The Many Lives of Lake Ella

Lake Ella has been a local favorite since the late 19th centuryThe Many Lives of Lake EllaTime Has Changed This Little Lake But Not Its Popularity 

By Jason Dehart 

Walking around 12-acre Lake Ella on a pleasant summer evening, one doesn’t really get a sense that it once was a natural pond – or that it has been a focal point of Tallahassee life going back to the late 19th century.

The aeration plumes belie Lake Ella’s origins, as do the rocks lining the shore and the absence of aquatic plants – features that don’t occur naturally in most freshwater ponds. But a long time ago, things were different.

“One thing you have to remember is that there are some lakes in Tallahassee that were truly lakes and ponds,” said David Chapman, director of the Tallahassee Parks and Recreation Department. “Not all were built to be stormwater facilities, and Lake Ella was one of those.

“Before Tallahassee was developed, Lake Ella was out in the country,” Chapman said. “It didn’t have anything around it, so it didn’t have the stormwater pipes going in and out and the alum treatment (that it has today to clean the water). It was truly a pond.”

Starting with baptisms going back all the way to the 19th century, the lake was the scene of much fishing, congregating, picnics, festivals, political rallies, fireworks displays … even waterskiing.

The lake we fondly know as Lake Ella started out as Bull (sometimes spelled Buhl) Pond. Bull Pond dates back as far as the days of Reconstruction (1867), when some black churches held baptisms in its clear waters. Black residents also would gather every May 20 to celebrate Emancipation Day; in 1867, it is reported that some 2,000 “freedmen” gathered there for a daylong picnic and political rally.

Back then, there was no sidewalk circling the lake, nor public restrooms to answer the call of nature. The land around the sinkhole lake was swampy, but the water was clear, and fishing – not exercise – was a common activity of the day, as it continued to be right up through modern times.

In the first quarter of the 20th century, Lake Ella became part of what was called the Old Spanish Trail – a coast-to-coast highway from San Diego to St. Augustine, Fla. U.S. Highway 90 was part of this “named” system of roads, developed to encourage automobile tourism. Tallahassee’s connection to this highway started around 1927.

Around 1928, the Gilbert S. Chandler family opened one of Tallahassee’s first motels by the lake. Chandler had come to town in 1925 as a tourist, saw the lack of motor lodging, and decided to build some. According to Howard Lawrence Preston’s “Dirt Roads to Dixie,” Chandler originally leased seven acres of city-owned property a few blocks from the Capitol.

Preston doesn’t specify exactly where this was, but Chandler remodeled four existing buildings on the site and turned three others into tourist cabins. Business went from boom to bust to boom again, and in 1926 Chandler was able to add more cabins. The weekly rental fee was $1.

“One of these (road improvements) was the paving of a highway – probably U.S. 90 – that led into Tallahassee from the west,” Preston wrote. This made Chandler a little uneasy, because, as he wrote, “Some live-wire (might) build cabins better than ours on this new highway.” To prevent this, Chandler himself purchased real estate adjacent to the incoming highway. After he convinced the city to grant him a license to construct a new tourist camp there, he erected six new Spanish-style cottages and moved 10 cabins from his first camp to the new location.

It was at about the same time that “Bull Pond” became “Lake Ella.” The famous stone cottages on the west bank were built about this time and were known as the Tallahassee Motor Motel. Today, these Cottages of Lake Ella house small, locally owned shops.

How the lake got its current name is open to conjecture. Tallahassee Magazine writer Jim Crosby, writing several years ago, said that “it was renamed Lake Ella, after a daughter, by the Bull Family.” But a writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, in a retrospective published in 1985, said local real estate developer William Anderson’s mother, Alice, gave it the “more pleasing name of Lake Ella” sometime in the 1930s. This came after construction of North Monroe Street filled in part of the swamp around 1928.

According to the Web site of American Legion Post 13 (located on the north shore of the lake), Alice Anderson was William’s wife, not his mother. Nevertheless, William Anderson played a pivotal role in the history of Lake Ella. The post was built on a plot of land on a foundation provided by Anderson. He had once considered building a dance hall on the north side of the lake, but after laying the foundation he gave up the notion, saying it would be too far out in the country.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Lake Ella continued to be a popular place for fishing and other activities.

“It was amazing … Even as little as Tallahassee was, that whole pond would be ringed with kids fishing,” said Chapman, of the Parks and Recreation Department, who grew up here.
One very popular event was the annual Fourth of July fireworks, courtesy of the local JayCees chapter.

