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Crystal Lake Park

Crystal Lake Park spans a whopping 90.4 acres. Fifty-nine of these acres make up Busey Woods. This park was created in 1907 through a land gift from Judge J.O. Cunningham of 15 acres to the newly established Urbana Park District.

Created in 1907, Crystal Lake Park is the oldest in the Urbana Park District. Begun as a privately owned park, it is located just north of the intersection of University and Broadway avenues. A destination for generations of park users, this wooded park has undergone a century of growth and change, while keeping its forest-like character. The district has maintained an increasing array of natural spaces and facilities within the park, adding more than 75 acres to the original 15. Today, Crystal Lake Park totals 90.4 acres. Features include Crystal Lake, pavilions, the Lake House, an adjacent 59-acre old-growth forest nature preserve called Busey Woods, playground equipment, ball fields, boats, fishing piers, flower beds, horseshoe pits, open fields, walking/biking trails, picnic shelters, a sledding hill, an outdoor swimming pool, and a sand volleyball area.


Crystal Lake Park was the second major park in Champaign-Urbana. The Crystal Lake Park area was historically known as the Big Grove. It lay along the west branch of the Salt Fork of the Vermilion River. Prior to the arrival of early settlers, this wooded area served as a favorite camping and hunting ground for various Indian tribes, including the Kickapoo and the Pottawatomie. In 1822, Big Grove became the site of the first white settlement in the area when Runnel Fielder built a cabin for his family there, though it was not until 1828 that he entered into the public record, "the 80-acre tract immediately east of the home:' According to J.O. Cunningham's definitive study of Champaign County's early history, that is considered "the first entry of any public lands in or around the Big Grove." Big Grove began at the north end of Race Street and it was "bisected by two diagonal roads ...Another road ran northerly" from the north end of Race Street, "along the western margin of the same grove' and according to Cunningham "the deeply worn bed" of that road could still be seen crossing the Crystal Lake Park in 1905. In the 1850s, this road provided the only access to a fairground, located then as now to the west of the park in the area of North Lincoln Avenue. The fairground served as the site of an annual county fair. One of the famous Lincoln-Douglass debates was held there during the last days of the annual fair in September 1858.


A significant portion of present-day Crystal Lake Park was once Union Park in the late 1880s. Union Park was a privately owned park when it was first established, and belonged to Jacob Y. Wallick, a businessman originally from Canton, Illinois. Deed records indicate that Wallick purchased adjacent lots in December 1882 and January 1883 of Section 8 in Urbana from grantors Frank. M. Burroughs, of CLinton, Illinois, and Caroline and James S. Busey, of Missouri. Wallick purchased additional acreage later that year and again in 1884, 1886, and 1887, by which time Wallick's park had grown to about 40 acres. Soon Urbana's anticipated "summer resort" was constructed. The West Branch [of the Salt Fork], which passed through the park, was dammed at Broadway Avenue to create a lake of about ten acres at the approximate site of the current lake. It was named Crystal Lake. The City of Urbana considered in 1891, 1892, and 1893 purchasing the park area from Mr. Wallick for approximately $8,000 and opening it for public use. The city council seemingly declined the opportunity after it was determined the property was heavily mortgaged. Neither would the council agree to Wallick's request to provide water and lighting to the park, nor to pay him a monthly salary to care for the park were it to be purchased by the city and opened to the public. It was not until August 29, 1897, that Minnie (Schuknecht), a native of Wisconsin, and Benjamin F. Swartz, a real estate agent and businessman born in Pennsylvania, became the new owners of the park " ... which was then in dilapidated condition ..." and over the next two decades, the Swartzes made many improvements, including building a pavilion and erecting a lake bouse overlooking the lake, to serve as a theatre, dance hall and boat house. Swartz's improvements to the park also included a contract with the City of Urbana for Lights to be installed at the park. Minnie and Benjamin Swartz owned the park until 1908, at which time they sold it to the recently established Urbana Park District for $25,000. The first section of the park had been acquired by the Urbana Park District in 1907, the year it was established, when Judge J.0. Cunningham had given the district 15 acres in what became the northeast section of the park. The public park grew to 63 acres when the park district later bought nine additional acres from Cunrungham and the Champaign County Fair and Driving Association, which had purchased the 55-acre fairground adjacent to tlle park in 1905.


