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Origins of Lake Toxaway

During the late 1800s, western North Carolina gained national prominence as a vacation locale for wealthy families. Attractive for its fresh air, temperate climate, beautiful views, and outdoor recreation, the area was made accessible by new railroad lines, and made popular by well-known businessmen such as George Vanderbilt.

When a group of Pittsburgh entrepreneurs formed the Toxaway Company in 1895, the original shareholders included C.H. Stolzenbach, W.D. Sharpe, G.W. Eisenbeis, J.F. Hays, and C.W.R. Radeker. The articles of incorporation for the Toxaway Company declare the company’s intention to acquire and develop land and to mine minerals found on those lands. The Toxaway Company, soon after its formation began to build a series of summer resorts in the “Switzerland of America.” Lake Fairfield and the Fairfield Inn were built in 1896, Lake Sapphire and the Sapphire Inn were built in 1897, and the 200-room Franklin Hotel was completed in 1900.

The Toxaway Company’s greatest undertaking, however, was its plan to dam the Toxaway River to create the largest man-made lake in the Appalachian Mountains. The Toxaway Company had already completed an 80-acre lake for its Fairfield Inn, but Lake Toxaway was planned to be a much larger lake. By the time construction on the dam commenced, Pittsburgh banker, Edward H. Jennings was the Toxaway Company’s largest shareholder. By all accounts the vision of completing Lake Toxaway and the Toxaway Inn was Jennings’. Under Jennings’ leadership, the Toxaway Company employed contractors Oates and Cowan of Asheville, NC, to begin construction on the dam. Work began on June 1, 1902, water first ran over the spillway on March 8, 1903, and construction of the dam was completed around the middle of July 1903. The completed earthen dam was 60 feet tall and 500 feet wide, and the resulting Lake Toxaway was 3 miles long and 1 mile wide, with a shoreline of 14 miles.

On the shores of the new lake, construction began on the massive Toxaway Inn, which rose five stories. Reports dispute the exact number of guest rooms. A brochure from 1905 states that the Inn had “more than one hundred rooms en suite.” Some reports claim the Inn had as many as five hundred rooms. When it opened in 1903, the Toxaway Inn offered the most modern conveniences, including central heat and private indoor plumbing, long-distance telephones, elevators, a billiard parlor and bowling alley, and a gazebo for outdoor concerts. In 1912, the Toxaway Company installed a 9-hole golf course located near present day Lake Cardinal. Throughout 14 seasons, the Inn welcomed Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, R.J. Reynolds, the Vanderbilts, and many other prominent figures.

The Transylvania Railroad had been extended to the Lake Toxaway depot in 1904; soon, the depot received four trains a day delivering passengers to stay at the Toxaway Inn or transfer to a stagecoach for travel to the other resorts further up the mountain.

The fortunes of the Toxaway Company began to shift by 1908 and the hotel started to show signs of struggle. More than likely, the Toxaway Company had overextended itself with the construction and operation of so many resorts within such a short time period. In 1912, the Toxaway Company’s largest shareholder, Edward H. Jennings, bought the Toxaway Company outright in a receiver’s sale and immediately set out to make improvements to the Inn. Jennings also began to focus on selling parcels of land around Lake Toxaway for the construction of private homes. One of Jennings’ early land sales went to Mr. and Mrs. George Armstrong of Savannah, Ga. who soon built their magnificent “Hillmont House” on the lake.

However, a tremendous flood in 1916 would change the history of Lake Toxaway. After being drenched with rain from two hurricanes in July, the area was pummeled by a third hurricane from the Gulf of Mexico, receiving over 20 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. At 7:10 pm on August 13, the Lake Toxaway dam burst and 5.3 billion gallons of water rushed downstream into South Carolina. Residents reported seeing a 30-foot-tall wave of water that left debris nearly 4 miles downstream. The failure of the Toxaway Company’s earthen dam is greatly attributed to the lack of a draw-down device to lower the lake when it reached unsafe levels. Although several homes were destroyed, the only casualty was a single blind mule. Even a casual observer can still see scars of the trauma along the Toxaway Falls granite embankment.

The Toxaway Inn survived the flood, but without the lake, the resort lost most of its visitors and never reopened for the next season. Efforts to rebuild the dam were hampered by the loss of tourist income, the Great Depression, and litigation against the dam owners. The Toxaway Inn remained vacant until the late 1940s, when it was sold, its contents were auctioned off, and the building was razed. Although a few private homes around Lake Toxaway survived, most of the land and lakebed remained unchanged until the 1960s.

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