What lies beneath Lake Norman? Researchers seek public's help

What lies beneath Lake Norman? Researchers seek public's help

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by ELISABETH ARRIERO / Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on December 3, 2012 at 8:23 AM

Updated Monday, Dec 3 at 6:33 PM

LAKE NORMAN, N.C. -- Davidson College archivists are seeking the public’s help in documenting the structures and history of the land that was covered up by Lake Norman nearly 50 years ago.

Using a technique known as crowdsourcing – tapping the knowledge of the community – archivist Jan Blodgett, library manager Craig Milberg and archives assistant Ben Farnham hope residents will share any images, stories and information they have on the historical sites and structures that were covered by water.

So far, the archivists have already populated the map with about 10 sites, including several historic plantation houses and the old N.C. 150 bridge.

Farnham said that historians even believe the site of the Battle of Cowan’s Ford was actually located exactly where the Cowans Ford dam is today.

During that battle, Revolutionary War Gen. William Lee Davidson was killed fighting British troops. The town and college are named for him.

Davidson College library employees thought of the project when they were trying to figure out a way to use GIS mapping effectively.

Milberg said he was also inspired to study the lake during an outing with his children.

“The lake is very low this year. We see stuff coming up from the lake, and they’re seeing materials from old docks and they wanted to know ‘Why?’ ”

Milberg added that many people don’t realize that the lake is man-made, much less fairly new. So he wanted to share that information with residents.

Through their study of old media clippings and personal stories, Davidson College Library employees have begun to paint a picture of what life was like in Davidson immediately before the lake was created.

Blodgett said the community was largely rural through the 1980s. In the 1960s, the town’s population was around 2,500.

During the late 1800s, the company that became Duke Energy began looking to the future and purchasing farmland around the Catawba River.

Still, the company allowed residents to live on their sold properties for several more years.

Then, around 1959, Duke Energy began building the Cowans Ford Dam and began moving people off the properties.

Many of those properties were razed because “Lake Norman was never going to be too deep, and Duke Power was concerned that taller structures were going to be a danger to boats,” Blodgett said.

But some properties and roads remained. For instance, a portion of the old U.S. 21 – which connected Charlotte and Statesville – is still under the water.

Farnham said they are also looking into whether some cemeteries were covered by water.

Duke Energy began filling the area with water in 1962. But since the Catawba River’s flow was not very strong and the dam was not completely finished – it took more than a year to fill the lake, which now covers more than 32,000 acres.

During that time, the community even constructed observation decks to watch the new lake being created.

“It was sort of a curiosity more than, say, a concern, at the time,” Blodgett said. “They did a great job of estimating how far the water was going to go.”

Even after the lake was completed in 1963, the northern Mecklenburg County area continued to be largely overlooked, keeping land prices low.

In fact, Blodgett said, most waterfront property cost about $1,000 per acre initially. Now, lots sell for many times that figure.

“The lake initially was not a huge deal,” Blodgett said. “It really took until the mid-80s before the lake became what we think of as the lake with its big homes.”

Blodgett said she’s happy the Under Lake Norman project is under way on the eve of the lake’s 50th anniversary.

She added that the project’s timely completion is especially important because many of the residents who saw the lake’s creation firsthand are getting older.

“The people who lived on the land and who used to drive across (U.S. 21) – we’re going to be losing that generation,” Blodgett said. “We want to get those personal stories so we can share with future generations.”

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