The story of Lake Alma—nestled in Ohio’s Appalachian heartland at the junction of Vinton and Jackson counties—comes full circle. Over a 200-year span, this area was transformed from a dense wilderness to an industrial center and back to one of the wildest places in modern Ohio. The discovery of the extent of mineral wealth by the first geological survey of Ohio in 1837 sparked drastic change in the landscape in the area dubbed the Hanging Rock Iron Region. The survey revealed that the hills were richly layered with veins of iron ore and coal, and the valleys rested on a bed of flinty limestone perfectly suited for sculpting into millstones. New industries developed to exploit these mineral riches. Millstone was dug from a quarry established on Little Raccoon Creek, coal and iron ore were gouged from the hillsides, and the ancient forests were cut to feed the charcoal industry that fueled the region’s 46 iron furnaces. The Raccoon Creek quarry was one of only eight Ohio manufacturers of millstones—a commodity in high demand, since every community needed a mill to grind grain. By the mid-1800s, Ohio’s iron furnaces were the leading producers of pig iron for weapons and railroad ties.
As these industries reached their peaks in the mid-1800s, so did the transformation of the area from a wilderness outpost to a manufacturing center. The town of Jackson in Jackson County grew rapidly as the coal mines flourished. The city of Wellston was planned in 1873 and built virtually overnight to take advantage of the industrial opportunities. Before long, though, richer sources of iron ore were discovered along the upper Great Lakes, and the Ohio iron furnaces were abandoned. With the furnaces finally idle and the frenzy to make charcoal halted, the process of healing the scarred forests could begin, and the hillsides could recover some of their former beauty.
In 1901-02, a local businessman, C. K. Davis, dammed Little Raccoon Creek to create a picturesque 60-acre lake just north of Wellston. Davis named the lake for his wife, Alma. A wooded hilltop that had been a high point in the valley before the creek flooded in became a ten-acre island after the lake was created. The creation of Alma Lake drew the community’s attention back to the scenic beauty of the area and brought conservation issues into the public eye.
Building the lake was just the beginning of Davis’ dream. His ultimate plan was to build an island amusement park, offering games and mechanical rides like the new trolley parks springing up all over the Eastern U.S. The public eagerly awaited the grand opening of Alma Lake Park in June 1903. Attractions included a large dance pavilion, outdoor theater, merry-go-round, electric swings and all sorts of boat rides. Alma Lake Park was such an instant success that the Hocking Valley Railroad extended electric rail service directly to the park, and offered a one-dollar round trip fare from Columbus on Sundays. Lake Alma Park flourished until 1910, when mounting personal problems prompted C.K. Davis to abandon it.
The lake with its island was purchased by the city of Wellston in 1926 for a municipal water supply. The city of Wellston leased the property to the Division of Conservation, the predecessor of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, in 1931 for 99 years. Still under a long-term lease, Lake Alma was designated as one of Ohio’s state parks in 1950.
Over the years, Lake Alma State Park has added fine recreational facilities for family outings and vacations. The modern campground offers 72 sites with electrical hookups, 11 non-electric sites, and a popular Camper Cabin for rental during the summer. A group camp area is located on the island. Swimmers can enjoy two public beaches. An electric-motors-only policy preserves the lake’s serenity for sailing and canoeing. To add to the fun, the park concession at the beach area offers boat and bicycle rentals. In recent years, the park has added a nature center, amphitheater, and basketball and volleyball courts, and expanded the hiking trails to cover three scenic miles.
More than a century after the iron furnaces and charcoal mounds extinguished their fires forever, the timber industry is one of the area’s top businesses—along with tourism. Once again, the region is ruggedly scenic and home to a variety of wild creatures, including the wild turkey, pileated woodpecker, woodthrush, great-horned owl and barred owl. A few reminders of the amusement park exist, including the framework of the footbridge to the island. Observant visitors to the island may be able to spot part of the hoist for the ferris wheel still hanging in the trees. Nearly a century after the Alma Lake Park closed its gates and the ferris wheel took its last spin, Lake Alma State Park is still a rallying point for the community and a destination for out-of-town visitors. The annual Lake Alma community beach party draws greater crowds than ever for today’s favorite outdoor amusements.