-- both past and present --
By Jeff Kurrus
Once known for the Armour and Company Icehouse, Memphis Lake SRA is one of Nebraska's best secrets. With activities that include camping, fishing and hiking, Memphis offers a little something for everyone.
Once known for the Armour and Company Icehouse, Memphis Lake SRA is one of Nebraska’s best secrets. With activities that include camping, fishing, and hiking, Memphis offers a little something for everyone.
The first time I visited Memphis Lake State Recreation Area (SRA) was because I am originally from Memphis, Tennessee, I like to fish and was curious about a place named after a group of settlers who originally came to the area from Tennessee. This first visit, back in 2000, was disappointing – all I found at the lake was shallow water and sludge. While the area made a great, clean camping spot close to Omaha or Lincoln, I wanted an extra incentive to visit. A nice camping trip is great. A nice camping trip with scenery is even better. But a nice camping trip with scenery and a few fish thrown in for good measure is the best of all. However, that wasn’t what I found. It was my first introduction to silt, and we did not get along well. However, the lake has been rehabilitated by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission since my first visit, and when I was finally coerced into visiting Memphis Lake again, I was in for a very pleasant surprise.Aquatic Habitat Success
In 2002, the Commission completed a yearlong aquatic habitat project at Memphis Lake SRA, removing 51,000 cubic yards of sediment from the 45-acre lake to make it deeper, and creating an additional 3,760 feet of shoreline, including three jetties and an island. The project also involved installing a filtration system to prevent the reintroduction of rough fish. After the lake was refilled, it was restocked from 2002 to 2006 with 8,250 largemouth bass, 9,720 channel catfish and 60,730 sunfish and bluegill.
Memphis is now one of the top lakes close to the metropolitan areas of Lincoln and Omaha and provides excellent fishing for bluegill, catfish and bass even during the summer, when aquatic vegetation covers much of the lake. Because the newly constructed jetties provide legitimate chances at finding deepwater spots to access, anglers can now catch a large number of fish, from bank or boat, throughout the year. It is clear how much the project has improved the lake. The funny thing is while fishing is such a large focus now, there was a time in the area’s history when it wasn’t even possible.A Brief History
According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, the Armour and Company Icehouse was built in 1897-98 on the site of what is now Memphis Lake SRA. The area was a pasture during the spring and summer months, but in the fall the man-made area was cleared of all debris and the lake filled with spring water from nearby Silver Creek. The ice was scored and sawed when it was eight inches thick, with the blocks poled along an open channel to elevators and up into ice rooms, where they were packed in sawdust. One of the largest icehouses in the country at 200 feet wide, 735 feet long and 40 feet high, the Armour and Company Icehouse was powered by a 300-horsepower steam engine and two coal generators.
The icehouse harvested 100,000 tons of ice in 1899 and shipped, on average, 24 carloads of ice daily to Omaha and Chicago and was advertised for its purity. According to the Nebraska State Historical Society, even during the summer it was quite common to ship more than 100 railcars of ice each month. The company employed 25 local families year-round and another 300 during its winter season, who took up temporary quarters in the Armour Hotel near the lake.
A 1921 fire destroyed the icehouse, but ice continued to be loaded directly onto railroad cars until refrigeration units began replacing ice houses. Artificial ice plants were quickly being constructed closer to major cities, eliminating the need for icehouses like the one at Memphis; so in 1928, the 144 acres were sold to Charles Tanner, a former foreman at the icehouse. Two years later Tanner sold the land to the state, which established the recreation area in 1930. These days, the area once used for supplying ice for Midwestern cities provides a different set of benefits for visitors looking for a little escape from city life and city lights.Boyscout Troop No. 359
“It was so dark,” said Boy Scout Scott Burkhart, describing the previous night’s campfire game of “Ghost in the Graveyard.” Scott and the rest of Troop No. 359 from Papillion were spending a weekend camping at Memphis late last fall when I first met them, and had just completed a orienteering exercise with their compasses. When asked what activities they did with the Boy Scouts, the boys recited a long list: How to use axes, mauls and knives; tying knots and first aid; water safety, fire safety and cooking their own food; building shelters and winter survival. “Is that all?” I asked. Both the scout leaders and boys shook their heads.
“We did one and a half hours of service work this weekend. It lets the boys learn that they have a responsibility to take care of their community,” said John Lowndes, father of scout Tony Lowndes. “Scouting is about belonging to a community and principles and attitudes that, if you catch the boys early enough, become ingrained in them so when the boys become adults, they don’t think about community – community is just a part of them.” While the troop was at Memphis Lake SRA, they visited all the fire rings at their camp, cleaned out the trash and ashes, and readied them for the next campers coming in.
During their stay, the scouts fished during the day and, when the sky cooperated, stargazed at night. Because they are not allowed to bring any electronic games, their leisure time is spent playing cards, talking around the campfire and playing games.
The troop camps somewhere once a month and has enjoyed several other Nebraska public areas, including Fremont Lakes SRA, Indian Cave State Park (SP), Mahoney SP, and Louisville SRA. At Memphis, the boys were able to work toward the 110 merit badges they can earn and also toward advancing in rank toward Eagle, the highest level of Boy Scouts. “I like camping and being outside,” said Tony Lowndes. “It’s fun to get away from the city. There are so many stars out here at night.”A Little Something For Everyone
Camping, hunting, fishing, wildlife viewing, picnicking, stargazing – name it, Memphis Lake SRA has it. And the best part about the area is that few people use it. Dozens of mature, shade- producing trees are scattered throughout the campground, which has 150 nonpad campsites. There is no electricity in the campground, but there are dozens of campsites along the water’s edge. Pit toilets are scattered throughout and playgrounds are also on site. A separate, adjacent area even allows hunters to chase a number of species in season, including waterfowl, rabbits, pheasants and squirrels.
This summer and fall, either fish from one of the lake’s rock jetties or drop a johnboat, kayak or float tube in its waters and take advantage of all the woody and aquatic structure that can’t be reached from the bank. Just remember to use an electric or nonpowered boat there. Located 30 minutes from downtown Omaha and Lincoln and mere minutes away from both the Strategic Air and Space Museum and E.T. Mahoney State Park, Memphis is in the perfect geographical spot to make a weekend escape.
You might even see me there, but there’s just no telling what I’ll be doing. I have so many options.
The author would like to thank the Nebraska State Historical Society, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, The Saunders County Museum and a paper by Merna Washburn entitled "Refrigeration Killed My Town" for the historical information regarding Memphis Lake SRA.