Cool Summer Fun: Rainbow Lake On Signal Mountain

Thursday, July 3, 2003 - by Harmon Jolley
Rainbow Lake
Rainbow Lake

In the days before air conditioning, how did folks manage to stay cool? For many Signal Mountain residents and visitors, a plunge into Rainbow Lake was the answer. The lake is a legacy of Charles E. James, who developed the Signal Mountain Hotel and the area surrounding it.

According to a history of Signal Mountain on the city’s website, an 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Chattanooga caused Mr. James and others to retreat to the summit. Believing that the location would appeal to others, he purchased 4,400 acres for development. In 1911, after he had spent several years on other successful business ventures, he announced plans for the Signal Point Inn.

The 250-room hotel opened in 1913 as the Signal Mountain Inn. It had a pink sandstone exterior and a tile roof. Its restaurant used dairy, meat, and vegetables from nearby farms owned by the hotel. A double-occupancy room with a private bath cost $3. Realizing that transportation was a key to the hotel’s success, Mr. James had installed 12 miles of streetcar track from downtown up the mountain. A one-way trolley ride took 40 minutes. The advertising of the hotel noted Chattanooga’s easy access by rail, and those traveling on to Florida were encouraged to stop off for a day or two on Signal Mountain.
Proposed but never constructed was a new bridge from West Sixth Street on Cameron Hill across the Tennessee River to Moccasin Bend, and a road leading north to the foot of Signal Mountain.

Guests could enjoy many types of recreation, such as golf, tennis, horseback riding, and dancing at a casino in the hotel. The cool, mountain air offered refreshing relief during the summer. In Signal Mountain: A Place to Live, a guidebook of the Mountain Land Co., it was noted that “Some persons look upon Signal Mountain and its hotel as a summer resort, because they enjoy there surcease from the summer’s heat.” A 30 by 90 foot swimming pool adjoined the hotel. For those who preferred an old-fashioned place to swim, Mr. James constructed a dam in a ravine where two mountain streams met, and Rainbow Lake was formed. The lake was 1,200 by 200 feet across, with an average depth of 15 feet.

A long-time Signal Mountain resident, Mary Stewart McClain, shared her memories of Rainbow Lake with me this week. She said that the water was crystal-clear so that one could see the bottom of the lake, and was also “as cold as it could be.” However, it was so inviting on a hot summer’s day that she would sometimes be in the water in the morning and afternoon. Mrs. McClain vividly remembers the pink lady slippers, arbutus, and laurel which were native to the shores around the lake.

Rainbow Lake was available to guests of the hotel, as well as nearby residents. The hotel offered transportation to the lake on burros, but Mrs. McClain said that she always ran all the way down and back. A large swing allowed its riders to soar over the lake, and then jump into the cool water. Some would dive from the top of the dam, and others would swim to the two floats stationed in the middle of the lake. After a day of swimming, guests and residents could enjoy a concert at the hotel every Sunday evening in the summer.

The main building of the Signal Mountain Inn was destroyed by fire in 1924, but was promptly rebuilt. Following the death of Charles E. James in 1925, J. W. Bates and Associates of Cincinnati purchased the Signal Mountain Inn for $1,000,000. In 1934, the hotel was sold again to Paul B. Carter, but by then, the Great Depression had greatly affected the travel industry. In 1936, the Alexian Brotherhood bought the hotel for $136,500. They established a monastery, and converted the hotel into a home for the elderly.

The maintenance of Rainbow Lake diminished over the years. Mrs. McClain recalled that in the 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC’s) cleared the vegetation around Rainbow Lake several times, but nature was a considerable foe. The lake became filled with silt. Some environmentally-unfriendly persons discarded tires and other trash in the ravine. In the early 1980’s, the Friends of Rainbow Lake and scout groups began working to save it. The Town of Signal Mountain designated the area as a park and preserve, and Rainbow Lake is now connected to the Cumberland Trail.

If you have memories of Rainbow Lake or the Signal Mountain Inn, please send me an e-mail at

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