HIGH POINT — In the middle of the Great Depression, with hundreds of local men out of work, leaders in the city of High Point envisioned a park with a giant swimming pool where sunlight on the cool water would glimmer like hope.
Billed as the “Playground of the Piedmont,” High Point City Lake Park, built on land adjacent to the city’s drinking-water reservoir, would feature clay tennis courts, a 2,000-seat amphitheater, play areas, barbecue pits and picnic spots, according to newspapers of the day. But its crown jewel was that enormous cross-shape pool, big enough to hold 1.25 million gallons of water and 1,500 people for whom vacations had become a distant dream.
At 270 feet by 165 feet, it’s still one of the biggest public pools in the Southeast. And the swimming hole that was built as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal remains a pretty good deal.
With a 15-visit pass, Monika Smith and her son, Jake, get in for $4 each, and her youngest, Maya, is free. That’s a bargain compared to the family’s usual summer splurge of season passes to a Greensboro water park, which they skipped this year because of the economy.
At the water park, Smith said, “You pay to get in, you wait in those long lines, and you can’t bring your own food. You have to buy their $7 hot dog.”
She brings her own chair to City Lake Pool, as well as her own cooler full of her own snacks. She and the children have already been twice this season.
“It’s a rare find,” she said. “An establishment that’s set up to benefit the community, instead of trying to make a big profit.”
At a time when private neighborhood pools are struggling to stay open and public pools are operating in the red, City Lake Park pool just about breaks even, said Gary Pressley, senior park supervisor.
Sheer volume makes that possible, Pressley said; over Memorial Day weekend, 1,000 to 1,500 people clicked through the turnstiles each day.
When it opened June 28, 1935, adults were charged 25 cents to swim all day, in their own suits or woolen outfits they could rent from the park. Children’s admission was 15 cents, but for the first week or so, children weren’t let in because of a polio scare. Feeling state health authorities were being overly cautious,city representatives traveled to Raleigh to point out that there wasn’t a case of polio within miles of High Point. The state relented, and children were allowed to take the plunge.
The pool wasn’t built as a revenue source, necessarily, but as a way to put people to work. Though conceived in 1929, right after the reservoir was completed, the park didn’t come to fruition until the city got $125,000 from the federal Civil Works Administration. A precursor of the Works Progress Administration, the CWA funded public projects to stimulate stagnant economies.
The city contributed at least $15,000 worth of materials.
At one point, the High Point Enterprise reported, 700 people were employed on the project, where everything was done by hand to make it as labor-intensive as possible. There were two blacksmithing shops on site, where workers even made their own tools.
Dirt excavated for the pool was carried by buckets, wheelbarrows and small rail cars to build the amphitheater and stage. Workers combed through the woods around the lake and dug up native cedars, sweet gum and poplar trees, which they loaded on a raft and poled, Huck Finn-style, back across the water to use as landscaping in the park.
Part of the project included construction of a water filtration plant, which treated water from the reservoir to drinking-water standards to be pumped into the pool. As late as 1949, the pool water completely turned over every 12 to 24 hours, to assure it was “healthy for bathers.”
When it opened, the pool included “state of the art” bathhouses for men and women, and an upper observation deck with a pavilion, a dining room with home-cooked food, and a snack bar that sold sundaes and jumbo cones of ice cream from a local dairy.
A $1 million renovation in 1995 made the pool more accessible for the disabled, and safer for children by reducing the depth to about 5 feet all over.
The tennis courts are gone, the amphitheater is no longer in use and a gym replaced the dining room and pavilion years ago. A pair of waterslides built in 2004 are now juxtaposed with 76-year-old stonework. A new liner this season makes the pool bottom easier on bare feet, and makes the water look as blue as the summer sky above it.
Donna Lowe, who grew up in Thomasville, always considered it a treat to come to the pool as a child with her parents. They’d pack a picnic and spend the day.
“Still do today,” Lowe said last week, when she brought her own daughter and granddaughters.
They come once or twice a week until the pool closes in August. They bring their own drinks and chips and cookies, but they always end up at the concession stand, pushing dollars and coins across the high counter for packaged honey buns and Scooby Doo ice cream bars.
“The memories,” Lowe said, “is what keeps me coming back.”