Outside | Crab Orchard Nationwide Wildlife Refuge turns 75 | Outside


Les Winkeler for the south

The Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge celebrates its 75th anniversary on October 8th at the Refuge’s new headquarters, located south of Refuge Drive.

Neil Vincent, the refuge’s Visitor Services Manager, said the celebration will last from 10am to 2pm. The refuge takes a broad approach to the celebration, focusing on outdoor recreation throughout southern Illinois. Local Chambers of Commerce, Giant City State Park and Shawnee National Forest will all be represented at the event.

“We’re reaching out to our communities and showing what’s available in southern Illinois,” Vincent said. “It’s an inauguration of the new headquarters. We will have several activities. We have a BB range, archery range, fishing simulator and kayaking and canoeing. We have invited our new concessionaires.”

However, the history of the refuge is prominently displayed. The sanctuary’s origins lie with the Soil Conservation Service, which began planning to build Crab Orchard Lake in the 1930’s with the purchase of land in southern Illinois. Almost 10 years later, the purchased land was given to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the sanctuary today.

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“It started with the Soil Conservation Service starting buying land in 1936, and then World War II broke out and threw a monkey wrench into their plans,” Vincent said. “When World War II broke out, part of the country was turned over to the War Department. And the War Department bought another 10,000 acres.

“The Soil Conservation Service built Crab Orchard Lake in 1938. It began to fill up in 1939. On the Mississippi Flyway, the geese population was declining so severely that many did not have enough places to feed and rest. Horseshoe Lake was a natural area that geese used to traverse for thousands of years. Between 1941 and 1945 the geese population declined by 60%. The US Fish and Wildlife Service was looking for a place to put geese.”

Figures show that in 1939, one-fifth of the entire Mississippi Flyway herd was harvested at Horseshoe Lake. The sanctuary was established essentially to move some of the geese flock away from Alexander County.

Meanwhile, ammunition deals boomed on the recently acquired escape property during World War II. At the peak of production, about 10,000 southern Illinois residents were employed by companies on refugee properties. Some of the ammunition facilities remain operational and there are ammunition bunkers at the shelter.

After the end of the war, the properties originally purchased by the Soil Conservation Service and the War Department were transferred to the US Department of Fish and Wildlife. Crab Orchard Lake served as the epicenter of recreation in southern Illinois for the next several decades. It still ranks in the top 10 most visited national wildlife areas in the country.

“In the 1960s and 1970s, before the Carlyle and Rend Lakes went in, we were the second most visited retreat in the nation,” Vincent said. “We had about 2.5 million visitors. Most of it had to do with recreation, camping, boating and the lakeside marinas, which are alien to most conservation areas.”

At the same time, the recreational aspect co-existed with the munitions factories and agricultural uses, making Crab Orchard one of the most unusual national wildlife refuges in the nation. Lakes Little Grassy and Devils Kitchen were built after the US Fish and Wildlife Service took over management of the refuge.

The celebration also marks the inauguration of the new headquarters building.

“There will be tours of the building,” Vincent said. “We have a section of the discovery tour (where) you can actually drive some of these restricted areas that go through the bunker area and some of the old cemeteries. It’s a self guided tour and we will have volunteers out there explaining some of the history.”

For more information, call 618-997-3344.