How “The Lake” became St. Paul’s “Lake Estonoa” Part I

© Jerry F. Couch

Jerry Couch 2ACCORDING TO LOCAL LEGEND, “The Lake” in St. Paul was formed when a group of boys plugged an opening at the bottom of a large sinkhole at the northern end of Fifth Avenue.  Water from adjacent springs filled the sinkhole and a good-sized pond was the result.  It was the largest of several ponds in the town at that time.  One was located where the St. Paul United Methodist Church now stands.  Another was located on the lawn of present-day St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.   Filling and improved drainage eventually eliminated both these ponds.


In its early days the lake was pristine.  

The Lake from Third Avenue 1920
A late ‘teens view of the lake from Third Avenue.
Lake View from Greear House
An early 1920’s view of the lake from “Sunnyside” the home of the Dr. J. N. Greear family.

In St. Paul’s early days, Buchanan Street was the address of choice for the town’s merchants and professionals.  The lake provided a pleasing backdrop for gracious living.  It was a fine “swimming hole” in summer and suitable for ice skating in winter.

Richmond Times-Dispatch March 1, 1929
An excerpt from a Richmond Times-Dispatch article, March 1, 1929.
Domer and Friends ice skating on St Paul lake 1920's
Domer Molinary (left) and friends skating on the lake – ca. 1930.  The houses at upper left were on Dickenson Street, the site of St. Paul Elementary School in 2020.

The Womans Club of St. Paul adopted the lake as one of its community improvement projects.  Thanks to the ladies’ fundraising efforts, benches were purchased and placed around the lake.  The surrounding area was kept clear and some shrubs and trees were planted.

Sam Marshall 1936
Sam Marshall and a friend relax on a bench near the lake.  The GIbson-Pugh house can be seen in the background (the Sullivan house in 2020).

After WWII, there was a building boom of sorts in St. Paul.  New business buildings were constructed on Russell Street, Broad Street, and Fifth Avenue.  Bowman Field was built behind the St. Paul School, and C & P Telephone constructed a building on Wise Street to house its new, modern telephone switch gear. 

Several new homes were also built in St. Paul’s residential area, which was nearing capacity.  As a result, some fill work was done along the lake’s banks adjacent to Buchanan Street.  It’s former irregular outline became more sharply defined – almost like a dam. 

In January of 1957, heavy rains caused the lake’s water level to rise above any level previously experienced since St. Paul was settled.  There was concern that the Muse and Smith houses would be flooded.  Fortunately, that did not happen – but it was a close call.  This troubling situation would recur in the future.

St. Paul from Gray Hill ca. 1950
A ca. 1950 view of the lake from the hillside above Bowman Field.


2 thoughts on “How “The Lake” became St. Paul’s “Lake Estonoa” Part I

  1. I always heard the elders of our town when I was a young girl talk about for the children to not fall in because it was a bottomless lake!! The whole town is floating on its water!! Love stories like these!

    1. The entire downtown area of St. Paul was swampy. This may be due, in part, to the town’s location on a fault line. Years ago, during wet weather, a small stream fed by the springs above St. Paul High School flowed down Fourth Avenue. It drained into a small cave at the bottom of a sinkhole where the Western Front Hotel stands today.

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