About 10 miles southeast of Bloomington sits Lake Monroe, the largest inland lake in the Hoosier state.

None of the state’s original inhabitants could have imagined this since the manmade lake didn’t exist until the 1960s. Originally constructed to control flooding in southeast Indiana, Lake Monroe (or Monroe Lake) is now one of the state’s most popular recreational destinations.

Before Lake Monroe, pastoral farming communities dotted the landscape in Brown and Monroe Counties. Life was quiet, work was hard, but community ties in these small Hoosier towns were strong. The first recorded white settlers arrived in the area in 1815, only a year before Indiana became a state.

The establishment of these early homesteads was made possible by the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, in which the Miami tribe ceded around 30 million acres of their Indiana and Illinois land to the United States government (and led to “Tecumseh’s War“). The naturally hilly and heavily wooded area was slowly tamed and cultivated into fields and pastures.

In 1938, Congress passed the Flood Control Act to authorize the US Army Corps of Engineers to conduct civil engineering projects designed to control flooding.

This act would set the stage for the creation of Lake Monroe. The White River and its tributaries risked flooding during rainy seasons, often overflowing their banks and flooding nearby low-lying areas.

Flooding in Louisville after the Great Flood of 1937

In 1954, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed construction of a reservoir in Brown and Monroe Counties to mitigate flood damage to the southeast region of Indiana. The Indiana General Assembly subsequently authorized a feasibility study in 1955 to determine if a flood control dam could be constructed on Salt Creek. Following a favorable report, Congress officially authorized the project in 1957.

Photo credit: Indiana Historical Society

To create a reservoir of the size and scale desired, the government needed a lot of land.

Over 10,000 acres, to be exact. They acquired most of that land through eminent domain, in some cases buying out entire towns and villages.

Construction started in 1960 and finished in 1965 at a total cost of $16.5 million (over $150 million today). The lake was constructed as an earth core dam with a rock face. For the first year, the lake remained half full, as beach areas were constructed along its shores.

Geist reservoir old map shorewood #indyturns200 Indianapolis centennial

The reservoir was filled to full height in 1966. The immense, 10,750-acre lake, drains into a watershed of approximately 24,000 acres extending into Jackson, Lawrence, and Bartholomew Counties. Most of the watershed consists of wooded landscapes in the Hoosier National Forest and Yellowwood State Forest.

The vast lake’s completion was responsible for the transformation of Brown County from a quiet rural community to a bustling tourist destination. The nearby town of Nashville capitalized on tourist interest by investing in quaint shops, restaurants, candy stores, and hotels.

Nashville cleverly cashed in on the lake tourism.

Between 1960 and 1980, the population of Brown County doubled, and tourism became the county’s prime industry. An artists’ colony, appropriately (if blandly) named the Brown County Art Colony, has been active in the area since the early twentieth century and benefitted from increased exposure and commercial opportunities.

While the lake was constructed to ease flooding in the area, the state also saw the vast body of water as an opportunity to create new recreational attractions.

Access points were planned for boating and fishing. Picnic grounds and other nearby recreational activities were considered. A large Boy Scout camp (Ransburg Scout Reservation) was plotted along the lake’s eastern shore, complete with private dock. The City of Bloomington found a more practical use for the vast lake —

It became the city’s source of drinking water.

Bloomington’s water treatment plant in 2020

In July 1965, the state stocked the lake with fish. After waiting two years for the fish to acclimate and breed, the area was officially opened to fishermen in 1967. By then, beaches, boating ramps, and access roads to the area had been completed. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see the state’s newest attraction. The state parks department estimated that Lake Monroe would be Indiana’s most visited tourist destination that year.

Recreational map of Lake Monroe. Guide Art Company, 1967.

Bolstered by tourist interest in the new lake, construction of a $2.1 million recreational complex was announced in 1969. The recreation area, located on the lake’s south side, included a motel, swimming pool, restaurant, meeting facility, and marina. A second development, with a marina, boat facilities, motel, apartments, and resort shopping, was soon announced for the lake’s northeast corner.

In 1970, the State of Indiana estimated that tourism to the area had increased to approximately one million visitors annually.

Monroe Lake in Bloomington, Indiana | Boating, Camping, Swimming
Monroe Lake recreational area today.

Amidst the bustle of recreation and development, Lake Monroe served another, quieter, purpose. Abutting the southern shoreline of the lake, the Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area was created to serve as Indiana’s only federally protected wilderness area. Teeming with wildlife and over 300 species of birds, the area is a quiet haven for nature lovers, bird watchers, and hundreds of plant and animal species.

In the 1980s, the wilderness area was chosen as the site for reintroduction of the bald eagle to Indiana. Once native to the area, the bald eagle had long been absent from the state. Nests were established for the birds along the southern lakeshore. Today, a healthy bald eagle population can be found in the area. The bird was taken off Indiana’s endangered species list in 2008.

Fish attractors installed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, September ’22.

With the lake used for both recreation and wildlife conservation, occasional clashes between the two interests have occurred. Most notably, in February 2000, the ecoterrorist group Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for an arson set at a luxury subdivision located in the Lake Monroe watershed. Conservationists had long desired to limit development in the watershed area.

Today, the state of Indiana continues its aim to strike a balance between recreation and conservation interests at the lake. Since its completion, the reservoir is estimated to have prevented more than $38 million in flood damage to the area, while bringing in a wealth of tourism revenue to the nearby towns and cities. Boating, camping, fishing, picnicking, and swimming continue to be popular tourist activities.

The largest marina on the lake, the Fourwinds Lakeside Inn and Marina, offers over 800 boats, yearlong fishing, and other recreation opportunities. The Charles C. Deam Wilderness Area continues to be a quieter destination, offering scenic hikes and opportunities to enjoy nature.

Indiana’s largest interior lake truly offers something for everyone.