‘They have named it Junaluska’
From the beginning there had to be a lake. It was a given. The two visionaries who had dreamed that, one day, there would be a great Chautauqua-like assembly in the south had been influenced by northern assemblies that featured lakes.
One was Dr. James Atkins who, as editor of Sunday School Publications for the Methodist Episcopal Church, had attended several events at Chautauqua Lake Assembly in New York state. The other was Dr. George Stuart who was a pastor of the same denomination who had attended and preached at Winona Lake Assembly in Indiana. Both had been inspired by these two institutions and filled with awe at the beauty of each site, which featured a large lake.
As the two life-long friends began to pump up enthusiasm for a similar assembly in the south, it was assumed that there would be a lake — a large lake — a beautiful lake.
After weeks of interviews with groups that desired the assembly located in communities that they represented, Haywood County was chosen as the location of the new assembly. The new assembly would have to be on Richland Creek. By damming the creek a significant lake could be created, but the question was where on Richland Creek?
The first choice was at Howell mill. Here the valley was at its narrowest and thus a smaller dam would be needed. If Richland Creek were dammed here the resulting lake would have covered the area now occupied by the city Recreation Center all the way to where Russ Avenue is located today.
There was a problem, however. The Southern Railway
tracks, which ran through this area, would have to be moved and the railway was not inclined to do this.
Atkins and Stuart were preparing to leave for Washington to try to persuade the railroad to change its mind when they were stopped by other members of the committee who had just traveled from Asheville to Waynesville on the train. Just as they rounded “Horseshoe Curve” three miles east of Waynesville they looked out the window at a valley framed on all sides by mountains. They were struck by the beauty of the area.
Upon arrival in Waynesville they contacted Atkins and urged him to reconsider the location. It turned out that the commissioners already had options on three of the farms in that valley. The group purchased those and the surrounding land adjourning it. This area, some 250 acres, was covered by the lake.
By July of 1910, an engineer had been employed. James W. Seaver, a civil engineer, was given the task of locating the dam, estimating the cost, determining the level of the lake and thus the shoreline. These matters would, in turn, aid in the decision of the location of roads and buildings. Thus the lake became one of the determining factors in the initial design of the assembly.
Indeed, the importance of the lake was to be underscored by one of the best-known landscape design firms in the United States. On Sept. 1, 1910, John Olmstead arrived from Brookline, Massachusetts. The son of famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, he was representing Olmstead Brothers Landscape Architects, the firm his father had created. Noted as the designer of Central Park in New York, numerous city park systems, and of course the grounds of Biltmore Estate in Asheville, the father had died in 1903 and his sons continued the firm. Olmstead's son had arrived to assist in the design of the new assembly.
After a tour of the valley the next day, Olmstead returned to Brookline and later sent a detailed report of his findings and recommendations. His report began, “We have examined with great interest and satisfaction the picturesque and well located lands ... your engineer has explained to us his tentative plan for a lake to be created by a dam some 40 feet high.” He then went on to note that some had suggested perhaps postponing the construction of the dam for financial reasons. Olmstead concluded that this would be a great mistake.
His report continued, “ a lake with beautiful landscape surroundings situated in the high mountains would inevitably be recognized as a rare and extremely attractive feature .... We urge that, as a landscape feature of extraordinary value, the lake should be one of the first thing to be accomplished.”
The commissioners took the advice seriously and the first construction to be undertaken was the dam.
The new lake needed a name. When one stood on the high bluff overlooking the lake site where today the Junaluska Cross stands today, the most prominent feature was the high mountains beyond the west end. The peak that demanded the viewers’ attention most was the one that, in that day, was named Mount Junaluska. Thus the decision was made to name the lake for the mountain. A newspaper article after the decision was made had, as its headline, "They Have Named it Lake Junaluska." The article added, “That the lake which is to shimmer in the sunshine at the foot of these eminences should bear the name of the noble warrior ... .is fitting.”
The lake created was, as Olmstead had predicted, the greatest feature of the Assembly. There was, and is, nothing like it in the area. From the very beginning it became a favorite gathering place for conference attendees and local persons as well. There was just something special about swimming in a lake such as this. Unfortunately, for health reasons the lake was closed to swimming in 1954. Because of the popularity of swimming in a mountain lake, when a pool was constructed it was constructed in the lake so that one might have the feeling of swimming in the lake! Likewise, in the early days of the Assembly boat races were held on the lake frequently. Early pictures show some of these races in progress.