One of the reasons the U.S. Army was interested in the J.H. Henry rancho for a training camp was because of the small natural lake in the middle of the Mexican land grant. The lake was at the base of the Santa Lucia Mountains. One government report suggested that the existing lake would provide a reliable water source for all the mules and horses.
The lake was kept filled by runoff from the nearby hills. It was never a part of Atascadero Creek, although years later a pipeline was run from the lake all the way to the Three Bridges section of Morro Road (Highway 41) about a mile away.
When E.G. Lewis bought the ranch, he saw a value in the lake and enhanced it slightly, enlarging the dam. In fact, when I moved to Atascadero in 1966 Marchant Avenue went right across the dam and through the park. The lake has always been an attraction and for almost three decades the site of a spectacular fireworks show on the Fourth of July. Atascadero Lake was our swimming hole. I have sailed my 14-foot sailboat on its waters and most recently (until this summer) run a radio-controlled sailboat there.
Swimming in the lake, and the Independence Day celebration with fireworks, was stopped by the City Council shortly after voters approved cityhood in 1979. Thousands of people crowded in and around the lake, and nearby hillsides, to watch the fireworks.
The large crowds were a liability the city didn’t want to have. There have been a number of drownings by children and adults in that lake over the years.
Again, a liability the city wanted to prevent.
So since the mid-1970s, no swimming in the lake.
On a warm summer night in 1917, for a Fourth of July celebration, a giant sailing ship was constructed on the edge of the lake to serve as the stage for a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore.” A scaled-down windmill and a lighthouse stood at the lake’s edge in the 1920s and '30s.
The lake is almost gone. The city staff expects it to disappear before the summer is over.
Tuesday night, the Atascadero Community Band plays its annual Fourth of July concert starting at 7 p.m. You can get a great tri-tip and chicken dinner cooked by the Elks and served by the folks from El Camino Homeless Organization (ECHO) before the concert.
The rains will come again and fill the lake.
Until then, let’s embrace our mudhole-ness. It’s who we are, regardless of the level of water in the lake.
See you at the concert.