The thirty-foot L & M Dam is a part of Etowah’s history. Some might even say that the dam is the town’s history. Etowah was founded in the early 1900s as part of a new train route, and the steam engines of those thunderous trains were powered by water from the 11-acre lake created by the L & M Dam.
But by the 1960s, the age of steam-powered trains was long past, so the company sold the lake and the surrounding property which became divided among ten owners. But in 1980, a preacher named Jack Bryan would reunite this land, so important to Etowah’s history, and transform it into a center for men to turn their lives around, a place called Miracle Lake. For 40 years, Jack Bryan and Miracle Lake have served East Tennessee, and it is our honor to tell their story.
Jack Bryan became a Christian shortly before turning 19. At the time, he was studying building construction at Southern Tech in Georgia, and one night he was dressing for bed when he heard God say to him, “Jack, go back home and preach.” That home was Etowah, Tennessee, 120 miles away.
Immediately, Jack got dressed, putting on a raincoat and an old hat. He said goodbye to his roommate and stepped outside into the rain, shivering in the October chill.
Jack stepped onto a curb, and right away, a car—that Jack had not called for—stopped and someone stepped out and said, “Jack, what are you doing out here?”
Without asking for permission, Jack slipped into the passenger seat and told the man what God had said. “I’ll take you to the trolly,” the man responded. “You can take that to the bus station, and from there, you can go to Chattanooga.” Jack did exactly that, arriving in Chattanooga with a single quarter in his pocket, then began walking home. He hitchhiked to Athens where he caught a bus, paying his last quarter for a ride to Etowah.
It was morning by then, and Jack strolled into his parents’ home at 7 AM—without a cent left in his pockets—just as his mother was cooking breakfast. He had expected her to be surprised when she saw him, but she just acted normal and finished cooking.
Finally, Jack asked, “Mom, you didn’t seem to be bent out of shape about me coming home.”
She responded, “Son, I knew God was working on you.”
Jack did end up becoming a preacher, just as God had commanded him, pastoring multiple churches. At one point, he considered becoming a missionary, but God had a different plan for his life—ministering in jails and prisons.
Jack remembers the exact day this ministry began: The first Sunday of October, 1973. At first, he ministered at McMinn County jail. Later, some of the inmates he’d preached to ended up in prisons around the state, and they asked Jack to come visit them. Soon, he had a circuit where he was ministering to all the prisons in the state once per month.
The experience had a profound impact on him. “These men leave the prison, they come back home, [spend time] with the same people, same type of living, then they’re back in jail,” Jack said. So many of them were released just to break the law again and end up right back where they started. Jack wanted to break them out of this cycle, and God had given him a vision for how to do that.
Jack knew that the old L & M Dam Property would be a perfect location for the Christian recovery center he wanted to build. It would be a place to help those struggling with drug addiction, especially former inmates, to repent and turn to God.
However, to open this center, Jack would have to convince all ten property owners to sell. One day, Jack met with two of the property owners beside the dam’s spillway. Beside them, excess water flowed down the channel from the serene lake beyond. Jack had been explaining about the Christian training center he wanted to build and the vision the Lord had given him.
“Let’s have a prayer together,” Jack said.
“Now Jack,” one owner responded, “I never have prayed outside my home, just with my family. But I will.”
The three men prayed and one of the property owners said, “Lord, I pray that you’ll do miracles in the lives of the men that come here.” Miracle… and just like that, it had a name, Miracle Lake.
Jack eventually convinced all the L & M property owners to sell, and some of them actually gave him the land for free. However, before he could finalize everything, he had to get financing, and this would turn out to be an even more difficult task.
“I was turned down by every financial institution in McMinn County,” Jack wrote. “I’ll never forget what one Bank Vice President said to me, ‘Jack, that’s just not a bankable proposition.’”
The longer it took Jack to get financing, the more restless the property owners became. All the while, interest rates were climbing. Two years passed since he first began the project, and it seemed to have reached a standstill.
“The longer we delayed, the more impossible the whole deal seemed to get,” said Jack. “Then it occurred to me what was happening. This is the kind of situation that God likes to operate in. He loves to take large handicaps. He was wanting to allow the situation to get to the point that there could be no question but that He alone could have brought us through.”
Indeed, in July of 1979, he received smaller loans from four men, and Jack was able to buy much of the property, but it would take another fifteen months of financial roadblocks to scrounge together enough to pay the last few. By the end, he was over $40,000 in debt with a grand total of $600 in his bank account. It was then that the Maclellan Foundation in Chattanooga stepped in. Mr. Maclellan called the Bank that had already started foreclosure proceedings and said, “Hold up, we’re going to help those people.” The total grant from the McClellan Foundation was $75,200.
Hugh Maclellan, Sr. advised Jack to get a good Board of Directors and submit himself to them. He did just that. Their present Board of Directors consists of: Robert Bookout, President, Jeff Anderson, First Vice President, Mike Dunn, Second Vice President, Jack Bryan, Secretary and Gary Hyde, Treasurer, Randy Coleman, Clint Davis, Brandon Goodman, David Johnson, John Miles, Steve Moore, Joe Pesterfield, Randy Rayburn, Wade Shultz, Richard Smith, and Dennis Tweed. On December 7, 1980, Miracle Lake accepted the first student into the program. And more than 40 years later, it’s still working to save the lost.
There was so much that Jack needed to start his ministry, and so many people stepped up to provide. He is grateful to all of them, but most of all, he is grateful to God.
And we in East Tennessee are grateful for Jack Bryan who, by God’s Grace, kept going even when others would have given up. The number of lives he has impacted is staggering. Since that first student in December of 1980, they’ve had approximately 2,400 men come to Miracle Lake. They also continue to do prison ministry across the state, with ministers speaking at men’s and women’s prisons, and Jack said that right now, this program is “prospering more than it ever has.”
Over the years, Jack has served as executive director of Miracle Lake, and Byron Goodman, a former student, became general manager. Jack retired on his 90th birthday—November 17—and Byron was elected as the new Executive Director. Jack spoke highly of his former student, saying, “The guy borders on a genius. He has the ability to work with people, work with men, work with a student.” Jack can retire confident that his legacy is in good hands.
Jack is planning to move to a house his father built in 1960, vacating the Miracle Lake site for other staff. He plans to stay on the board and continue doing some teaching. We need places like Miracle Lake now more than ever. Over the course of his ministry, Jack has seen the number of prisons in Tennessee increase exponentially, and Miracle Lake’s waiting list is very long. They are planning an upcoming expansion that will give them room for 10 additional students.
When asked how much money they needed to raise for the expansion, Jack said, “Whatever the need is, God will provide.”