Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ever Heard of Edgewood Lake?

"Happiness is good health and a bad memory" - Ingrid Bergman (1917-1982)

For what seems like a thousand years, the go-to running route for Birmingham long distance runners is what's called the Lakeshore Trail or the Lakeshore Greenway. Even before the Greenway was built about 10 years ago, we used to gather at the old Brownell Travel Agency Building and run along Lakeshore Drive, dodging early morning traffic. But, one day we noticed that parallel to Lakeshore was a cleared dirt path that extended basically through the adjoining bushes and briers, next to Shades Creek, which is a meandering small river that never widens to more than 8-10 feet. This cleared dirt path was eventually (everything constructed, repaired, or planned in Birmingham must also be preceded with "eventually") paved and is the first 2.5 miles of an "eventual" 5+ mile bike/run path - remember I said this was completed about 10 years ago, so I'm not sure we'll ever see that additional 2-3 miles. Anyway, we usually start a mile to the east of the path, at the NBC Bank Building, and add a 1.5 mile loop on the west end to have a total 8.5 flat circuit by the time we get back to NBC. This has been essentially the default that is included in most long Sunday long runs. From this basic start you can morph into any long run distance you want through Homewood, Mountain Brook, and the Southside of Birmingham. All of the run courses on the sidebar of this blog under "Mercedes Training Runs" include this loop.

So, what's the big deal about all of this? Well, one of my major interests is local history, and in my search as to why this area is called "Lakeshore" I came upon a bit of almost forgotten history that probably most runners who traverse this area never had the slightest idea ever happened. Then again, maybe everybody knows about this EXCEPT me! But, I'm going to tell you all about this. Hopefully, those here in Birmingham will find this interesting, and those of you living elsewhere...well, I'll be back next week.

You see, many years ago, this loop of ours ran along the shore of a 110 acre lake! Edgewood Lake, as it was called was an artificial lake created by damming Shades Creek at Green Springs Highway in Homewood. Lakeshore Drive was so named because it paralleled the northern shore. The dam was first announced in June 1910 as part of the proposed Birmingham Speedway to be constructed for the Birmingham Motor Club. A streetcar line ran from downtown Birmingham, 5 miles to the north, to a point on Old Columbiana Road just shy of where it crossed Shades Creek. This is usually one of our turn-around points on our long runs and there is a sometimes working water fountain at this point where a trolley once dropped off folks from the city. I never realized that Shades Creek, which runs next to the water fountain, was dammed here in 1912 and became the western bank of a lake over twice the size of East Lake, which is still currently in East Birmingham. From this current runner's watering hole, Homewood would become a "streetcar suburb" to downtown.

A log clubhouse was erected for the Edgewood Country Club that same year. It was purchased two years later by the Birmingham Motor and Country Club. The club lobbied for the paving of the streetcars right-of-way to allow for Birmingham's new elite class of motorists to make the journey into the valley. They planned a "motor speedway" circuit around the lakebed. A great race track, designed after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, was begun and graded but never completed. It's north and south straightaways are now today's Lakeshore and South Lakeshore Drives (which used to be part of the route of the old Vulcan Marathon in the 80's and 90's). Amenities at the club included a swimming pool, dance pavilion, fishing, boating and parking for hundreds of automobiles. Similar to golf or tennis clubs, this was instead a driving club since the ownership of an automobile was the latest rage. The place became a favorite locale for dances, barbecues and meetings for as many as 25,000 people at a time.

By the fall of 1915, the lake, 6,500 feet long and no more than 750 feet wide at its western end, was filled and stocked with bass and bream for fishing. It was the signature feature of the club's 400 acre property. In the mid 1920s the clubhouse was opened to the public to what was then known as Edgewood Park.

Early in the 30's, and again in 1933, the lake was dry because torrential rains had destroyed the dam, emptying the lake and causing flooding downstream. In 1934, Edgewood Park was joined by Homewood's Shades Creek Park to the east, at the present site of Brookwood Village mall, in providing recreational opportunities in the valley. A walking path connected the new public park with the circuit around the southern shore of Edgewood Lake, basically South Lakeshore Drive.

In 1935 Jefferson County repaired the dam, restoring the lake. The vacant clubhouse was demolished in 1938 and the land deeded to the County, which had difficulty maintaining it (things don't change, do they?). The county claimed that the lake was too shallow for good fishing anyway and that extensive improvements were needed. Thus, Jefferson County drained Edgewood Lake in the spring of 1946 ostensibly for repairs. The repairs never came about (surprise!), and they turned over 100 acres of the again-dry lake bed to Howard College, which later became the present Samford University. Attempts by residents to have the lake restored failed and redevelopment of the area was allowed to proceed. And now, this once magnificent area is home to Homewood High School, Samford's Soccer field and a beautiful Track and Field Stadium. It also has a Retirement Home and assisted living houses that I'll bet house several elderly folks that very well remember what history lies beneath their feet. And of course, it is used daily as a central gathering area for Birmingham's long distance runners.

I hope I've brought to light a little history that sadly seems forgotten. I do find some pleasure and a distant connection in the fact that our frequent running visits keeps this area alive. It's still a place to meet friends, to have fun, and now, a place that I'll have a lot more appreciation when I see you all on the roads - AL

If you want to see what the lake looked like superimposed on a map, click here

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

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