By 1910, the wood dam at The Lake in Montreat was working well. This black & white picture shows the dam from the downstream perspective.
1910 Photo of the new dam, swimming and boating on the lake.
Once there was a lake, then there was swimming. Early administrators and board of directors often felt they had to warn women and men about “proper” swim wear. The above picture shows the old Boat House and the lake before the Left Bank Building was constructed.
The slide became a popular amusement by the 1930s.
REAL ESTATE PROMOTION, 88-YEAR FLOODS, STUNT DAYS, & MORE!
The 1907 brochure put out by the new Presbyterian administration of the Montreat conference grounds painted a promotional picture: “Beside the stream, we have planned an artificial lake of about three acres, which will be stocked with fish. This lake will furnish boating and bathing as well as fishing. ” There was even a mocked up picture of the proposed lake, just down the hill from the Montreat Hotel.
A lake had been envisioned for years. The South Fork of the Swannanoa River, generally known as Flat Creek, flowed through the center of Montreat. If a dam could be constructed, a beautiful little lake would be formed. Apparently attempts had been made to dam the creek. The 1906 map of Montreat shows a proposed lake. And the 1907 brochure cited a plan “to restore the lake.”
During 1908 – 1909, a wooden dam was built by the Mountain Retreat Association (see the hand-colored photo of the dam apparently under construction below). The new dam was captured in a variety of black & white photos in 1910 by Asheville photographer H. W. Pelton.
SWIMMING & STUNT DAYS
The lake became a major recreational amenity for Montreat — boating and swimming.
In the early 1910s, the MRA passed an ordinance that: “Bathing suits must have sleeves extending half way from the shoulder to elbow and pants or skirts extending to the knees.” No one could wear a bathing suit on the dam, in the hotels, or in front of the Auditorium, so swimmers had to wear long jackets over their suits.
Stunt Days were inaugurated. These events featured divers, swimmers and boaters, watched by crowds that reached into the hundreds. (Below divers using an early structure, off Assembly Drive side of lake, circa late 1910s. The Stunt Day picture below showing the large crowd on the dam was taken in either summer 1922 or 1923.)
THE 100 (OR 88) YEAR FLOODS
Montreat was bustling in July 1916. America had yet to mobilize for entry into the European war, and the hotels were full for the summer conferences. Just after July 4th, the remanents of a tropical storm dropped rain on the North Carolina mountains, saturating the ground.
Over the Bahamas , the third hurricane of the season formed on July 10th. Simply numbered during those days, hurricanes seemed a coastal threat, not a problem for the mountains. But Hurricane #3 would come straight into the Charleston, SC, area on July 14th and head into the mountains. On Saturday, July 15th, it started raining — hard — in the Asheville and Montreat area. Twenty-two (22) inches fell in the Montreat vicinity within 24 hours.
On early Sunday morning, July 16th, the earthen portion adjacent to the Montreat dam broke away, then the dam. The garage housing cars was located below the dam. Some of the cars in the garage were removed before the structure was swept away, along with all bridges crossing Flat Creek. Emergency provisions and temporary water pipes were arranged for the conferees and cottagers.
The wooden dam was rebuilt. The winter of 1917 – 1918 brought hard freezing weather. The lake reportedly froze to a depth of 18 inches (see picture of frozen dam at left). Ice was cut from the lake and stored at Calvin Auditorium for the next summer.
By 1924, the MRA administration decided to replace the wooden dam with a concrete structure. The funding for the new dam was donated by Allen Graham and his mother, Mrs. C. E. Graham. The new concrete dam was designed by W. C. Whitner of Rock Hill, S.C. The Lake was christened “Lake Susan” by action of the Mountain Retreat Association Board of Directors on June 5, 1924. Mrs. Graham’s name was Susan, as was her mother, her daughter and granddaughter.
There were additional lake and dam reconstructions over the years. Swimming was banned when a pool was opened in the early 1970s.
DAM COLLAPSE AGAIN
On May 4, 2004, a 35-foot portion of the earthen dam wall partially collapsed, forcing the Conference Center to drain the lake. The Center had already planned to rebuild the dam after the summer season. This was fortunate timing, since September 2004 saw two hurricanes (Francis & Ivan) come inland and dump a huge amount of rain. Although the lake completely refilled during the 18-inch rain deluge on September 8th during Hurricane Frances, the dam held. The rest of the watershed area suffered another 100-year flood, aggravated when rains from Hurricane Ivan added to the flooding on September 17th.
The dam was completely renovated and walkways improved, with the lake being refilled and re-opened in 2006.