From Stone Quarry To Sandy Beach

Have you ever wondered what happens to a stone quarry when it reaches the end of its productive mining life? In most cases, fill is added and the land redeveloped for another use.

But every once in a while, the continual scraping along the mine’s bottom eventually wears; a puncture is made to the water table below, and a lake is created.

To local fishermen, this is a gift from the heavens.

For a local government, however, a new problem emerges--what do you do with the flooded property?

For one Illinois community, a flooded quarry spawned an idea: why not turn this into something that can generate revenue and attract new business?

Welcome to Three Oaks Recreation Area.


In the early 1950s, mining firm Vulcan Materials began extracting sand and stone from a quarry in Crystal Lake, Ill., 50 miles northwest of Chicago. The extracted raw materials would help produce gravel aggregate, a base material necessary for road construction.

But after four decades of mining, the water table at the quarry’s bottom was exposed, creating two deepwater lakes that were stocked with fish over the years. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity, a local fisherman’s club visited as often as they could, affectionately dubbing the area “Vulcan Lakes.”

By 1990, with its mining activity complete, Vulcan Materials deeded the 462-acre property back to the city. Consultant studies indicated that the former quarry could be converted for a new purpose--a recreational area.

But the city envisioned more--it sought to create a community destination, wanting something visually pleasing, functional … and capable of generating revenue from boat rentals, concession sales, non-resident parking, corporate outings and maybe weddings, too.

The city turned to landscape architectural firm Hitchcock Design Group, with offices in Naperville and Chicago. With a reputation for award-winning riverwalks, nature-based parks and recreation destinations, the firm was tasked with leading the consultant team of engineers, ecologists, architects and contractors.

The $14-million quarry-reclamation project was entirely funded by bonds sold from the city’s home-rule sales tax.

“Constructing improvements within a quarry presents many challenges,” admits Andy Howard, a Hitchcock Design project designer.

“We knew the learning curve was steep, and the unknowns plentiful, but also knew that we could count on the expertise that each of our consultants brought,” he adds.

The Vision

With its consulting team in place, the design group and city leaders worked together to flesh out a vision. A large, rustic lake house would serve as the project centerpiece, providing a secure point-of-access to a proposed sand beach. This facility would also house locker rooms, rest rooms and a concession area, as well as offices for lifeguards, first aid and maintenance.

Other “wish list” features emerged: a boat rental marina on the north and south lakes, a trail system that encircled the site, picnic shelters and a boardwalk system to connect the handful of islands. Other amenities like a playground, splash pad and volleyball courts would follow.

“It made sense that this destination would be more passive in nature,” relates Howard.

This recreation area was created to provide a sense of tranquility to visitors who would prefer to bird-watch, look at wildlife, hike an interpretive trail, or relax after a leisurely lunch.

Repeated visits to the site convinced firm designers that the two large islands would buffer the winds and keep the waters relatively calm. The islands also presented an opportunity.

“We wanted to get people on these islands so they could enjoy the breathtaking views,” Howard remembers.

The city’s goal was to keep the lake as pristine as possible, and retain it as a fishing destination for future generations. Rowboats, canoes, kayaks, small sailboats and paddle-boats would be a wonderful park attraction, but motorized boats were definitely out.

The biggest threat to any pristine lake, city leaders understood, was the introduction of an invasive species, including the zebra mussel.

For more than a decade, Midwestern fresh lakes have struggled to eradicate the zebra mussel (Dreissena polymorpha), a tiny, freshwater mollusk. It consumes algae and plankton, nutrients necessary for fish and aquatic life. Fishermen who transport their small boats from lake to lake unsuspectingly introduce the zebra mussels, which attach themselves to boat bottoms, and thus into new waters.

Because of this threat, city leaders decided that any boat activity on the lake would be entirely rental, and its rental fleet maintained on-site.

With some rules and guidelines now established, city leaders sought a new name and identity for the recreation area.

A naming contest was held, attracting a variety of proposals. The winning submission, “Three Oaks,” is taken from the name of the road that once ran along the Vulcan Materials property.

Early Beginnings

Looking for ideas, designers visited other area quarries that had been converted into recreation areas, such as the one in Independence Grove in Libertyville. “It was a good prototype for us,” Howard says.

Recreation projects typically begin with a roadmap, known as a master plan. For this project, the plan roughed out the proposed site features--the beach, pavilion, picnic shelters, trails and other amenities. The plan also took into account how stormwater was being diverted from the site.

