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Stream Restoration Project Pays Homage to Laurel Park History
Thousands of people learned how to swim at Rhododendron Lake,” said Laurel Park Mayor Carey O'Cain. “For decades, it was the 'go-to' place for swimming in Henderson County.”
Include O'Cain as one of those who learned to swim at the former nine-acre lake just west of Hendersonville. Also known to many as Laurel Park Lake, the popular swimming hole was once a top-tier recreational destination in the county each summer.
Designed and constructed as a planned resort community around 1903, Laurel Park was quickly adopted as a summer hot spot for vacationers seeking relief from the heat of the Deep South. While refreshing air and inviting mountain scenery were natural draws, local residents made a particular effort to supplement them with man-made attractions.
“A man named Walter A. Smith was the driving force behind it. He was a fabulous, interesting person,” explained O'Cain. Smith developed a master plan with the intention of creating a park-like setting next to the town of Hendersonville. It included a railroad line that ran from the intersection of Fifth and Main streets west to Laurel Park. First a coal-fired, steam-driven locomotive, it was later replaced by an electric trolley.
Two recreational lakes — Rhododendron Lake and Rainbow Lake — were constructed as summer fun locales in 1909. Rhododendron Lake featured an expansive sand beach, diving platforms and canoes available for rent. Several swimming slides enabled visitors to plunge into its cool waters with fervor. The lakes — about a quarter-mile apart — were linked by a canal.
“Visitors could pay to take a gondola ride between them,” O'Cain said.
Rhododendron Lake epitomized the Roaring Twenties in Western North Carolina. On a typical summer day on its shores, you'd find hundreds of vacationers and residents basking in the sun on the beach, listening to big band music or sipping cocktails.
Said O'Cain, “It was written that in the Twenties, Laurel Park was the 'dancing-est' town in the United States.”
A pavilion at the lake hosted as many at 30 nationally known acts during the era, including the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Ella Fitzgerald.
“People who came here were the movers and shakers of music in the country at that time,” O'Cain said.
“To give you an idea what a big deal this place was, Rhododendron Lake hosted a Fashion Gala in August of 1926. The newspaper said that 3,500 people attended. To put that number in perspective, the population of Hendersonville at that time was somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people,” he said.
So big of a deal in fact, world-famous boxer Jack Dempsey trained near Rhododendron Lake when he called Laurel Park home for a month in 1926. The heavyweight champion was lured to the town to generate publicity and draw more tourists to its resorts. Paid $30,000 by W.A. Smith and the Laurel Park Estates company — an amount equivalent to nearly $400,000 today — Dempsey participated in practice bouts at a training ring set up adjacent to the lake.
It's not inconceivable that the heralded fun and sun of Rhododendron Lake might have distracted Dempsey from his training — a few months later, he lost his match against Gene Tunney, and along with it his title as champion.
Rhododendron Lake's heyday came to an end in the early 1980s when its earthen dam was found to be structurally insufficient. The dam was purged, reducing the size of the lake from nine acres to one.
For more than three decades since, the once lively park and its lake were forgotten. Weeds and briers shrouded its banks, and a forest took root on its beach.
With the land still in private ownership, the Laurel Park Civic Association launched an effort in the late '80s for the town to acquire the former park. That endeavor finally became a reality in 2007 with the town's purchase of three parcels totaling 11 acres.
Unfortunately, the creation and then abandonment of the lake took a steep toll on the hydrology of the site. The stream exiting the lake had been ditched and channeled, an action that resulted in sustained erosion of its banks.
So bad was the erosion that it was threatening adjacent Lake Drive.
“It had been eroding for 30 years. It was just a matter of time before that embankment was to cave in and undermine the road,” explained O'Cain. To add insult to injury, invasive plant species such as kudzu were taking over the site.
The town pursued a partnership with Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy (CMLC) and other organizations in an effort to restore the stream and put a stop to the erosion. The final solution included restoration and permanent conservation as part of a mitigation banking project with French Broad Mitigation Partners and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“If a construction project elsewhere in (this watershed) was to build into a wetland and negatively impact it, the law states that if you are going to take away a wetland, you need to recreate a wetland somewhere,” O'Cain explained. “We are that somewhere.”
The restoration project, completed last year, reintroduced meanders into the stream so that its moving water can naturally change direction and reduce its speed — rather than flowing rapidly in a straight line and eroding its banks.
As part of the mitigation project, a conservation easement held by CMLC was placed on 30 feet on each side of the stream — a total of almost three acres now permanently protected from human impact.
This first phase of creating the “new” Rhododendron Lake Park also included the removal of the kudzu and other nonnative, invasive plants and the planting of native vegetation — some 160 trees and 220 shrubs.
Future phases of the project at Rhododendron Lake Park will further safeguard its water quality by dredging silt from the lake bottom and installing a bottom discharge to facilitate a lower temperature of water reentering the stream. The latter might make the lake a candidate for native brook trout reintroduction.
Construction of walking trails that circumnavigate the lake and meander through its forests and open spaces will follow.
“We're never going to recreate what was once here,” O'Cain said. “But what we are creating is a venue where people can walk, get exercise, see wildlife and enjoy a park.”
For the town of Laurel Park, the project represents restoring the glory days of outdoor fun at Rhododendron Lake to its residents and visitors. It is also the fulfillment of a longtime vision to make the community better for its citizens.
“So many people have worked to make this happen over decades,” O'Cain said. “The town is grateful to all those who were involved with bringing this about.”
For Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy, the project is a reminder that its work isn't always focused on just protecting land. It's an eager partner in restoring the natural landscape as well — especially when it enables the community to better access and enjoy our region's natural places.
by Peter Barr, CMLC Trails & Outreach Coordinator
Read more stories of CMLC’s conserved lands at www.carolinamountain.org/stories.