Historic Pratt State Fish Hatchery: Build It and They Will Spawn
written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas
(Digitized copies of newspaper articles cited here are found at KGI ONLINE LIBRARY)
“To the people of Kansas, fish culture is a new industry; but to many of the States of our Union, and the civilized countries of the Old World, it is no longer an experiment. Although the art in the United States is yet in its infancy, enough is known of the success of this important enterprise by the many different States, that they have enacted laws for the protection, preservation and propagation of the food fishes. Kansas, as usual, not wanting in pluck and energy, enrolled her name on the list of States, already large, that have enacted laws for the protection of the finny tribes occupying the waters of their state.” -Hon. D. B. Long, Commissioner of Fisheries, Ellsworth. (#1-Kansas Farmer, November 14, 1877)
In 1877, the Kansas legislators enacted a law that would establish a Commissioner of Fisheries of the State of Kansas, appointed by the governor, whose duties included examining rivers, lakes and streams of Kansas and ascertaining whether they can be rendered an increase in the production of fish and what means are desirable to obtain that objective.
In the 1877 Kansas Farmer article, it was reported that legislators deemed fishways as the most important principle in the success of fish culture in Kansas. Dams and other obstructions prevented the fish from accessing their natural spawning grounds. It became a misdemeanor if anyone was found violating this section of the fish act. The legislators also appropriated $500 for the duties of the Commissioner of Fisheries.
New fish and game laws were enacted in 1895. One such law required the state fish commissioner “to appoint one fish warden for each county where there are streams, lakes or ponds sufficient for the propagation of fish, who shall serve without pay. The provision outlined specific rules for the manner of catching fish as well as when and how species such as large black bass, are caught. (#2-The Sumner County Standard, Wellington, March 14, 1895)
State Fish Commissioner O. E. Sadler, in his 1895-96 report to Governor Morrill, took issue with the fact that county wardens would receive no pay. “Men who have accepted of the wardenship of their county pursue some other avocation or a living, but when some gross violation with the fish law occurs, they are expected to bring the offender to justice regardless of time or cost to them. In case of failure they are censured and if successful receive a mere pittance for their services.” (1895-96 Report of the Fish Commissioner of Kansas)
In the late 1890s, there were two ways people could acquire fish for restocking purposes. First, fish wardens of each county had the right to remove fish from public waters by “any means at his disposal” for the stocking of streams, rivers, ponds, public or private. The second avenue was to obtain fish from the government. “Simply address the ‘United States Fish Commissioner, Washington, D.C. and inform him that you want fish. He will send you a blank to fill out, that you may state the kind of fish you desire, ect., which you will return to him. In about year, ordinarily you will get from 20 to 100 very small fish, and while you will think you are getting them for nothing, they will cost you a great deal of time and worry for every minnow you get from the government. (“How to Obtain Fish for Stocking Streams and Ponds”, 1897-98, Report of the Fish Commissioner of Kansas)
In 1900, new state fish warden Geo. W Wiley, reported that the government fish car made two visits to the state during the year 1899 that included 3,000 black bass at two cents each, 3,500 crappie at two cents each, 1,200 blue or channel cat at two cents each, 145 pond perch or sunfish at two cents each, for a total of $156.90 in government fish purchases. Expenses of $42.01 were added to the cost and the total fish cost was $198.91. The legislators had appropriated $400 annually for the years 1899 and 1900.
Warden Wiley concluded in his report, “Getting fish from the government is all right as far as it goes, but it is very unsatisfactory to those who have their ponds and reservoirs completed to be compelled to wait from twelve to eighteen months for fish after making their application, and then be informed that the kind of fish required or request cannot be had. For this reason, I am arranging to get fish from private parties for next year’s distribution.” (1899-1900, Biennial Report of the Kansas Fish-Warden)
Wiley also raised the question of the establishment of a state fish hatchery. “There is no question but what the waters of Kansas are remarkably well adapted for the raising of black bass, rock-bass, crappie, channel-cat, and sun-perch, and if the state will appropriate sufficient money to establish a fish hatchery for the cultivation and raising of small fry of the five varieties above named, that in a very few years, every stream in the state of Kansas can be well supplied with an abundance of game and fine food fish. A hatchery should be established, beyond question.” (J.W. Haughey, Warden, Report to Governor W.E. Stanley, November 30, 1902)
The headline in the December 27, The Topeka Daily Capital reads, “Haughey After Fish Hatchery”. The article begins, “J. W. Haughey of Wellington, State Fish Commissioner, will make an earnest effort to induce the Legislature at its coming session to appropriate money for the establishment of a state fish hatchery. By means of it, the streams of the state could be stocked with fish at the lowest possible cost and Mr. Haughey claims that the hatchery could be placed on a paying basis by selling fish to private individuals. He says that twenty states in the Central West have fish hatcheries and that every one state has found them to be paying propositions. (#3-The Topeka Daily Capital, December 27, 1902)
“The legislature will be asked, during this session to make an appropriation for the building and maintenance of a state fish hatchery and rearing grounds upon the recommendation of the state fish warden, J. W. Haughey, and also to pass laws that will protect the fish and game of Kansas. The government is unable to supply the demand for eggs, and stocks of fish from the government hatcheries, and if Kansas is to be benefited immediately by having the streams properly stocked, the legislature will have to come to the aid of the warden.” (#4-The Topeka State Journal, January 17, 1903)
Warden Haughey was quoted in the article as saying, “A state hatchery could be established in the state of Kansas at a cost not exceeding from $5,000 to $10,000 that could be made to yield annually after the first eighteen months from 100,000 to 200,000 small fry of the varieties of fish that are adapted to the waters of Kansas.” An illustration of a “model fish hatchery and rearing grounds” at Manchester, Iowa was included within the article.