“The Fourth of July fireworks were in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s,” Chapman said. “(The fireworks) moved away in the late ’70s, because it outgrew Lake Ella, and went to the fairgrounds.”
In 1983, an attempt was made to return the fireworks program to the lake, but attendance was too big. Chapman said that was the last year fireworks were held at the lake. After that, they were permanently moved out to Tom Brown Park, where they have been for the past 23 years.

In the 1960s, big development started to affect the lake. A huge J.M. Fields department store came to the area in 1963; in 1968, the Florida Department of Transportation widened North Monroe Street to four lanes with turning lanes.

The construction project started the lake’s health on a downward spiral. In its 1985 retrospective, the Tallahassee Democrat said: “These construction projects sent torrents of silt-laden water cascading into Lake Ella. More than a dozen storm drains carried runoff into the 13-acre lake from the surrounding 157 acres.

“Dirt, oil, grease with nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer gorged the lake. Rich with nutrients, the lake spawned a tremendous growth of algae, which settled on the bottom after it died. Bacteria feeding on the decaying matter robbed the water of dissolved oxygen and fish suffocated.”

The pollution problem later was described in detail in a guidebook titled “Water Wars or Stream of Paradise,” published by Clean Waters Inc. in 1978. The guidebook was part of a bus tour that took visitors on a citywide tour of fragile ecosystems – and warned of the evils of stormwater runoff and other forms of pollution.

 “We are approaching Lake Ella,” the guidebook read. “You may notice the scum or algae on the surface … evidence of heavy pollution in the lake. In more technical terms, the oxygen necessary to support life forms that flourish in clean water is depleted. To correct this pollution problem would require costly and energy-intensive measures such as aeration to supply the lake with oxygen. As long as the urban runoff is allowed to reach a body of water … either directly over pavement or through pipes and ditches, pollution will continue to
destroy our lakes …

“Lake Ella is a sinkhole, and was once called Bullfrog Pond,” the guidebook said. “The swampy area around it has been repeatedly dredged to accommodate more water, the increased runoff, as more and more impervious surfaces were created in the area.”

In 1983, more critters became victims of Lake Ella as dozens of ducks died over the summer. They died from “botulism caused by summer heat, bacteria and rotting food,” according to the 1985 Democrat article.

The Tallahassee Parks and Recreation Department took control of the lake around 1983, Chapman said. It now takes a team effort of 10 separate city departments to manage the lake and the park, according to, the city’s information Web site.

When the city first took over, officials decided to take action to fix the flooding and pollution problems that had plagued the lake since the late 1970s. By 1986, an extensive renovation program had removed sediment, recontoured the shoreline, reduced the number of stormwater inflow pipes and introduced an automatic alum injection system. (Alum, a crystalline salt, has the ability to make pollutants settle to the lake bottom, thus cleaning the water. According to, the lake’s alum injection system treats nearly 250 million gallons of stormwater runoff in a typical year.)

Another notable year for Lake Ella came in 1986. Portions of the film “Something Wild,” starring Melanie Griffith and Jeff Daniels, were filmed in Tallahassee – near Lake Ella, in particular.

In 1992, there was another die-off in the lake when several dozen fish suffocated due to oxygen-depleted waters. That same year, “open air” public restrooms were built nearby.

Then came the great “Muscovy duck roundup” of 1993. Citing the need to get rid of the aggressive, hostile birds, the Tallahassee City Commission opted to remove as many of the mottled-faced birds as it could. Even though the ducks weren’t killed (they were trapped and put up for adoption), the city’s action spurred some controversy. Protesters took to the steps of City Hall with signs bearing slogans such as “Just say NO to the Duck Death Squad.” More than 200 ducks eventually were trapped and taken away.

Efforts continued to give the lake a certain prestige. In 1994, the 6.5-acre park around the lake was officially named Fred Drake Park, in honor of a prominent local civic leader. In 2002, the city called for a facelift of the park. Around 2005 a new stretch of sidewalk was built in a previously unpaved area on the west side of the lake. This created an unbroken loop around the 0.6-mile perimeter. A new gazebo was built, and has become a popular place for weddings. Also, to prevent erosion, the banks were reinforced with rocks and small boulders.

After several days of sculpting a sand mandala at the Mary Brogan Museum in 2005, a group of Tibetan monks took a stroll around the lake.

Today, fishing and fireworks are gone from Lake Ella, but the multifunctional park remains a popular place for throngs of local residents seeking a quiet place to walk and perhaps feed one of the ducks that escaped the roundups.

For all its popularity, the full story behind the lake has remained elusive. That may change, Chapman said.

“We don’t have much on it, but one thing we’re trying to do is gather up the history,” he said.

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