Through the centuries, the area that is today’s Gray’s Lake Park was part of the ever-changing course of the Raccoon River. Left behind after one such change in the Raccoon was an oxbow that would become Gray’s Lake Park. Residents of Des Moines in the early 20th century remember this body of water as a small pond. The land was originally owned by T.E. Brown, who sold 79 acres on the eastern edge of the property to Gaylord E. Gray. With concrete just coming of age, Gaylord Gray had the idea of mining sand and gravel out of this lake. He started the business in 1917, and eventually his son, Gaylord E. Gray, Jr., took over the operation. This mining caused the oxbow to increase in size, eventually forming a 100-acre lake. The last large project of the mining operation was the concrete for the main runway at the Des Moines International Airport.
For decades portions of the area surrounding Gray's Lake were owned by three separate entities, one of which was the City of Des Moines. The City's park portion consisted of nothing more than a beach concession and picnic area; it was used by a few thousand people annually. Frequent flooding of the area resulted in little consequence due to the low usage and lack of park amenities. Numerous public/private efforts were unsuccessfully undertaken through the years to purchase the remaining property and develop it into a premier City park facility. Devastation of existing facilities by the Flood of 1993 eventually provided the impetus to weld the future successful combination of federal/state/city and private efforts and funding together. Land acquisition and redevelopment led to the complete renovation and reopening of Des Moines' Gray's Lake park in 2001.
Over the next several years, various plans for city ownership were developed but never brought to fruition. About this time, aerial photographs were being made of the city and the large body of water needed to be named on the map. People had started referring to it as Gray’s Lake due to the partial ownership of the Gray family members. The name Gray’s Lake was suggested and adopted. After the quarry operations ended, Des Moines Marine Company leased the eastern half to operate Marine Beach. Then, in 1959, a Holiday Inn Motel was built on the southwest corner, setting the stage for commercial development. Each time requests for more commercial development came forward, citizens spoke out against it, urging public recreation instead.
Compelling arguments and persistence by community activist Paula Brown encouraged action for the use of the lake as a park. Former Iowa Congressman Neal Smith was instrumental in securing a grant from the Federal Bureau of Outdoor Recreation, along with other funds. Chamber of Commerce President Robb B. Kelley led a fund drive to raise money to match the federal grant to the city. On April 28, 1970, Gray’s Lake was dedicated as a city park.
In 1993 a flood destroyed the Holiday Inn. For years, the abandoned and partially demolished building remained. In 1998, David and Elizabeth Kruidenier came forward with a vision and pledge of $1.5 million for a trail to be made around the lake. Construction deadlines on the Kruidenier gift encouraged city leaders to move at an accelerated pace. At this time, the Weitz Company owned about one-third of the lake. It was this company’s generosity that made it possible for the City of Des Moines to acquire the final portion of the lake. On October 26, 1998, the City of Des Moines accepted financial gifts from Polk County, area businesses and private citizens, many of which were with the condition that the area be developed for public recreation. The Greater Des Moines Community Foundation served as fiscal agent for the project.
City officials and staff joined with citizens in planning, designing, building and funding the new Gray’s Lake Park. Gray’s Lake Park is an urban gem drawing people looking for a place of peaceful retreat and outdoor recreation, and provides a beautiful gateway to downtown Des Moines.