An area historian is intensifying efforts to attract a national abolitionist museum to Lawrence and has begun talks with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to locate it at Clinton Lake.
Martha Parker, executive director of the Clinton Lake Museum, said she's optimistic a low- or no-cost lease can be negotiated with the corps to allow the proposed national museum and archival facility to be located on a 20-acre site just south of the Clinton Lake Visitor Center.
"The feedback has been very positive," Parker said of discussions with the corps. "It will be awhile before any agreement can be signed, but I think it is there if we just go for it."
The idea of a national-caliber museum to tell the abolition story was first proposed by Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback more than a year ago, but federal funding for the project hasn't been secured. Brownback, in a visit to Lawrence last week, said the project was still high on his list of priorities and that funding may emerge in the next couple of years.
He also said Lawrence would be a leading candidate to land the facility, which is expected to be a major tourist attraction.
Clinton Lake operations manager Lew Ruona confirmed the corps is interested in the project.
"I'm not only optimistic but excited about the whole concept," Ruona said. "We understand that this land has more uses than just strictly camping and picnicking. We have opened it up to all types of recreation and learning, and this would expand on that.
"And it is just such a unique opportunity. Something like this doesn't come around every day."
Ruona said the corps would need to see plans for a museum and require environmental and cultural assessments for the property, which currently is grassland. But Ruona said higher ranking officials in the corps also were enthusiastic about the project and have provided Parker with a letter saying they "support the concept."
Parker is a member of a 32-member planning committee for the museum comprised of representatives from communities across eastern Kansas. She said although the committee hasn't yet endorsed Lawrence or the corps site as its choice for the museum, Lawrence can't afford to delay planning while waiting for the committee to reach consensus.
"You have to be ready when the time comes," Parker said. "Ultimately, I think Douglas County is where it is going to be, but now is the time we really need to get with it."
Parker said she began pursuing the corps ground last summer because she believed securing a site on publicly-owned land may give the Lawrence area an inside track to landing the museum, which likely would be sought for other areas of the country if funding becomes available.
"The taxpayers already have paid for it," Parker said. "We don't have to go out and try to buy expensive land. And its location near the turnpike and in between KCI and the capital, it just seems like a diamond ready to be set."
Historical elements of the property also lend themselves well to the museum, Parker and Ruona said.
"This lake sits on top of what was an abolitionist hotbed," Ruona said. "The land museum visitors literally would be looking out over would be where a major part of the movement happened."
Parker, who has researched Underground Railroad activity, said many of the 34 documented Underground Railroad sites in Douglas County are in the Wakarusa River Valley. Parker said the area surrounding the lake was considered by many blacks to be a safe haven before the Civil War.
"In this valley, you had two different races living together, farming together, fighting together, and when they died, they were buried together in an integrated cemetery at Clinton," Parker said. "This area is very deserving of a museum like this."
The committee has not yet developed cost estimates for the museum or attendance projections, but Parker believes the effect on Lawrence could be huge.
"I think it would impact Lawrence in every way," Parker said. "Through restaurants, hotels, the university, national and international speakers. I don't think people realize how big it could be. People all over the world are interested in this subject."
Parker said her goal is to keep the project moving at a pace that would allow groundbreaking in 2004, the year the city celebrates its sesquicentennial.
"That would be a crowning event," Parker said.
But it won't happen without money. The project probably will require both federal and local funding, but Parker said she's optimistic Brownback and others will make the project happen.
"I refuse to have any negative thoughts about it," Parker said. "I drive across the dam on a regular basis, and I can already see it now."