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Brookville Lake Turns 50; How Deadly Flooding Led to Its Creation

Has saved the region from flooding

This story was originally published in The 812 print edition. Support us by subscribing to our monthly print edition that is delivered to your mailbox by clicking here.


(BROOKVILLE, Ind.) — It was the evening of March 24th, 1913, and John Fries could hear the rain hitting the roof of his home just south of Brookville. 


Nearly thirteen inches of rain had fallen in two days, and the sound of roaring water from the river could be heard outside of his home. 


He and his family owned a brick-making company and lived and worked where IGA currently stands, which is near the confluence of the east and west forks of the Whitewater River. 


The river continued to rise and took a turn for the worse when a dam on the east fork of the river collapsed early on the morning of March 25th.


"Flood waters rampaged through the valley, reaching the Fries’s brick-making company and two of their homes at two o’clock in the morning,” said Franklin County historian Julie Schlesselman


“The Fries family had no warning and were asleep when the swollen river smashed their homes leaving no evidence of them or their domiciles ever having been there,” the local newspaper added.


Eight members of the Fries family, representing three generations, were killed in the flood.


The body of John’s mom was never recovered. Brookville's 1913 flood would claim the lives of fifteen people, destroy 850 homes and cause an estimated $4.5 million in damage. 


“There were seven inches of rainfall that occurred in one night and the flooding took out all five bridges coming in and out of Brookville,” said Stephanie Ison, with the US Army Corps of Engineers. 


This marked one of six recorded floods that have impacted the Whitewater Valley since 1895, with the last being in 1959. 

Following the historic flooding that impacted communities like Lawrenceburg and Aurora in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act. 


The legislation allowed for the creation of projects to prevent future flood catastrophes in the United States. Construction of Brookville Lake was authorized under the act, however, plans to construct a dam stalled for more than 20 years. 


“It was not until the flood in January of 1959 that the concept was seriously reconsidered,” Schlesselman said. 


That is when a group of Franklin County citizens came together and created the Whitewater Valley Flood Control Association. 


They resurrected the idea of a dam, and it led to the creation of the existing reservoir.


Construction on Brookville Lake began in November 1965, but it was not a project that was supported by all, especially the citizens of Fairfield. 


In order to build a new body of water, somebody’s land had to be taken by the government.


For Brookville Lake, it meant the entire town of Fairfield would be wiped off the map. 

The town of Fairfield in the 1960's

The citizens of Fairfield protested and fought back against eminent domain, but it would not be enough. Fairfield marked the 150th anniversary of the town in 1965, but rather than celebrating, the residents had come to terms with knowing their beloved community was destined to be underwater. 


The former Town of Fairfield is underwater nowadays near Ainsley's Cafe in Brookville.


In 2024, Brookville Reservoir is marking a half-century of operations and over the past 50 years, the lake has become a tourist destination attracting two million people each year for outdoor recreation. 


While it brings in millions of tourism dollars to Brookville, the mission of the reservoir remains the same since the day it was created. 


“The main purpose of our dam is to protect lives and property downstream,” Ison said. “Our lower valleys haven’t flooded since we’ve existed; I mean there have been times when rivers are threatening places, but this dam has significantly helped this region.” 


Brookville Lake has stopped countless floods and has prevented an estimated $39 million in flood damages over the years. 


Brookville Lake has also made a positive impact on the Ohio River. 

Brookville lake in February 2024

Prior to the creation of dams in the 1950’s and 1960’s, there were times when the Ohio River would nearly dry up in certain areas, which would put a stop to barge traffic. 


“Barge traffic only needs a six-foot undertow to travel, and there’s a lot of money on a barge,” Ison said. 


Brookville Lake releases a certain amount of water per second which goes downstream and eventually to the Ohio River. 


“We all feed enough water to keep the elevation of the Ohio River high enough for barge traffic,” she said. 


Nowadays, the river averages twelve to fifteen feet of water, allowing commerce to reach their destinations without any trouble. 


Ison and the US Army Corps of Engineers have a museum about Brookville Lake in their headquarters, which is located at 10064 Overlook Road.


This story was originally published in The 812 print edition. Support us by subscribing to our monthly print edition that is delivered to your mailbox by clicking here.


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