Rebirth of Swan Lake

The “birth” of Clarksville’s Swan Lake began in 1931, when a group of local businessmen formed the Dunbar Cave and Idaho Springs Corporation. They launched a venture to turn the historic Dunbar Cave area into “The Showplace of the South” – a unique venue for music, dancing, amusements, mineral springs and outdoor activities.  An earthen dam was constructed, creating a 15-acre lake fed by a stream from within the cave. Stocked with fish and furnished with rental boats, Swan Lake became a signature scenic and recreational feature of the resort.

Purchased by country music legend Roy Acuff in 1948, visitors traveled from far and wide to enjoy Dunbar Cave’s rich history, natural beauty, lively entertainment and dancing.  The cave entry provided a natural amphitheater with concrete dance floor and cave-cooled air during steamy summers.

However, the resort ultimately fell into disrepair and the State of Tennessee acquired the site in 1973.  In the decades since acquisition, Dunbar Cave State Park has been a constant work-in-progress.  Adjoining land was incrementally purchased, increasing the park to 144 acres.  Dunbar Cave became known for: Hiking trails; cave archeological research, preservation and tours; native grassland area; bird watching and fishing.  Having sheltered native inhabitants dating back 10,000 years to the Paleo-Indian culture, the cave has long been a source of legend and folklore

But despite its popularity as a natural area, the lake and its adjoining shores were silently struggling. A decades-long build-up of silt and mud threatened vital animal and plant species.  Floods and time took a toll on the dam causing leaks and unsteady and unreliable water levels. The lake – and its inhabitants – were dwindling or dying.

“As the lake filled with sediment and became shallower, vegetation grew up from the bottom,” explained Dr. Steve Hamilton, professor of biology and Director of the Center of Excellence for Field Biology at Austin Peay State University.  “Although growing sediment deposits are a normal biological process,” Hamilton said, “over time, the lake would have become swamp-like with emergent vegetation. Shallow water, while ideal for wading birds, is a poor habitat for larger fish and other animals that depend on deeper, well-oxygenated water.”

Swan Lake’s rebirth began in the summer of 2017, when the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation launched a lake rejuvenation project that included reworking Swan Lake’s bed and reshaping the lake into “sections.”  The payoff would be more stable lake water levels and attracting broader arrays of flora and fauna. Under the direction of the late Ronnie Bowers of TDEC, Morgan Contractors Inc. was hired to fulfill Bowers’ vision for a reinvigorated lake with an emphasis on environmental diversification and sustainability.

The Tennessee Department of State Parks named Dunbar Cave as the 2019 State Park of the Year!

Morgan Contractors’ role included:

  • Excavation, transporting and grading of soils from the drained lake bed to form various new lake sections
  • 60 foot long-reach excavator to increase lake depth to 15-20 feet along a newly constructed pedestrian causeway (see video)
  • Construction and compaction of pedestrian causeway across lake (with connecting bridge span) … to create the Park’s first “loop” trails around Swan Lake
  • Placement of limestone rip-rap to prevent lake bank erosion
  • Reinstallation of a stand pipe to divert high water, thus relieving pressure on the lake dam

“Being the primary contractor for this lake reclamation project was unique for our company,” said Don Morgan, vice president of Morgan Contractors. ”The Swan Lake re-work was demanding due to the composition of lake bed mud and it required quite a bit of ingenuity to construct the pedestrian causeway and various lake sections.

Morgan continued,” We are thrilled to have helped achieve Mr. Bowers’ vision, which quickly fulfilled expectations of diversifying and stabilizing Swan Lake’s ecology, along with attracting more visitors to the park.”