Over the years, the Urbana Park District has considered and implemented numerous improvements to the park, as well as other potential expansions. Many park board decisions have been instrumental both in keeping Crystal Lake Park as a remnant of the Big Grove and in making it a wonderful recreation destination. ln December 1952, for example, the board opposed locating a section of expressway along northern edge of Crystal Lake Park.


Although drainage of the lagoon and lake would occupy park district officials and its planners on countless occasions, the district frequently sought ways to comprehensively improve the park and its facilities. One such plan, ordered in 1972 and completed in July 1973 by HOK Associates of St. Louis, dealt with rehabilitation and expansion of Crystal Lake Park. HOK's recommendations followed suggestions in an internal 1970 report, drafted by a district subcommittee in cooperation with the Natural Areas Study Group, the University of Illinois and the Illinois State Water Survey. The 1972 report's primary concern was to solve "the struggle between those who wanted Crystal Lake Park left a natural area, and those who wanted to see highly-organized sports there .. .'' The d!strict also asked for input from the community, which was documented in numerous letters on file at the Urbana Park District from community groups such as the League of Women Voters, Prairie Cycle Club, Senior Citizens, and the C-U Community Bikeway Committee, among others. HOK's final report generally followed the 1970 report's recommendations but also sought to provide a plan to bring CLP into the mainstream of contemporary life in Urbana, at a time that Urbana had grown steadily to the south and east. Among the report's highlights were recommendations to provide for park and lake rehabilitation, including improvement of water quality, then, in Phase 2, to eliminate (Crystal Lake) Pool and other old and under used buildings, and instead to develop an outdoor theatre area and develop Busey Woods, and, in Phase 3, to acquire the fairgrounds property, which would become the site of a new pool. Mary Kruse, in a 1978 study of the history of Crystal Lake Park, said, with a nod to the 1973 report, that, "the revitalization of Crystal Lake Park since 1973 has led to renewed interest in and use of the park ... As a year-round, multipurpose park, Crystal Lake is regaining the importance it once had in the life of the community:' In 1978, the Urbana Park District again ordered an engineering study, this time by hiring Clark, Dietz and Associates, to specifically "pinpoint in detail the problems of the lake and to develop a feasible plan for rehabilitation in an environmentally sensitive way." ln 1983, another 7-acre lake rehabilitation was ordered. In 1986, a major facelift for the park was implemented, including improvements to storm sewers, spawning areas, building of a fountain, a walkway bridge and fishing piers, and landscaping along the shoreline. Recent plans have included another master plan, prepared in August 1992, by Land Design Collaborative, which cited the growing importance of both the Anita Purves Nature Center and Busey Woods as a major issue, but also cited the Lake House and water feature areas as needing attention, as well as recommending improvement to existing facilities, paths, plantings, and parking lots. And as recently as 2001, the Urbana Park District considered a master plan for a Crystal Lake Family Aquatic Center. In 2007, the district will complete another master plan for the park, which will include proposed additional trails, rehabilitation and revitalization of Crystal Lake Pool, better connectivity north to south within the park, and better views of the water, both the Salt Fork and Crystal Lake.