The 1903 legislature agreed with the need for a hatchery and passed legislation within the closing hours, appropriating $10,000 for the establishment of a state fish hatchery. Governor Baily and newly appointed state fish warden Del Travis of Pratt, determined that Pratt would be the location for the new hatchery. (#5-The Newton Journal, March 17, 1903)
In the first year, the fishery comprised of a two-and-a-half-acre pond, seven feet deep, and the 12-acre fishery site was fenced in. A six-inch wind pump was installed, and because of limited appropriations, a permanent water supply could not be established. In his December 1, 1904 report to Governor Baily, Warden Travis outlined his need for appropriations of $10,000 in the next legislative session. “There should be three or four more large ponds and a number of small ones built, a water-main laid and the necessary piping and equipment for a permanent water supply, provisions made to secure a practical and experienced man as superintendent; a residence and outbuildings should be erected, and also a hatchery building.” (1903-04, Report of the Kansas Fish-Warden)
The legislature of 1905 appropriated $8,400 to improve and update the fish hatchery. Once funds were available “A handsome hatchery building was erected, seven ponds constructed, which are supplied with water through two lines of eight-inch cast mains, each 2,000 feet in length. Water is taken from the Ninnescah River at an elevation of nine feet above the highest point on the hatchery grounds. The hatchery is located three miles from the city of Pratt, on fifteen acres of land. Twelve acres of same was donated to the state by the county of Pratt and three acres by individual donation. In my judgement a more perfect location could not have been found or a more perfect water system constructed,” reported Warden Travis. (1905-07, Report of the Kansas Fish-Warden)
The Warden also included a list of County Deputy Wardens within the 1905-07 Report. This list is included in the sources for this article. (Deputy Warrens, 1905-07, Biennial Report of the Kansas Fish-and Game-Warden)
A Topeka paper praised Fish and Game Warden Dell Travis and the state hatchery. “Probably one of the largest and best fish and game hatcheries located in the Western country is at Pratt. This may seem like a broad assertion, but since the laws of Kansas have given to the fish and game warden the right and the money, he has been working wonders.” (#6-The Topeka Daily Capital, January 20, 1907)
The fish hatchery needed a logical and strategic distribution plan to provide fish to the public throughout the state. “By 1906, more ponds had been constructed along the Ninnescah River in the same vicinity as the initial one. Production had increased to a point where the method of distribution became a problem. Since rail was the only form of successful travel in those days, the Commission agreed to purchase a rail car to carry on the job. Cost of the car was $7,296.98, and it was delivered fully equipped with all facilities as ordered. Included in the car was living quarters for the crew, kitchen facilities, an ice refrigerator and twelve 200-gallon tanks in which the fish were to be transported.” (#7-The Marysville Advocate, October 1, 1959)
For decades the fish car named Angler, delivered fish to hundreds of Kansas ponds, but in 1929 the car was decommissioned. “But time began to run out on Angler Car No. 1 in the mid-twenties when the Commission started experimenting with hauling fish by motor truck. By 1927, the rail car was used for long deliveries only, and two years later the car was sold for salvage and junked in Topeka. Since then all deliveries have been by truck.”
State Fish and Game Warden, D. W. Travis reported in his 1907-09 biennial report, “The legislature of 1907 appropriated $3,250 out of the license fund for the purpose of buying sixty-five acres of additional land to enlarge the original site for the state hatchery. This additional land is partly covered with propagating ponds, and a large number of shade and ornamental trees have been planted. More trees should be planted, more ponds constructed, and a warden’s residence erected on this land.” (1907-08, Report of the Kansas Fish and Game Warden)
In Warden Travis’ last biennial report, he addressed the “reckless destruction of fish and game”. He wrote, “From the birth of the state of Kansas, and up to the enactment of the fish and game laws of 1895, many hundreds of undesirable citizens made their livelihood by capturing the fish from the streams and the native-birds from our prairies, and shipping same to the large commercial centers, to the extent that the once abundant supply was almost extinct. I am pleased to inform you that this destruction has been checked, and that nearly all of this class of citizens have either secured more honorable means of support or have been driven from the state.” (1907-08, Report of the Kansas Fish and Game Warden)
A photo laden front-page story, which featured a comprehensive, historical overview and a look at the daily operations of the Kansas Fish and Game hatchery at Pratt, was reported in The Wichita Daily Eagle, May 2, 1920 issue. The headline read “Kansas Has Best Fish Hatchery in the World at Pratt” and began with the lead, “Kansas State Fish Hatchery is the largest, most beautiful and most efficient one in the world. That fact is recognized.” (#8-The Wichita Daily Eagle, May 2, 1920)
Today, the Pratt Fish Hatchery is at its original historical location and consists of 87 culture ponds and two concrete raceways. The primary water supply for the hatchery is a shallow, five-acre reservoir on the Ninnescah River at the east edge of Pratt’s Lemon Park. The hatchery building is nicknamed the “Fish House” and is where the fry are artificially hatched, treated for disease, and readied for stocking or rearing ponds. The Department of Wildlife and Parks’ Operations Office and Wildlife Museum share the grounds with the hatchery, and many visitors tour the facilities each year. There are also fish hatcheries at Meade, Farlington, and Milford, Kansas. (ksoutdoors.com)