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Furman Then and Now: Lake Recreation

By Marian Baker, Opinions Editor

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Lowered levels of water in Swan Lake reveal muddy sediments, discarded items and foul odors.  

A great number of myths surround the history of our campus lake, Swan Lake, more commonly known as Furman Lake, or simply “The Lake.” Campus tour guides can often be overhead spreading knowledge of the grand Furman tradition of “laking,” in which unlucky students are ceremoniously thrown into the Lake on their birthday. Other myths of the Lake include the price of the black swan, which has been quoted from $50,000 all the way up to $500,000 by confused students. The actual cost? $750, according to senior groundskeeper Sheree Wright. In any case, the swans are not purchased by the University. They are donated by Furman Friends of the Lake.

Recently, the subject of the Lake has been a hot topic of discussion around campus, largely due to the current draining. Lowered water levels have exposed not only muddy deposits and foul odors, but old chairs from The Paddock and even a bicycle. Of concern to many students is also the fact that the Lake is no longer Instagram-worthy.

As such, the current unpleasant state of the Lake has brought up new conflicting accounts of the purpose of the draining. Back in May, Furman received a $95,000 grant to improve water quality in the Lake and its outlet stream as part of Duke Energy’s Water Resources Fund. The current draining endeavor precedes an effort to remove the earthen dam adjacent to Facilities Services complex at the lake’s outlet. The Shi Center has also created two new lake restoration fellowships this academic year so students can begin collecting and managing data on the Lake and restoring the rain gardens and habitats surrounding its perimeter.    

The Lake’s current evokes some memories and misconceptions of how the Lake used to be. Many students talk about how there used to be a beach on the far side of the Lake opposite the Dining Hall, and indeed, pictures of the Lake from 1973 show a sandy shore and a dock in precisely that area.

The Lake was constructed in conjunction with the rest of the new campus in the fifties, and when the new campus opened in 1958, swimming was a popular activity. Windsurfing was also allowed for a number of years, and Furman’s crew team practiced on the lake into the nineties, even though swimming was banned at some point in the eighties. However, no one is sure of the precise date of the swimming ban. What is clear is that a significant decline in water quality caused the prohibition.

The water quality is another common myth of the Lake, but it is one rooted in reality. Many students have heard that the Lake contains unsafe levels of E.coli, either from earth and environmental sciences and biology professors or from other students who take their classes. In certain ecology courses, students perform a lab in which they measure the E. coli in different parts of the Lake. Almost unfailingly, the Lake’s E. coli levels are much higher than the EPA’s upper limit recommended for recreational swimming.

Dr. Courtney Tollison, a professor in the history department and a Furman alumna herself, remembers a time when Freshman Orientation included a dip in the Lake. During Orientation Week, “the brother-sister hall pairs would compete against each other in various activities throughout the week, one of which was the Raft Regatta. This involved volunteers from the halls jumping in the lake and swimming across the lake while pulling a large inflatable raft. I was one of the few who volunteered from my hall, Gambrell 200.  I can’t say I smelled very good when I jumped out,” Tollison said via email.

This practice ended in the very early 2000s, again due to concerns over water quality. However, during Tollison’s time as a student at Furman, there were also other opportunities for recreation on the Lake.

“We also had a pontoon boat docked in the lake that student groups could reserve named the Queen Alverson, after the beloved Betty Alverson,” Tollison added. “She was the founding director of the then student center when it opened during President Blackwell’s administration, and worked here for three and a half decades.”

Today, Lake recreation is limited, and most activities occur around the Lake rather than in it. Walking, running, and bicycling on the trails around the Lake are all common activities for not only students, but campus visitors. In the summer, people picnic by the Lake, often as they listen to the sounds of the Lakeside Concert Series. All year round, Furman students as well as Greenville locals stage photoshoots around it. Young children also enjoy feeding the ducks and turtles that inhabit the Lake.

Will the Lake ever return to its former glory? Certainly not in time for seniors to swim in it by graduation, but lake restorators hope that one day soon the Lake will once again be healthy and happy — ecologically speaking.

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1 reply »

  1. Indeed there was a small beach and swimming dock opposite the student center. In addition to the custom of “honoring” classmates by throwing them in the lake for every accomplishment — getting pinned or lavaliered, attaining some campus office or honor, or just a birthday — some students were known to go swimming after midnight in unsafe states of consciousness. In addition to the pontoon boat, the “Queen Alverson,” there were canoes docked by the students center that students could check out. Back then, the water quality may have contributed to strengthening immune systems but it never impressed us as unsafe.
    Ken Shigley, ’73

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