One individual responsible for helping to create today's pleasant wooded surroundings throughout the park was Professor J.C. Blair, the first park board president. He had been brought to the University of Illinois campus in 1896 by Professor Thomas J. Burrill. Blair was responsible for many tree plantings on the university campus, and it was "in connection with those activities that a number of trees and shrubs were introduced into Crystal Lake Park and other parks in Urbana." Dutch elm disease, which affected all of Champaign-Urbana in the early 1950s, killed about 150 elm trees in Urbana's parks over a three-year period. In the fall of 1955, in addition to many new plantings of shrubs and trees throughout Urbana's parks, "100 new young trees were distributed throughout Crystal Lake Park ... "


Crystal Lake was formed within the former channel of the West Branch of the Salt Fork when an earthen dam was built across the former main channel of the West Branch at the end of the 19th century by then park owner Jacob Y. Wallick. By 1906, the newly-formed Saline Branch Drainage District recognized that the West Branch could no longer hold the increasing runoff from the surrounding land, "so the West Branch, now to be known as the Saline Ditch, was straightened from 19 miles to 14 miles, deepened to an average of 10 feet and cleared of trees along the banks. The channel left Crystal Lake as a severed loop of the natural stream, and the ditch functioned so well that water was drained from the park as well as the farm land." In due course the re-channeled creek's lake area became very swamp-like. In 1910, improvements to the lake and ditch were embarked upon under the direction of the Urbana Park District, and that year again the lake was dredged, "the banks of sand had then been leveled, walks had been laid" and "... the unsightly ditch had been graded and sodded." Cannonball Hill, located north of the lagoon and a favorite spot for wintertime sledding over the years, was built from the dredge dirt. A cannon that once stood upon the hill was used during annual July 4 celebrations until it was donated to the metal drive of World War II. Today, the lagoon is spanned by a concrete memorial footbridge. In March 1956, it replaced a wooden structure that park commissioner Karl Lohmann, in 1955, in a presentation to the Exchange Club, had described as a "decrepit crossing over the lagoon." The bridge was financed through a bequest of David C. and Estelle Nash Busey (David Busey served as one of the first commissioners of the park district from 1907 to 1919). According to Lohmann, in personal writing, additional bridges were constructed, including a footbridge across the lagoon by the Urbana-Champaign Sanitary District "in conjunction with placement of sewer line across Crystal Lake Park, in 1959" and a swinging bridge constructed over the Saline Ditch in 1959, although it was soon heavily damaged by floodwaters. From the time the lagoon was formed at the turn of the century, attempts to properly maintain its water level and provide drainage posed a continual challenge. The lake experienced "one of its most devastating floods" on February 11, 1959. In an effort to prevent future floods, the district, on October 14, 1959, approved plans for a "drainage facility to allow storm water of north Urbana to drain into the lake;' in an effort to increase the depth of the lake. The same plans also called for facilities for runoff into Saline Creek. On November 25, 1959, a dragline was put into operation to clean the lake. Sleds and bicycles were among the items pulled from the lake bottom, according to Lohman. However, a later report said the dredging project of the 1950s had been unsuccessful. In 1960, a new storm sewer added inflow to the lake. But things deteriorated in the 1970s, when algae blooms, worsening odor and a general decline in aesthetics occurred. The original boat house, constructed by Swartz in approximately 1900, was renovated by a $10,000 federal Works Project Administration project in 1937, and, until new headquarters were built on North Broadway in 1965, the hall had provided "park board, recreational and operational headquarters and contain[ed] a sizable assembly and dance ball equipped for summer activity." By 1971, the original boat house had been condemned. It was no longer up to fire codes and since then had only been used for storage. Finally, a "spectacular early evening fire" destroyed the original dance hall on September 17, 1973, just a year after the Senior Citizens Building just west of the dance hall had been destroyed in a fire. A design for a new lake house by Architectural Spectrum of Champaign was approved by the park district in 1986. Construction costs were offset with a grant from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund; the boat docks were improved in 1989.


