News reports indicate that Lake Conway apparently has dodged an environmental disaster — the Mayflower oil pipeline spill that was halted by quick action literally feet from the lake’s shoreline.
Massive cleanup operations continue and likely will for months to come. Fishermen are working the lake, however, as they have for decades, bringing in nice strings of crappie, bream, bass and catfish.
Lake Conway itself is a unique creation, a project that appeared far-fetched at its beginning.
It was the first lake project undertaken by the Arkansas Game and First Commission, and at 6,700 acres, the largest lake that agency or any other state agency in the nation has built. Heavily used by fishermen for 60-plus years, the lake has yielded enormous numbers of bass, bream, crappie and catfish — and continues to do so year after year.
Lake Conway’s birth was a difficult one. The project, conceived by a handful of Conway fishing enthusiasts, later joined by some Little Rock anglers, traveled a rocky road before men with bulldozers and dynamite began working on a lake on Palarm Creek.
Actual construction on the dam didn’t start until October 1950 and was officially completed July 4, 1951. The project to bring a lake to the dense Palarm Bottoms in southern Faulkner County started in earnest in 1945 and informally many years before that, probably in the mid- or late-1930s.
It is not readily apparent who first voiced the suggestion, "Let’s build a lake on Palarm Creek," or when this was uttered. Various sources credit B.F. Stermer with the idea of a lake on Palarm Creek. He was a Conway resident and Faulkner County’s surveyor.
Two leaders of the project were Dr. James H. Flanagin Sr., and Walter Dunaway. These two close friends and long-time fishing and hunting buddies were in the forefront of the lengthy, difficult drive to raise money for the lake, seek donations of land for it and sell the Game and Fish Commission on the idea of Lake Conway.
Another key player in the lake project was the late Russell C. Roberts, long-time Conway attorney, legislator and circuit judge. Then there were W.D. Cole, who was Conway’s mayor from 1920 to 1925, Bob Osborne, Ernest Halter and T.P. Earnhart.
The Palarm Creek bottoms were a dense mixture of bottomland hardwoods, swamp, some permanent small natural lakes (Adams Lake, Green’s Lake, Gold Lake) and small farms.
Lake Conway’s conception came about at a time of two notable events. World War II (1941-45) changed the lives and environment of many Arkansans. The Game and Fish Commission was restructured in its present form in 1945.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already built Lake Norfolk and Lake Nimrod in Arkansas for the purposes of power generation and flood control. Fishing did not figure in the priorities. Nobody had ever built a big lake for fishing. And nobody ever suggested Lake Conway was meant to be anything except a lake for fishing and duck hunting.
A small delegation from Conway — Flanagin, Dunaway and others — appeared before the commission and pitched the idea of the lake south of Conway in October 1946. Two months later, the commission made a commitment to the lake, provided land for it be donated.
A flurry of land and money came in right off the bat, then it dwindled to a trickled and finally, nothing more. Enthusiasm waned. Flanagin canvassed the Conway business district pleading for money for the Lake Conway project. Conway and Little Rock sportsmen raised $36,000, and the commission spent $160,000 more to build the lake.
Legal battles tied up the project in both state and federal courts from 1947 to 1950. When these were finally settled, a construction contract was let in October 1950, and the lake’s dam was finished in time for a dedication ceremony July 4, 1951.