Willow Creek Park in southeast Lamar was built primarily by the Civil Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration from 1933 to 1938. Using local labor and materials, the New Deal agencies built a series of dams for flood mitigation and constructed several rustic stone structures for recreation, most notably Pike’s Tower at a spot where Zebulon Pike supposedly camped in 1806. The park’s dams and other water features were destroyed by a 1965 flood, but the rest of the park’s structures and several recent enhancements continue to provide Lamar residents with opportunities for recreation and relaxation.
Civil Works Administration
Planning for Willow Creek Park started around 1920, when the Lamar Rotary Club formed a committee to explore potential sites for a park. Headed by amateur historian R. L. Christy, the committee discovered that many local groups were interested in establishing a park in town. Christy completed a lot of planning for the project, but his work was soon shelved because no funding was available.
More than a decade later, Christy’s plans were revived when Lamar mayor John Y. Brown asked him to propose a project to the Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s new jobs program, the Civil Works Administration (CWA), which was designed to provide short-term employment to help people through the winter of 1933–34. Having already researched possible park sites in Lamar, Christy suggested that Brown propose a park along Willow Creek that could be used for flood control and recreation. Brown quickly submitted the proposal, which became the first CWA project approved in Colorado.
The CWA covered the entire $55,000 cost of building the park. The only local expenses were incurred by a group of locals who bought land for the park—an empty field at the time—and donated it to Lamar. Roughly rectangular in shape, the twenty-eight-acre park stretched nearly half a mile from north to south and about 500 feet from east to west. Willow Creek flowed northwest through the land to cut it diagonally in two. Park construction started on November 27, 1933, with the goal of employing 200 men for three months.
Because CWA projects were designed to be short, many of them were relatively simple. Thanks to Christy’s earlier planning work, however, the CWA was able to build something more elaborate at Willow Creek Park. Flooding on Willow Creek had plagued Lamar since its establishment in the 1880s, so park plans called for a series of three dams along the creek. One was located several miles south of Lamar, the second was at the southern edge of the park, and the third was in the middle of the park, creating a quarter-mile lake at the park’s center. The first lake in the park was destroyed by a flood almost immediately and replaced by a chain of dams and small ponds.
The park’s central water features were flanked by several rustic sandstone structures designed for recreation. On the west side of the creek, the CWA built a sandstone shelter house with a Pueblo Revival wood roof containing vigas (rough-hewn heavy rafters) and a semicircular structure of stone benches that Christy called a “colonette.” On the east side of the creek, the CWA added a Boy Scout kiva, or semicircular amphitheater consisting of several rows of stone seating radiating out from a central fireplace. The CWA also built several walkways, bridges, stone fireplaces, and automobile access roads bounded by low stone walls. Local teenagers taking part in the National Youth Administration assisted with landscaping, and local fraternal organizations donated tree plantings.
Works Progress Administration
After the CWA ended in early 1934, the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) continued to develop the park through the rest of the year. FERA’s work focused on enhancing the park’s landscaping by cleaning the grounds and improving the creek channel. Already that year, the park’s dams and ponds mitigated the effects of flooding on Willow Creek.
FERA was shut down in 1935, but it was replaced by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which became the New Deal’s primary work-relief agency in the late 1930s. Lamar applied for WPA funding to continue work in Willow Creek Park, and the project was approved in January 1936. The WPA contributed $21,500 and Lamar added $8,500 for 100 workers to perform more flood-control work, plant trees and shrubs, and build a caretaker’s house.
Designed to house a Lamar employee who would maintain the park, local cemeteries, and the city playground, the caretaker’s house was built on the east edge of Willow Creek Park. Like the rest of the park’s structures, it was a rustic stone building, although its red and brown slab rock was noticeably different from the tan sandstone used in earlier CWA construction. The one-story residence faced northwest and had an irregular plan, with front and rear sections set at a right angle to each other. The front section had a roof deck, and the rear section had a greenhouse attached to its southwest side. As at the CWA’s shelter house, wood vigas lent a hint of Pueblo Revival styling.
In 1937 Lamar successfully applied for a second WPA project at Willow Creek Park. In addition to irrigation, landscaping, and masonry walls, the project called for the construction of a large stone tower in the southeast corner of the park. The brainchild of park planner R. L. Christy, the tower was intended to mark the site where Christy believed Zebulon Pike had camped on November 13, 1806, as Pike’s expedition made its way west along the Arkansas River. (There is no evidence to back up Christy’s claim for this spot, but Pike would have camped somewhere in the area that night.) Known as Pike’s Tower, the roughly thirty-foot-tall building featured regularly coursed stonework that showed how much skill local laborers had acquired in their years of work in the park. Stairs wrapped around the tower from a patio at the base to a covered observation platform at the top. With the completion of the tower in September 1938, the WPA’s work at Willow Creek Park came to an end.
The biggest change to Willow Creek Park came in June 1965, when a devastating flood washed through the park. The flood destroyed all of the park’s dams, ponds, and bridges as well as several fireplaces near the creek. The park’s larger stone structures—Pike’s Tower, the shelter house, the caretaker’s house, the colonette, and the Boy Scout kiva—survived unharmed.
Nearly all other changes to the park have been made to enhance its usability for Lamar residents. Sometime in the 1960s or 1970s, restrooms were added to the east and west sides of the park, and in the 1980s a garage was built near the caretaker’s house. Park caretakers lived in the caretaker’s house until 1986; today the former residence is used for Girl Scout meetings.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the area near the caretaker’s house on the east side of Willow Creek became a hub of activity as the park added a playground, picnic shelter, and two volleyball courts. Another picnic shelter was built in the far northwest corner of the park. In 2003 a new pedestrian bridge over Willow Creek linked the park’s two halves, which had been separated since the 1965 flood. A nine-hole disc golf course was added in 2005.
In 2007 Willow Creek Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The park continues to be a popular spot for walks, picnics, disc golf, volleyball, and other activities, including Lamar’s annual Wild West Barbecue Cook-Off.