Crystal Lake Pool, at the north end of the park, opened on July 29, 1927 after ten months of construction at a cost of $152,000; Joseph C. Blair supervised the construction. Once completed, the reinforced concrete pool served as the first public swimming facility in east central Illinois. An estimated 5,000 people were present for the dedication at the pool opening. According to the University of Illinois' Illinois Alumni News, the pool "gave relief to thousands of freshman and other students during the sweltering hot days of the registration period." ln 1927, Crystal Lake Pool was one of the largest pools in the state, holding 840,000 gallons-and was still the second largest in 1957. The 85-foot-high tower in the center was surrounded by diving platforms at the 4 and 12-foot levels. At the top were floodlights that lighted the massive 250' x 15O' elliptical swimming area at night. There were water slides and four statuary fountains. According to longtime park commissioner Karl B. Lohmann, a new filter system and other pool rehabilitation were completed in 1954. ln 1955, the pool and filter house was modernized. A new bathhouse was constructed in 1958 by Clark, Daily, and Dietz at a cost of $90,000. On the exterior wall of the bathhouse was placed a ceramic sculptural relief of a family-bathing scene by Donald E. Frith, assistant professor of art at the University of Illinois. The original pool served both cities until 1961, when the Champaign Park District built a pool of its own in Centennial Park. Crystal Lake Pool had been a favorite destination for many years, so popular that during the 1959 summer season the pool broke all records with more than 200,000 in attendance and pool receipts of $41,080.47 Despite, or maybe because of its great popularity and use, the Urbana Park District in 1965 allocated $1,000 for a study to determine whether to repair the old pool or to construct a new pool(s). ln 1971, the park district put to vote a tax-increase referendum that proposed several projects including two neighborhood pools, one at Crystal Lake and the other in Prairie Park in south Urbana. The referendum was defeated; a 1975 school district advisory referendum, to determine reaction to year-round swimming complex at Urbana High School-Fisher campus was also defeated. The park district then began investigating the feasibility of building a new pool on the site of the existing pool. ln the fall of 1976, the park board voted to construct a new pool on the site of the elliptical pool. The original pool was eventually replaced, at cost of $779,000, with a more modern, rectangular pool in 1980, dedicated on June 29 of that year. The new 25 meter pool, with 12,500 square feet of water surface is 40 percent of the size of the old pool and holds only 450,000 gallons of water. It was designed by Unteed, Scaggs, Fritch and Nelson. "The entire renovation-pool, bathhouse and parking lot-exceeded $1.5 million. Financing was primarily through park district bond monies ($1.2 million), with grants from LAWCON (Land and Water Conservation Fund) and UPARR (Urban Park and Recreation Recovery Program) totaling $350,000." The park district received a Gold Medal Award from the Midwest Chapter of the National Swimming Pool institute for the new pool. One new feature of the pool area was a five-ton sculptured whale, named the 'Beached Whale' by its sculptor, William M. McVey of the Cleveland Art Institute. The whale had been a fixture at the Lincoln Square Mall from 1965 until March 1981, and in that summer it took up residence in a new home when it was placed in a grassy area adjacent to the pool. The whale eventually deteriorated due to exposure to outdoor weather and had to be removed.


The Anita Purves Nature Center opened in the north end of Crystal Lake Park in 1979, designed by Delbert Smith. The center is named in honor of Anita Parker Purves, and the original space was 4,000 square feet. Arson damaged the building significantly in 1978 when it was about 80 percent completed. An expansion and renovation in the 1990s more than doubled its size from 4,000 to nearly 10,000 square feet. The Crystal Lake Labyrinth, dedicated on May 21, 2004, is near the corner of Church Street and Orchard on the west end of Crystal Lake Park. The labyrinth was built by Marty Kermeen, using hand-cut concrete pavers. "This single winding brick path can be used for contemplation or quiet meditation. It is surrounded by a complementary garden that features beautiful landscaping, custom-designed seating and a finger labyrinth for those who cannot walk it in the traditional manner." It was created with community funds raised by a group called the Baker Board, and with a significant donation from the Carle Foundation. The garden was constructed with help from Parkland College horticulture students and park district staff. The keynote speaker at the dedication was Robert Ferre of Labyrinth Enterprise, a labyrinth dance was performed by Cynthia Pipkin Doyle, and Amasong provided tile musical selection.


