One lake or two?

Author: Ed Cohen

People who know Notre Dame’s full name is Notre Dame du Lac, know the layout of campus, and know a little French are often perplexed as to why the University’s name translates to “Our Lady of the Lake.” After all there are two lakes.

Many a smug Domer will explain that there used to be one lake. They’ll tell you that sometime in the 19th century the State of Indiana decided to confiscate all lakes larger than a certain size. To keep from losing one of Notre Dame’s lakes to secular authority, Father Sorin had the brothers fill in a shallow area between the lakes, turning Our Lady’s one big, potentially public lake into two smaller private ones.

It’s a good story and widely believed. It’s also apparently a myth. Indiana has plenty of lakes in private possession that are larger than the two at Notre Dame combined. And a search of letters and maps and articles in the University’s archives indicates that there have been two lakes here since at least the early 1800s. Only one drawing, an 1829 U.S. Survey, shows the two as one, and the most plausible explanation is that the surveyor had a lot of wilderness to cover and was in a hurry.

It’s also possible that the surveyor visited at a time of year when the two lakes appeared to be one. That’s what some believe is the reason Sorin used the singular in naming his hoped-for college “of the lake.” Soon after arriving at the site in the dead of winter, the ambitious priest wrote to the founder of the Holy Cross order, Father Basil Moreau, describing the setting:

“Everything was frozen over. Yet it all seemed so beautiful. The lake, especially, with its broad carpet of dazzling white snow, quite naturally reminded us of the spotless purity of our August Lady whose name it bears, and also of the purity of soul that should mark the new inhabitants of this chosen spot.”

Sorin told Moreau the location already was called Notre Dame du Lac because of its single lake. But that wasn’t true, and Sorin knew it. The property was then known as Sainte-Marie-des-Lacs (Saint Mary of the Lakes) and had been called that since Father Stephen Badin, frontier missionary priest, bought the property from the government in 1829. Badin later donated it to the bishop of Vincennes in southern Indiana on the condition that an orphanage or some other religious or charitable project be created on the property.

Sorin’s biographer, Father Marvin O’Connell, CSC, says Sorin chose the singular du lac because of his first glimpse of the property in winter and because in the spring the marshy area that separated the lakes would have been flooded with melted snow and probably looked like one big lake. The two-lake reality eventually became obvious, of couse, but O’Connell says Sorin was never one to reverse course.

That marshy middle ground later played a role in one of the most famous episodes in Notre Dame’s early history. In the 19th century a stream flowed from the northwest corner of Saint Mary’s Lake through the future Saint Mary’s College campus and into the Saint Joseph River. The stream drained excess water from the lake (a task now handled by an underground pipe). A farmer who owned the adjoining property built a dam to power a mill, and this backed up water onto the land around and between the Notre Dame lakes. This created swampland, perfect for breeding flies and mosquitoes.

Though uneducated about disease vectors, Sorin became convinced that the swamp, into which sewage from the campus also flowed, was the source of malaria, cholera and typhus outbreaks that threatened the college’s existence. In 1855, following another two disease fatalities, Sorin convinced his neighbor to sell him the land with the dammed stream.

However, as the transaction was nearing completion the farmer left town. Infuriated, Sorin had a half-dozen of his strongest religious brothers go over and demolish the dam.

Whether he was cowed by the CSC muscle or had an attack of conscience, the farmer quickly closed the deal under the original agreed-upon terms. The marsh was drained, the land dried up, and the diseases disappeared.