But during that time, that traffic has led to the deterioration of the steel support beams that bear the load on the bridge, which was closed to vehicles over a year ago.
Initial reports of a $1.7 million price tag for refurbishment led some to believe that they’d heard the last faint echoes of car tires ka-chunking over the bridge’s wooden planks, like water over the dam or water under the bridge.
Anyone coming to that conclusion, however, probably doesn’t have full grasp of the strength and generosity of Lake Junaluska’s community, and the appreciation of the greater community at large.
On the other side
The bridge itself is a historic landmark, but also serves as an integral part of the facility’s walking trail and allows for leisurely drives completely around the tiny mountain lake, which offers stunning views of the surrounding mountains.
More so, it’s been a fixture since the very beginning of the Assembly, which sprung up around the 200-acre human-made lake created by the damming of Richland Creek around 1913.
The United Methodist Church’s Southeastern Jurisdiction took ownership of the site in 1948, and in the ‘50s the World Methodist Council relocated its headquarters there.
Despite being its own community complete with more than 800 residences and a population estimated at 2,700, Lake Junaluska isn’t a freestanding municipality and technically is part of the county; today, it’s governed by the Lake Junaluska Assembly Board of Trustees of The United Methodist Church.
Executive Director Jack Ewing said that not long after his tenure there began in 2011, the Southeastern Jurisdiction cut funding to the Assembly, to the tune of about $1 million per year.
Ewing looked at the cut as an opportunity to make the Lake leaner and meaner financially; since 2011, he’s led the Lake towards self-sufficiency as a conference and retreat center while preserving the Lake’s mission to be a place of Christian hospitality, renewal and transformation.
That the bridge is central to both the economic and the spiritual goals of the Lake is evidenced by strong early successes in a fundraising drive currently underway.
“The outpouring of support that we have received is a testament to how important the bridge is to Haywood County,” said Ewing. “They are giving because of what awaits them on the other side.”
Work has already begun, and Ewing said the project is proceeding without delay.
“Final plans including cost are anticipated to be known by the end of 2017, with the approval from the Board of Trustees in early March 2018,” Ewing said. “As previously approved, the gap between the actual cost and fundraising will be covered by service charges.”
Local contractor RCF Construction has been selected to perform the work.
“RCF has been a trusted partner with Lake Junaluska over many years, and we have great confidence in them to complete this restoration very well,” Ewing said, adding that he anticipates the cost will come in lower than originally estimated.
Restoring it will still require a tidy sum, but the Lake appears to be well on its way to raising what it needs to put the bridge on solid footing for the next 50 years.
“The charitable gifts we have received for restoring the bridge over the dam have far exceeded our expectations. The support is incredible. We have received $670,000 in gifts and pledges from 241 different donors,” Ewing said. “One hundred and twenty-nine of the donors are Lake Junaluska property owners, and we have also received gifts from people who use the lake for recreation and from guests who have visited Lake Junaluska from out of town.”
Property owners stepping up is hardly shocking in the tightknit community, but the most powerful demonstration of the impact of the Lake and the bridge on the region itself is that currently, almost half of the donations are from people who don’t live on the grounds of the Assembly.
“My family, my husband and I, we value the lake and we value its contribution to our community,” said Waynesville resident Melanie Threlkeld McConnell, who visits Lake Junaluska primarily for bicycling, canoeing and walking but also appreciates the more sublime spiritual aspects of the setting.
Threlkeld McConnell made a donation to the project because she says she wants to ensure the bridge returns to its former state.
“This is just a small contribution for something that’s given us great satisfaction,” she said.
Her appreciation of the bridge, according to Ewing, isn’t uncommon.
“For more than 100 years the bridge has been a gateway to Lake Junaluska, and people have a very emotional connection to that,” said Ewing, who weeks ago announced his impending retirement and will likely see his successor take the project across the finish line. “They are giving to ensure that future generations have access to the renewal and transformation you experience at Lake Junaluska, and so that people will be able to exercise and drive around the full loop for years to come.”
Make a donation
Those who wish to make a donation towards the restoration of the Lake Junaluska bridge have several ways to do so:
• By mail: PO Box 67, Lake Junaluska, NC 28745
• By phone: 828.454-6680