Over the years, Crystal Lake Park has served many visitors as a destination for events organized by both tile Urbana Park District and other organizations, including day camps, picnics, reunions, boating, skating, swimming, and concerts. Some of the events that have occurred in the park over the years include Labor Day events and Earth Day celebrations. Boat races were held on the lake in tile 1930s, sponsored by the Works Progress Administration recreation commission. Other events have included Lake Celebration, Shades of Blue, Sounds of Summer, Prairie Settlers' Day, the Boys and Girls Club Duck Race, road races and events sponsored by tile Second Wind Running Club, and the annual Thanksgiving Day Turkey Trot, an event that began in 1967. No doubt one of the largest events to take place in Union Park's first year was an Old Settler's Picnic. Held August 26-28, 1883, a semi-centennial to celebrate the establishment of the county in 1833, which according to an announcement in tile Champaign County Gazette, "The reunion of old settlers of Champaign County will be held in this city to-morrow (sic). If the present indications are to be relied on this will be the largest gathering of old settlers ever assembled in tile county ... The idea prevails with some that this is exclusively an old-settlers picnic. Such is not the case; everybody is invited to come and enjoy themselves not forgetting to bring their dinner along with tilem." Milton W. Matthews, publisher of the Champaign County Herald, and Judge J.O. Cunningham spoke on county history, and the evening featured fireworks. In August 1983, the City of Urbana celebrated its Sesquicentennial with a "weekend of history and entertainment ... [a] Highlight of the weekend celebration was an 'Old-fashioned Day in the Park' with exhibits, contests, and entertainment in Crystal Lake Park, where the ancestors of many of those present had held the semi-centennial celebration a century earlier."


Though the first local Chautauqua, an annual summer event of culture, politics, and entertainment, was held in 1894 in Champaign's White Park, in 1896, the first of 16 annual sessions of the Twin City Chautauqua Association was held in Union Park. In 1898, the Chautauqua began to be held on the south bluff overlooking the lake. For twelve years the events were held just west of the original stone pavilion. After 1909, the meetings were held in what is today Busey Woods, and from 1911 to 1915 on the fairgrounds. These annual events attracted to East Central lllinois such notable speakers as Helen Keller, Jane Addams, William jennings Bryan, and Booker T. Washington.


The Ku Klux Klan, an organization that in the 1920s "was at its social and political height, ... " and with nearly three million members in the United States, also had a presence in Champaign-Urbana. While the organization's regular meeting spot was Urbana's lllinois Theatre (which mysteriously burned in 1927), events and programs, and even Klan weddings, were held on the site of Crystal Lake Park. A mass rally in the summer of 1924 attracted approximately 3,000 attendees.


Crystal Lake Park always has been home to a variety of wildlife (including the 1958 arrival of a duck affectionately named "Sam"). In 1949, a proposal for a zoo spurred public and board discussion when someone acquired a bear locally in October 1949. In a report compiled by Urbana citizens "interested in adding a zoo to our fine park system," it was proposed that a zoo could contain six white-tailed deer, two pea fowl, two bears, and two raccoons. The proposal went on to discuss costs for establishing the zoo, annual maintenance costs, and financing mechanisms. According to Lohmarm, much investigation and long report followed, but citing the expense, the project was dismissed.

Text from Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.


Crystal Lake Park sign Image courtesy ExploreCU team
plaque with the Gettysburg Address inscribed Image courtesy ExploreCU team
benches with view of the lake Image courtesy ExploreCU team
bridge crossing Crystal Lake Image courtesy ExploreCU team
boathouse at Crystal Lake Image courtesy ExploreCU team
Crystal Lake in the fall Image courtesy ExploreCU team
Bridge at Crystal Lake Park Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois Published in Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.
drawing of the Crystal Lake Pool Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois Published in Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.
early property map of the Crystal Lake Park area Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois Published in Mancuso, Dana L. (Ed.). (2007). A century of growth: the Urbana Park District's first 100 years. Urbana, IL: Urbana Park District.
Crystal Lake Pool Image courtesy Champaign County Historical Archives, The Urbana Free Library, Urbana, Illinois


206 W Park St, Urbana, IL 61801


Urbana Park District, “Crystal Lake Park,” ExploreCU, accessed January 27, 2022,