Celebrating 52 Years: Behind the creation of Decatur's water park

·6 min read

May 29—Six decades ago, a 33-year-old visionary's dream of transforming an undeveloped tract of land along the Tennessee River into a water park made a splash in the tourism scene.

Leafing through bins containing early blueprints of the water park, Decatur attorney Gay Blackburn Maloney recalled the efforts of her father, J. Gilmer Blackburn, in the development of Point Mallard Park.

"We lived on Stratford Road and would ride our bikes to the end of the road, which bordered the woods that is now Point Mallard. My daddy was always curious about those woods and how it could benefit Decatur," Maloney said.

Ten years later, in 1970, the Point Mallard water park, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool, diving platforms and one of the first wave pools in the country, opened to the public and became one of Decatur's most popular tourist attractions.

"It turned out great. Great," J. Gilmer Blackburn said about the park's soft opening on Aug. 7, 1970, in an article published in The Decatur Daily.

Now, 52 years later, Point Mallard Park, which opened for the season on Saturday, is a destination for tens of thousands during the summer. Along with the original features, the water park includes speed and flume slides, pro bowl slide, a children's area and lazy river. Connected to the park are campgrounds, tennis courts, an archery range, walking trail and baseball and soccer fields.

More than 136,000 people visited the water park, officially known as the J. Gilmer Blackburn Aquatic Center, in 2021. Along with visitors from Alabama, the water park entertained people from Alaska, Michigan, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Illinois, Virginia, Tennessee, Mississippi and other states.

Point Mallard Park Manager Stephanie McLain attributed the park's success to the variety of attractions.

"Making memories with family and friends is the number one reason so many return annually. From the wave pool to the lazy river there is something for everyone," McLain said.

Creating a recreational space for all people motivated Blackburn, who served as Decatur's mayor from 1962-68, to pursue the development of the water park.

That pursuit included convincing Decatur to finance the water park and persuading the Tennessee Valley Authority, which owned a 375-acre tract along the Tennessee River and Flint Creek, to use the land for recreation rather than industry.

"Looking at recreation as a viable industry was a new concept at the time. He had to convince the TVA and city officials how recreation could attract people to the area and improve their lives," Maloney said.

To finance the park's first phase, the city, on March 21, 1969, agreed to a construction budget of $2 million, which was borrowed from local banks.

Blackburn and his close friend Jack Charlton, who visited every Sunday, would walk around the property and discuss the future — a future expanded on by Charles M. Graves & Associates of Atlanta, which created the park's comprehensive plan. Through the company, Blackburn first learned of wave pools.

While visiting Europe, Blackburn toured an indoor wave pool in Germany. Maloney said the wave pool and a trip to Callaway Gardens inspired Blackburn's vision for Point Mallard.

"Callaway Gardens, in his mind, was a model of what Point Mallard Park could be," Maloney said of the Georgia attraction, which features gardens, hiking and biking trails, a beach and golf course.

As for the name of the park, credit goes to Blackburn's wife, Phyllis.

"We were in our station wagon, parked on a mound of dirt and facing where the wave pool is now. My dad said, 'What do you think we should name the park?' My mother said, 'How about Point Mallard?' That's how the name, in my memory, came about," Maloney said.

To commemorate completion of the wave pool, the park's staff started the waves and threw Blackburn into the pool.

"I remember my dad coming in the door and his tie had shrunk up from being thrown into the wave pool. It was really a great moment for him to see all he had worked for come to fruition," Maloney said.

Building the 16,000-square-foot wave pool, which ranges in depth from one inch to 8 feet and creates waves 3 feet tall, cost $450,000.

The water park opened to the public on Aug. 8, 1970. Admission was 75 cents for children and $1.50 for adults. One of the thousands who visited the park opening week was Decatur resident Mike Plemons.

"I was 12 when Point Mallard opened. I remember the first time we were in the wave pool playing around and the alarm went off. When the waves started, we couldn't believe it. It was amazing. You'd try to stand up and the waves would just knock you down," Plemons said. "We got a family pass every year. It cost $100. Mom would drop us off at the park and we'd spend all day, every day, out there."

Like many teenagers in Decatur, Plemons went on to work for the park during high school.

"It was the summer before my junior year. I worked in concessions and loved it. I think working at Point Mallard is like a rite of passage for all teenagers in Decatur," Plemons said.

Since its opening, Point Mallard, anchored by the wave pool, has become a staple of Decatur's summers and a tourist attraction. The 10-meter diving platform, which opened in 1971, hosted three U.S. Outdoor Diving Championships and served as the training facility for the 1976 U.S. diving team. Gold medalists Jenni Chandler and Greg Louganis trained at the facility.

The most popular features are the wave pool, lazy river and slides, McLain said. To keep Point Mallard competitive over the past five decades, the park has added attractions and features.

Recently, the park received a grant from the Alabama Tourism Department to draw up plans to renovate the children's area.

"My dad knew there was always room for improvement and growth," Maloney said of her father, who died in 2009. "Every year, he would go and check on the park."

For his work on Point Mallard, Blackburn received the 1971 Award of Merit from the American Parks & Recreation Society.

"He was a real visionary," Maloney said. "My father was very proud of Point Mallard and its growth. It's part of Decatur's personality. It helps make the community a better place in which to live."

The water park's opening and closing days, which coincide with Memorial Day weekend in May and Labor Day in September, signal the unofficial beginning and end of summer for many park-goers.

The park will be open daily through Aug. 5 and on the weekends through Sept. 5. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday to Saturday, and 1-6 p.m., Sunday.

Daily ticket prices are $28 for ages 12-61, $23 for ages 3-11 and 62 and older, and free for ages 2 and younger. Half-price admission days are Monday through Thursday, excluding holidays.

cgodbey@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2441. Twitter @DecaturLiving.