Bear Lake Reserve might be a relatively young community, but the land and mountains it calls home are rich with history. From the origins of these ancient mountains to the passing of ownership over the years, read on to explore the history of this beautiful property!
While the Himalayas hold the title of tallest mountain range in the world, the Appalachian Mountains are known to be the oldest mountain range in the world. Hundreds of millions of years ago the Appalachians, Ouachitas, Little Atlas, and the Scottish Highlands stood together as part of the Central Pangean Mountains. At their greatest elevation they stood nearly as tall as the present-day Himalayas, but intense erosion over the span of about 100 million years cut the peaks to half their size and caused the formation of numerous deep valleys. Over the next 200 million years tectonic plates shifted greatly, pulling different portions of the ancient mountain range to their present-day locations, which you can see below:
The Cherokee Nation
Jackson County and much of the surrounding areas are part of the Middle Settlement, the ancestral home of the Cherokee Nation. The Cherokee lived in settlements in the valleys near rivers and streams, living off the land by fishing and hunting small game with blowguns. By the mid-17th century, European settlers were migrating to the area in large numbers. Under British rule, a treaty line was established from Clingman’s Dome to Pickens, SC, establishing a period of peaceful coexistence and causing the Cherokee to side with the British during the Revolutionary War.
During colonial times, the Jackson County area was settled mostly by immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Perhaps the Appalachians felt familiar to them! After the Revolutionary War ended the treaty established between the British and the Cherokee, the United States federal government laid claim to and deeded a large chunk of land to the state of North Carolina. The state then began selling land for 5-10 cents an acre, depending on the terrain. Wealthy individuals from northern states, such as George Vanderbilt, rightfully saw this as a great investment opportunity and began purchasing large tracts of land in the area. The property Bear Lake Reserve occupies today was originally purchased by E.M. Backus, who also built the historic Camp Toxaway lodge. This was once the hunting lodge of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone.
By the 1930s, logging had become a major part of the local economy. The Moltz and Meade lumber companies owned the land Bear Lake Reserve sits on, using the property to harvest standing dead chestnut trees caused by the blight. Chestnut was highly sought after for furniture making in Europe, due to its durability and rot resistance. Lumber was hauled by rail to Wahala, SC and eventually to Savannah, GA where it would be shipped overseas. Soon after in the 1950s, Nantahala Power Company began purchasing land in the area to construct hydro dams on the surrounding lakes. At the time, these dams would produce electricity primarily for the Alcoa aluminum plant in Knoxville, TN to support the manufacturing of military aircraft during the Korean War. Alcoa Power was purchased by Duke Power in the 1980s, who would re-route the electricity produced by the dams to support the national power grid. In 1989, they elected to sell the surrounding land to the US government so they could add to the Nantahala National Forest. However, budget cuts meant the property had to be split into two parcels, with the other being sold to a land investment group.
In 2004, Centex Destination Properties purchased Bear Lake Reserve from the prior land investment group and began the modern developments we enjoy today. The initial build out from 2004-2006 included road construction, underground utilities, a water treatment plant, 98 cottages, 34 condos, the 14,000 square-foot Lake Club, the Nicklaus Designs 9-hole golf course, and numerous other amenities. Prior to this build, there was no electricity, internet, or cell-service on site. Generators were brought in for electricity, marine radios were used for communication on site, and land line telephones could only be used at the construction and sales offices. This hard work and commitment from 70 employees and 325 subcontractors who entered the gate daily truly shaped Bear Lake Reserve into the gem it is today. As of 2018, over 200 homes have been built on property for over 350 members of the Bear Lake community!
As with all types of history, there’s always plenty more to explore, and the best way to explore is to visit Bear Lake Reserve for yourself! From stories of the Golden family who once farmed here to structures such as the “old moonshiner’s cottage” which still remain today, a wealth of history and lore is just waiting to be discovered.