I don’t know about you, but every August I begin to grieve the loss of summer and long for the golden days of my years growing up on Signal…when my buddies and I knew how to pack 28 hours of activity into every day before school resumed.
Decades before there was a parking lot or gravel path, Rainbow Lake was my friends’ and my playground, clubhouse, campground, and headquarters for some mild mischief in Old Town.
The quiet pockets of the Cumberland Trail became our wonderland for exploring and learning about nature, wildlife, and what branches were strong enough to hold 10-year-old boys.
With my brother, Kirk, and a handful of buddies, our schedules consisted of jumping off the school bus and onto our bikes. Ride to hike, hike to fish, fish to cave, cave to campsite. That was our 1970s routine.
Summertime meant competing over who caught the most bass and bream. We always released the fish so we could catch ‘em again the next day when we put our bait–and reputations as sportsmen–back on the line.
After a swim, it was time to go where surely no man had gone before. The caves! We fancied ourselves Signal’s Huckleberry Finns and Tom Sawyers naming each cave after the wildlife or Native American artifact we found inside, as if we were the first to discover it. Possum Cave, Arrowhead Cave, Rat Cave…creativity was not our strong suit.
Using ropes, we would lower each other down hundreds of feet to the next undiscovered piece of our mountain. Our friend Mike even had to be rescued from one of our “missions” after falling off a bluff. That was one of the only times we “let” our parents–and unfortunately, the local fire department–into our secret hideaways.
With winter came sledding from the top of Louisiana Avenue, across the golf course, to the Girl Scout cabin. We had year-round passes to our own little pocket of our world.
The only rule our parents gave us was to position ourselves to be able to hear the dinner bell. When we did hear it, we’d bike to each friend’s house to find out what was on the menu before deciding where we would all eat together that night. Rotten we were.
Rainbow Lake was the perfect “playground” for kids to grow up because it was the best nature had to offer…and we—and our parents–felt totally safe.
I’m not sure how old I was when I learned that what first drew people to my beloved Rainbow Lake was a yellow fever outbreak in Chattanooga in 1878. That Charles E. James, the man for whom our street was named, was responsible for creating my gateway into a life-long love affair with God’s outdoors in general…and this Mountain in particular.
Mr. James was one of the folks who retreated to Signal Point during the fever epidemic and eventually built the 250-room Signal Mountain Inn in 1913. It was Mr. James who would install 12 miles of trolley line–some of which we still see today–from the valley to the Old Town area he developed for vacation homes and primary residences. Mr. James was the one with the idea to dam up two mountain streams to create the clear, freezing cold Rainbow Lake that would keep visitors and residents healthy and cool before air conditioning was invented. He developed the golf course upon which my friends and I (illegally I suppose) sled. But we were not the first law breakers on the golf course. The first law ever passed in Signal Mountain was to prevent livestock from grazing on Mr. James’ golf course and in nearby yards.
Today, it thrills me to see the next generation of young pioneers exploring and loving Rainbow Lake like we did…and like tourists did at the turn of the last century. Thanks to the efforts of many of our neighbors, adjacent Signal Point Park has now become the southernmost trailhead of the Cumberland Trail and is part of the National Park System. The old Signal Mountain Inn, for which Rainbow Lake was created, is now the nationally recognized retirement community Alexian Village.
A posthumous “thank you” to Mr. James for what you started and to those in our community who continue to build upon your vision. And thanks Mom and Dad for not asking too many questions about what we were up to at Rainbow Lake. I will be forever grateful to have grown up in a place where you didn’t need to worry…you just needed to ring the dinner bell.
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