dimensions qualified it as one of the largest concrete-bottom pools in
the country. Businessmen C.A. French and George Caldwell carved the
pool out of a former Spring Hill rock quarry. High rock walls on two
sides hinted at the site's heritage.
Despite the opening
splash it made, French and Caldwell sold the pool to a real estate
company in 1942. Joe Wilan, who had been managing the property for the
real estate agents, bought it four years later.
Wilan had operated a
swimming hole on Coal River, Lower Falls Beach. Bad weather in the
summer of Depression-era 1931 bankrupted the Lower Falls business.
But Joe and brothers
Dave and Sam were to make much more out of Rock Lake.
Dick Reed of WCHS-TV
broadcasted weekly "record hops" from the upstairs portion of the
pool's sprawling clubhouse.
Rock Lake captivated
the imagination, with its slides, spraying fountain, trapeze and
miniature churning sternwheel. Folks used to travel from other states
to swim there.
Swimmers jumped off a
platform in the deep end, to be catapulted into the water from a tilted
"They were just
accidents waiting to happen," reflects Mike Haynes, who bought the pool
property from Sam Wilan in 1992. "You couldn't do those kinds of things
The Wilans ran a
tight, clean ship. Joe Wilan docked lifeguards' pay for each cigarette
butt he found.
The Wilan brothers
owned an assortment of business concerns in and near Charleston. A
motel. A drive-in. A restaurant. Vending machines. Parking lots.
Though for years he
owned the only large pool in town, Sam Wilan, 85, describes the profit
"You were working
against the weather all the time." Still, Rock Lake used to pack them
in. One day brought 4,000 people, Sam Wilan said. People knew better
than to try to get in on July Fourth weekend.
In 1964, 10 years
after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated education, the Wilans
forbade blacks from entering their grounds.
Homer Davis, 77, and
Paul Gilmer, 76, helped lead the charge. Both men are ministers. Gilmer
still pastors Vandalia Baptist Church, and Davis is the state director
of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
At first, Sam Wilan
said he didn't want to talk about the integration struggle.
"I saw enough of that
trouble, " he said. "It's dead. Let it die."
When pressed, however,
Wilan maintained that money drove the decision. White customers told
them they'd quit coming if the gates were opened to blacks, he said.
"We were under
enormous pressures from white people," Wilan said. "We were
running a business, not a social experiment."
Protesters formed a
human wall in front of the ticket window, causing those who wanted to
swim to step over them or be carried. Others would stand in line all
day, forcing the Wilans to turn them away. They would return to the
back of the line and wait their turn again.
None of the protesters
resorted to violence.
Wilans, a Jewish family, feel that morality competed with their
"Hell, no," Sam said.
"We didn't go into people's morals. In our other businesses, we had
colored people and we were on
good relations with them."
The Wilans maintained
that federal civil rights laws did not apply to them because they were
a privately owned business.
Finally, in July 1967,
the Wilans relented and allowed the first blacks to swim.
"It had the effect of
opening up the whole Valley," (Black leader) Davis said.
"After that, we didn't have any problems with discrimination in public
A deluge of black
swimmers never materialized at Rock Lake. Davis, Gilmer and
other black leaders had made their point.
"When we did let them
in, they never came," Wilan said of black protesters. "All they ever
wanted out of that place was publicity."
Many whites quit going
to the pool because they didn't like the tension. When it
ended, they never came back.
Rock Lake's business
never recovered, though other factors helped explain it.
pools popped up all over the Kanawha Valley, charging low prices the
Wilans couldn't compete with.
Taxes and insurance
also ate into profit, Sam Wilan said.
"You'd get sued every time somebody stubbed their toe."
Rock Lake Pool finally
closed in 1985. The Wilans had tried to sell the property, as a pool
and also as government housing. They simply held on to it, keeping
everything in working order.