poised to handily defeat the liberal George McGovern.

Here in Illinois, incumbent Governor Richard Ogilvie was, shall we say, a different kind of Republican.
Ogilvie was elected in 1968 with strong Republican majorities in the Illinois General Assembly (but with a Democratic Lieutenant Governor named Paul Simon). Ogilvie initiated a Constitutional Convention to bring about governmental reform, increased social spending and advocated for and passed the state’s first income tax.

In 1972, Ogilvie was also running for re election. And Ogilvie supported Oakley Dam, to be located on the Sangamon River just north of Decatur and in the headwaters of Lake Decatur, despite increasing evidence of its decreasing value.

Oakley Dam was strongly supported by the dam builders of the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers to provide flood control for the area, to improve the degrading water supply for the city of Decatur and to provide recreational and economic development opportunities for the area. Oakley Dam was also supported by every living and breathing politician in the area who could say “bring home the bacon” with a “pork barrel project.” But this wasteful and unnecessary project also required the flooding of valuable farmland along the Sangamon River all the way from Decatur to Monticello, which included 1500 acres of Allerton Park.
In the 1972 elections, Ogilvie was contested by Democrat walkin’ Dan Walker who trekked nearly 1200 miles across Illinois as a high profile publicity stunt in order to get elected.
The young and popular Walker had already defeated Democratic challenger and Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon in the Democratic Primary. It was widely rumored that the ambitious Walker had presidential ambitions.
While Ogilvie supported the Oakley project, Walker remained noncommittal on Oakley, claiming to want to “review the evidence”.

The best organized opposition to Oakley was led by the Committee on Allerton Park (COAP), and given the widespread political support for Oakley, they would take any political opposition to Oakley wherever they could find it, even if it was only a vaguely phrased promise to “review the evidence.” They and other environmental groups got behind Walker’s campaign.

Meanwhile, in Congress, longtime key Congressional advocate for the Oakley project, U.S Representative William Springer had announced his retirement, which seemed like an opportunity for COAP. A Republican from a wealthy family, Springer really didn’t have much stake in Oakley, except to support it. Besides, Springer felt that a beautiful “Oakley Reservoir” might be a wonderful legacy of his public service. Forget that many analysts were already projecting that Oakley would be little more than a 25 mile long, 7 foot deep mudpit.

Springer’s seat was contested by Republican Ed Madigan and Democrat Lawrence E. Johnson, and unfortunately for COAP, both also supported Oakley.

As elections go, 1972 was something of a watershed. Republican Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in a landslide of historic proportions. And here in Illinois Democrat Walker narrowly defeated Republican Ogilvie. While COAP and other environmentalists might like to take some credit for Walker’s victory, given their endorsement and support , Ogilvie’s policies didn’t exactly endear him to the Republican base. For Springer’s U.S. House seat, Republican Ed Madigan handily defeated Democrat Johnson.
At the end of 1972, few issues were resolved regarding Oakley Dam. The battle to stop the dam raged on with the political powers that be continuing to be faced by a growing group of opponents aligned with COAP. Walker, despite having been supported by COAP and other environmental groups, remained tepid in opposing the dam builders.

And later in 1972, in a token of recognition for Rep. Springer’s years of public support for Oakley, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to rename the Oakley Reservoir (when built) “Springer Lake”. But since this honor is usually bestowed posthumously, I might have felt this wasn’t a particularly good omen if I were Springer. I’m just saying.

But by the end of the year, more questions were raised, more studies revealed the impracticality of this project, and more importantly, its declining cost benefit ratio. Slowly, the folly that was Oakley Dam was coming to be more widely recognized and accepted. So, obviously, there is more to this story…

1972, an epilogue:

Nixon’s historic landslide in 1972 was followed by his historic impeachment in the Watergate scandal in 1973 and his historic removal from office. McGovern passed peacefully about 2 weeks ago.
William Springer, lived twenty more years and passed peacefully in Champaign in 1992. I think this is likely because “Springer Lake” never came into being. I’m just saying.

Ed Madigan soon became opposed to Oakley and was instrumental in its ultimate demise. He went on to a productive career of nine terms in the U.S. House and became Secretary of Agriculture under Bush the first, helping to develop the “food pyramid.” There is now an Ed Madigan State Park near Lincoln, renamed in his honor after he passed.

Illinois Governor Dan Walker remained lukewarm in his opposition to Oakley Dam. He was a one termer, an incumbent defeated in his own party’s primary in 1976. He was later brought down in the Savings and Loan scandal in 1987 and served 18 months in prison of a 4 year sentence.

Paul Simon, who was defeated by Walker, became a popular and successful U.S. Senator of Illinois and contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, winning his home state of Illinois.
And in the end, Oakley Dam was never actually constructed.
Some things never change. Some things always do.

Appeared as Notes from the River, 11/1/2012, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays

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