By all accounts it was a very big deal. The date was January 7, 1940, and a shivering crowd of 2,000 citizens gathered along West College Terrace to dedicate the newly completed Culler Lake. The Maryland National Guard Band performed the national anthem in the freezing weather as steam wafted from the mouths of the assembled crowd singing along. Even the bitter cold couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm. Following a speech by Governor Herbert R. O’Conner, 3-year old Charles Culler Rhodes, the grandson of the 7-term Mayor of Frederick, unveiled the bronze plaque. It recognized Culler’s “fifteen years of distinguished and constructive public service.” The highlight of the afternoon was an exhibition by championship skaters Robin Scott and Arlene Smith from Washington, D. C. who performed on the frozen lake. An intriguing photograph of the ceremony shows young Charles Rhodes standing on the bench next to the bronze plaque. In the background is a tall Christmas tree with 2 figures posed beside it. Could they be the professional skaters that performed at the event?
Farther still in the background is Frederick High School under construction. Seventy-six years later in 2016, the scene looks much the same. Construction on a new Frederick High is underway. It seems that FHS and its neighbor are inextricably linked.
Work on Culler Lake began in 1938 by the Works Progress Administration, a depression-era program to put unemployed young men to work on public projects. Steam shovels modified the course of Carroll Creek and the WPA men expanded several small spring-fed goldfish ponds into a 3 ½ acre lake we see today. The new water way not only provided recreational opportunities, it also served as a storm water impoundment pond for the expanding residential neighborhood and portions of the Hood College campus.
Many lasting memories center around Culler Lake. Boating and fishing filled the summer months and the town eagerly watched the thermometer in the winter to see if conditions were right for freezing. Once the ice was thick enough, skaters of all ages enjoyed gliding on the ice and whirling around the fountain in the center of the lake. The newspaper even reported a growing concern about overly enthusiastic play of “crack-the-whip” on the ice that resulted in too many injuries.
Over the years the lake has accumulated a thick layer of silt on the bottom from storm water runoff and decades of accumulated duck poo and other natural materials. Street salt and grit along with agricultural runoff from Carroll Creek has added excess phosphorus. This combination of increased sediments as well as warmer temperatures make it less common for the lake to freeze.
In 2011, with the help of the DeOcampo Design Collaborative, the Friends of Baker Park initiated the Culler Lake Renaissance. A series of “listening” sessions were held to solicit community feedback about the future of this cherished landmark. The goal was to transform the depression era pond into a more pleasing modern and sustainable haven by improving water quality and enhancing the overall aesthetic character of the park.
With a grant from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Friends were able to obtain the services of Frederick Seibert Associates to refine the concept and develop an overall master plan. After study and input from the community, City staff and elected officials, a two-phased plan was developed.
Phase One, a $2.2 million project funded primarily by the City and grants from the State of Maryland, is now in progress. Substantial and generous donations by Dr. George and Carolyn Smith, Larry Marsh, and other individuals are targeted for reconstructing the iconic fountain. These upgrades will improve storm water management and enhance water quality. The deteriorating fountain will be demolished and a new fountain with dramatic lighting and a more robust spray designed by Clearwater Landscape and Nursery, will be reconstructed in the identical “wedding cake” design. The removed material from the old fountain will be used to create fish habitat. A population of catfish, sunfish, and largemouth bass, all native species, will be introduced into the lake.
Water quality will be enhanced by biological and mechanical systems that remove nutrients and sediments. Three vegetated wetlands will be created to foster the growth of microorganisms and aquatic plants to absorb excess phosphorous and nitrogen. It is expected that water flowing out of the improved Culler Lake will be significantly cleaner. In our small way, the project will help improve the downstream environment with cleaner water flowing from our watershed into the Chesapeake Bay.
A new shared-use path including 2 pedestrian bridges over the wetlands will be erected along the lake’s south shore. Other improvements include a new retaining wall along the east shore. In addition, the Rotary Club of Carroll Creek will construct a pavilion on the west shore.
Plans for a second phase are being finalized that will create additional pathways, a lakeside promenade, interpretive signage, and a new entrance plaza along West College Terrace. The Culler Memorial bench will be refurbished and its missing water fountain and sundial will be constructed.
After more than three-quarter of a century, the lake’s original design will get a well- deserved facelift. The hard surfaces of the rigid rectangle will be softened by aquatic plants and the overall effect will be more naturalistic and inviting.
On the occasion of his 90th birthday in May of 1959, Lloyd Culler remarked about the need to protect the local watershed. His concern for protecting the environment is even more urgent today. The Culler Lake Renaissance expands and modernizes the actions of a previous generation. It’s a testament of this community’s continuing conservation heritage and the desire to pass this legacy to another generation. Like the excitement evident at the dedication in 1940, this 21st century revitalization of Culler Lake is another big deal.