Singletary Lake was named for Richard Singletary, who received a grant of land in Bladen County in 1729. Since colonial times, the region surrounding Singletary Lake was settled and used for subsistence farming along its river lowlands and creek bottoms. Longleaf pines—primarily used for turpentine pitch and timber—were then prolific in the area. They were logged and used used for the production of naval stores.
State government interest in the bay lakes emerged in the early 1800s when legislation blocked further private claims on land covered by lake waters. Later, the General Assembly declared that any lake of 500 acres or more in Bladen, Columbus or Cumberland counties shall remain the property of the state.
By the early 1900s, due to the growth of the turpentine, lumber and cotton industries, the human population surrounding Singletary Lake increased beyond the soil's capacity to support it. With the fall of the cotton farmer and the exhaustion of the tar, pitch, turpentine and timber industry, a large segment of the population lived on submarginal land.
In 1936, through a federally financed work program, the National Park Service bought portions of the land surrounding Singletary Lake for a recreational demonstration project. One of two projects in North Carolina, the federal government purchased the land at an average cost of $4.51 per acre.
The land was managed by the Resettlement Administration until 1939, and during this period resettlement workers and local residents constructed Singletary Recreation Center, which included an office, maintenance building and recreation facilities. In addition, using local talents and materials, an infirmary building, ten cabins, a dining and recreation hall, and a workshop—a fully operational group camp—were also constructed.
The property was turned over to the state of North Carolina on July 1, 1939, for operation under a lease agreement. When Singletary Lake State Park opened that summer, it was used by Boy Scouts, 4-H clubs and similar organizations. These same groups and others continue to use the park today.
In October of 1954, Singletary Lake State Park officially became the property of the state. In addition to serving as a source of recreation, the park played other important roles in the area. During the 1945 flooding of the Cape Fear River, the state parks system cooperated with the Red Cross in disaster relief, and Singletary Lake was used as a refugee center. During world wars, the area was used by the Anti-Aircraft School from Camp Davis for special training programs.