Critical in this process was a study of soil borings to understand potential issues with anchoring into the ground. These studies are crucial when designing projects near water. Poor soils can lead to a host of structural and drainage issues. Since a beach area was involved, understanding the surrounding soils was a priority.

“We discovered an area near the proposed beach that had high concentrations of silt,” Howard recalls.

Vulcan Materials, he says, utilized a washing operation to remove these particles from the mined stone. The deposited silt was not suitable for the beach and wading area. Designers responded by reducing the size of the beach footprint.

Then an even bigger challenge surfaced--the water level of the lakes rose by two feet. The historic, high water levels affected several planned amenities, including the boardwalk, pier system, trails and shoreline. The project team agreed that high water-level control was necessary, but would require extensive civil engineering--along with access to a neighboring parcel to manage the water level.

The remedy was a 12-inch-diameter pipe inserted into the bottom of the south lake, routed under an existing road, and released onto an adjoining parcel owned by another materials construction firm. Consultants closely studied historical and stormwater data, and developed cost options.

Talks took place between the city and the land owner to access the adjoining parcel, but an agreement was not reached.

“We had to adjust our design components, including plans for docks, piers and fishing stations,” says Steve Konters, a Hitchcock project manager.

He adds that one of the project goals all along was to get visitors close to the water. “Our intent was to provide them with an intimate experience with the water.”

Adjustments were made to elevate the site amenities by several feet, and raise the grade of the lower areas.

Sustainable Features

It was agreed early on that a sustainable, earth-friendly approach would be utilized throughout the project. Unfortunately, most municipal projects begin with good intentions to be sustainable, but earth-friendly components and practices are frequently red-lined because of higher construction costs.

In this case, the mandate that Three Oaks be truly sustainable played a huge role in reducing the overall project cost. Most of the specified construction materials were already on site. The excavation contractor, for instance, used a “borrow pit” to set aside existing stone and sand until it was needed.

“The base materials for asphalt and concrete came right from the site,” echoes Howard. “This alone saved the city considerable money.”

Using alternative energy and reducing light spill was also considered in the sustainable design approach. The proposed parking lot and site light fixtures are dark-sky compliant, while solar panels are used for shelter lighting. Since natural light penetrates the clear roof panels on the lake-house entry corridor, fewer light fixtures are needed. Recycled materials were also specified during the selection of building materials and site furnishings.

To reduce stormwater runoff, designers added bioswales in the parking lot to filter rainwater before it travels into the lakes. Bioswales offer deep root systems, which filter pollutants from the water runoff before it reaches the lake. Rain gardens were added to capture water runoff from downspouts along the various roof structures.

In addition, native Illinois plantings were introduced around the site throughout construction as a sustainable method to reduce erosion.

“Since this was once a quarry, much of the land surface is absent of clay subgrade and topsoil necessary for plantings and turf growth,” Konters explains.

“That’s why we needed to select plant materials that could sustain themselves.”

The ability to “sequence” construction activities, adds the project leader, allowed the team time to systematically plant seedlings throughout the construction cycle.

Open For Business

By September 2010, construction was complete. Of particular note was the new, 2,000-square-foot lake house, a series of picnic shelters and 28 acres of restorative native plantings.

After developing the two lakes for fishing, and creating boat marinas for each, designers added a 3-mile multi-use trail--complete with an interpretative boardwalk. The boardwalk leads to a peninsula, neatly tying the entire system together. The beach will officially open this spring, offering more than 32,000 square feet of swimming space and 270 feet of shoreline.

“The city of Crystal Lake was extremely happy,” Howard says. “The project had a big impact on the community, and will provide unique recreation experiences for generations of families.”

According to City Manager Eric Helm, the city has already fielded inquires about event rental for the summer. He says that he’s looking forward to attracting new business to the area as a direct result of the project.

“There has been a renewed interest in some of the surrounding properties based on proximity to this amenity,” he adds. “I think that will be kind of a peripheral benefit.”

Steve Sarley, a fishing reporter for Crystal Lake’s Northwest Herald, was among those present at the opening ceremony.

“I doubt there is another water-related complex in northern Illinois that compares,” Sarley wrote. “The complex is laid out perfectly. The landscaping, buildings, shorelines, beach and pavilion are all beautiful.”

Amid his glowing review of the fishing, Sarley is also quick to note the city’s new entrepreneurial spirit.

“The Three Oaks Recreational complex is home to its very own Culver’s Restaurant,” the reporter adds. “There’s nothing better than a two-scoop waffle cone after a couple hours of fishing, is there?”

Joe White is the marketing coordinator at Hitchcock Design Group. For more information, visit