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Laurel Park to celebrate new Rhododendron Lake park

The town of Laurel Park will celebrate the opening of Rhododendron Lake Nature Park on April 27.  PHOTO BY GRAY MILLER  The town of Laurel Park will celebrate the opening of Rhododendron Lake Nature Park on April 27. PHOTO BY GRAY MILLER

LAUREL PARK — Mayor Carey O’Cain stood at the edge of a bank and pointed out the water level of the Rhododendron Lake back when he was a boy.
The lake was 10 acres then, instead of a more modest one acre now. Built originally in 1909 by Walter A. Smith, the visionary developer of Laurel Park, Rhododendron Lake provided swimming, entertainment and socializing for residents and tourists alike. After building a 30-foot earthen dam to block the stream running down the cascades from the town reservoir, Smith added a canal that connected to Rainbow Lake. People could take the Dummy Line electric street car from Hendersonville to the lake.
“I learned how to swim in this lake,” said O’Cain, who grew up in Hendersonville. “I used to teach lifesaving at this lake. We would come out here and give them their final exam.”
After nine years of planning, rehab and development, the new Rhododendron Lake Nature Park makes its public debut next week with a celebration, picnic and walking tours. The celebration from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday, April 27, features a history walk, ribbon cutting and an “ask the experts” opportunity with master gardeners, birders, conservationists and others. People are encouraged to bring a picnic dinner and (for the park celebration event only) beer and wine are allowed.
CareyOCainLakeMayor Carey O’Cain points out the water level of the original 10-acre Rhododendron Lake.The park project started in 2009, when the town acquired 109 small parcels of the 10-acre Rhododendron Lake property from individual owners of Laurel Park Villas condominiums. A $250,000 mitigation credit project through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relocated the stream away from Lake Drive, eliminating a severe road erosion threat. The stream now meanders through the park. A $70,000 Clean Water Management Trust Fund grant, matched by the town, paid for dredging and restoring the lake in 2016. A $55,000 matching grant from state Parks and Recreation Trust Fund grant funded about a mile of walking trails, pedestrian bridge, parking, donor acknowledgement, exercise stations and additional landscaping.
The city of Hendersonville donated old curbing taken up during a repaving project in the West Side Historic District. Quarried in Laurel Park, the thick slabs of granite are now a stepping stone bridge across the lake. Private citizens have made donations for trees, benches and other amenities.
A town with no parks department and a public works crew strained by roadwork and waterline repair has limited horsepower to spend on the park. As a result, transformation of an overgrown lake to new nature park has been a labor of love. O’Cain, along with council members Paul Hansen and George Banta, were working in the park last week along with other volunteers. It’s a common sight. In the past five years, council members have devoted hundreds of volunteer hours to the project, doing everything from stocking fish to planting trees. Boy Scouts and Americorps volunteers have erected bluebird houses and bat houses, cleaned lake banks and cleared brush.
“The initial concept is 25 years old,” O’Cain said of the park project. “It’s a culmination of all the different councils and parks and greenway boards and the civic association to finally be able to dedicate this wonderful lake.”
The work has resurrected a Laurel Park attraction as a place for people to enjoy nature, cool off and socialize, in a way that Walter A. Smith likely would appreciate. “He would be proud,” O’Cain said.