Islands at the College — who knew?

Lake Sylva and Lake Ceva sit quietly on the northern edges of campus, and even in warm weather there are often no more than a few people nearby. These lakes were once hubs of activity, however, and much of this was due to a handful of small islands on Lake Sylva. Anyone can see that there are no islands on either lake today, so what happened?

The often disregarded Lake Sylva on the edge of campus once bustled with heavily visited islands. (The Seal 1985)

The lakes were constructed in the early 1920s from two branches of the Shabakunk creek on what used to be fields, according to the book “The Land Along the Shabakunks” by Robert Reeder Green. Five islands were also formed at this time (one from an old earthen dam and the others simply from excess soil and rock), along with three arched timber bridges connecting a few of them to the mainland. Another bridge was set between two of the longer islands, making it possible for people to walk almost all the way across the lake. 

When the College moved to Ewing in 1931, the lakes were part of the new campus’ main attractions. Various photos from the Seal, the College yearbook, show students from that time boating on both lakes, walking (and lounging) on the bridges and attending events on the islands. 

One of the islands was owned by Phi Alpha Delta and was marked with the fraternity’s letters in maroon paint on three large boulders. According to the fraternity’s website, Roscoe L. West — the College’s president at the time — gave the island to the organization in 1939. The website also says that a dock was constructed, and on mornings before class the brothers of the fraternity would row out to the island to perform calisthenics. Other events, such as parties and new member initiations, were also held on the island. Various Seal photos show the island decorated for holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving.

At the time a few other organizations, some of which are no longer active at the College, also claimed campus properties as their own. According to PhiAD alumni advisor Michael Levy, at least two more organizations besides PhiAD had islands on Lake Selva and two other claimed some of the bridges. Each organization was responsible for maintaining its claimed property.

All of this activity on the lakes came to a halt in the late 1980s. A Signal article from Oct. 4, 1988, explained that then-College President Harold W. Eickhoff had authorized a restoration project that began June of that year. This involved the drainage of Lake Sylva so that debris and silt built-up could be removed, and also so that flooding issues could be corrected.

Nevertheless, Green’s book shows that by this point a couple of the islands at the northern end of the lake had already been connected to the mainland, as a result of lowering water levels and the land beneath the bridges being built up (therefore, the northern banks of Lake Sylva are actually made up of former islands).

According to Levy, the dredging of Lake Sylva was also meant to create more land for the newly purchased Green Lane fields. Unfortunately for the remaining islands on the lake, this meant digging them out so that more water could be contained. By the completion of the restoration project in January 1989, all of Lake Sylva’s islands had vanished.