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The Project That Changed Everything

SoVaNow.com / October 24, 2012
Fear cast a long shadow over the newspaper front pages and radio broadcasts of August 1940. War was a continent away, but Americans had ample reason to suspect their time was coming. Headlines blared the news of the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s most daring campaign to bring Europe to heel. Those who sought a respite from the grimness of war could turn their sights to the other sensational news of August 1940: the assassination of Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky on the orders of his old rival, Joseph Stalin.

Against such a backdrop, lesser tribulations suffered for attention. One such event was relegated to Page 12 of the Aug. 23, 1940, edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Southside Farmers Report High Loss in Recent Flood.” If the placement of the story spoke to the low priority of news coming out of the countryside, the writing style, at least, imparted high drama: “Out of Southside Virginia … comes a tale of the worst flood and rain damage in history, barring none in current memory of record,” the article read.

The photos of submerged cropland and flooded village streets didn’t deliver quite the same kick to the gut that images of London in flames would, but the diligent reader would have noted the quiet desperation of rural Southside as seven rivers from Pittsylvania to Surry breached their banks. In Sussex County, 63-year-old G.W. Gilliam would be driven to give up farming after enduring a near-unbroken string of annual floods: “I ain’t going to try it here any more,” said Gilliam. “I been here four years, and I done got one crop. This place will break a millionaire. It’s done broke me.”

The late summer flood of 1940 — unleashed by tropical storms, officially the sixth worst flood in recorded Virginia history — wreaked $5 million in damages up and down the Roanoke River basin, an enormous sum in those Depression-scarred times. Some 10,000 acres of cropland were destroyed. Untold numbers of livestock washed down river. Dozens of homes were ruined. The region’s fragile industrial base suffered crippling losses, especially on the lower reaches of the Roanoke as water levels rose a shocking 42 feet and inundated Weldon, N.C. Partially collapsed by flood waters, the Halifax Paper Company mill in Roanoke Rapids, N.C., would not have looked out of place in newsreel accounts of bombed-out English factories.

The farming community of Mecklenburg County suffered some of the heaviest damages. W.S. Hundley tromped through muddy fields where the river had receded to search for nearly 300 head of cattle and 400 hogs that were swept away by floodwaters; 82-year-old farmer J.B. Gold of Buffalo Junction waded through the flood to find a tree that bore a carving that marked the high water level of the famed Flood of 1877 — a gash Gold himself had cut as a young man. With a reporter observing, he chopped a new mark, this one four feet higher up the trunk.

Tobacco farmers ready for the make-or-break auction season saw half their crop wiped out in some counties. “[T]he story along the southern border and in North Carolina will be an entirely new chapter in storm history,” intoned the Times-Dispatch account.

The observation would turn out to be prescient — although there was little way of knowing so at the time. Proposals for flood control on the Roanoke River dated all the way back to the 1920s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers developed a plan to build as many as 17 dams to tame the region’s wild rivers. Congress took up the proposal in 1934 but it went nowhere, despite the Roosevelt Administration’s energetic advocacy of hydro projects as a means to combat the Great Depression. (The Tennessee Valley Authority had been created a year earlier.)

Now, in the immediate aftermath of the Flood of 1940, Congress directed the Corps of Engineers to dust off its old plans for the Roanoke River basin to see what could be done to aid vulnerable communities. Nevertheless, there was little reason to think action was in reach. America was only just emerging from the crisis of Depression and was about to be flung headlong into the maelstrom of war. Soon enough the United States would be called upon to save the world — and concerns at home would have to wait.

***

Charlie Mayer was 12 years old when his family moved to a small farm just north of South Hill. It was 1940, and southern Virginia might as well have been a continent removed from his old home in the Bronx. His father and mother had come over from Austria 18 years earlier, soon to settle in New York City after sharing the quintessential immigrant experience — transit through Ellis Island. The city offered steady work until the Depression struck. The meat-packing plant where Charlie’s father was employed closed up for business in 1929, the year of The Crash. The odd jobs that were left in the wake barely provided for the family of 11 — seven boys, two girls and two parents, all living in a cramped New York City apartment.

Southside Virginia offered the family an escape route. Charlie’s grandfather on his mother’s side had made his way to Mecklenburg County years earlier, joining a small enclave of German and Austrian settlers in the area. Charlie’s parents had ventured to Mecklenburg shortly after coming to America, but living with the in-laws was difficult for Charlie’s father and he made the decision to move the family to the Bronx. As life in the city became increasingly harsh, however, he decided to give the countryside one more try. The Mayer family headed to Mecklenburg to make a life on the farm.

It was a fateful decision. Farming “didn’t work out too good,” said Mayer, now 84 and still living at the old family homeplace on U.S. 1 north of South Hill. Mayer, who still has a hint of the Old Country in his voice after all these years, recalled how his father struggled to adapt to just about everything in his new home, starting with the English language: “You could tell he was not from here.”

Farming was an exercise in futility: The land was too rocky and hilly to raise a viable cash crop, so he “messed around with cows and hogs and chickens,” recalled Mayer. Many of the farmers living nearby, who had a far better grasp of the practicalities of agriculture, were deeply in debt and under constant threat of losing their land. Charlie’s grandfather — his mother’s father — worked as the fertilizer agent for Burnt Store, which supplied many of the local growers. The business was foreclosed on because Charlie’s grandfather’s customers couldn’t afford to pay their bills.

The dreadful economy wasn’t even the worst of it. The Mayer family, 11 members strong at the start of the 1940s, was down to four by the end of the decade: only Charlie, his two sisters and father survived. His six older brothers each died of a rare kidney condition, the last death coming in 1947 — claiming the brother closest in age to Charlie, who was youngest among the boys. (His sisters, alive today, were younger still.)

Charlie’s mother, who had been told by her doctors to leave the Bronx and live in a place where there was fresh air, died in 1947. At the time Charlie was 19.

The thought crossed his mind more than once: How had he escaped the cruel fate that claimed his brothers? “I don’t know how I got through it,” said Mayer of the family’s killer disease.

Charlie’s father by then was in his sixties, struggling to run the farm and find whatever wage jobs he could find, and for Charlie, school was no longer a viable option — he had dropped out after ninth grade to help his father.

But with the darkness came the light; soon after his mother’s death, life turned around for Charlie, at church of all places. It was 1947, and one Sunday Charlie struck up a conversation with a visitor named Tom O’Donnell, newly arrived in the South Hill area from the distant plains of Butte, Mont. It turned out O’Donnell was employed by the Army Corps of Engineers on a project then under construction just outside of Boydton; he needed workers for survey crews that were mapping the project area. Would you be interested in coming to work? O’Donnell asked Charlie. The teenager jumped at the chance to work somewhere besides the farm.

“It was a job. And I was damn glad to get it,” he recalled.


***


The project was the construction of Buggs Island Dam. Authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1944, the dam got its start in 1947 and was formally dedicated 60 years ago this month as John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir, in honor of the North Carolina congressman who championed the project. (In Virginia the official name remains Buggs Island Lake; see sidebar.) Kerr Dam would come to represent the federal government’s single largest investment in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina — nothing else in the region comes close by comparison — and it would change the lives of thousands of people in Mecklenburg County forever.

The building of Buggs Island Dam came at a propitious time for the region and for the nation. America was coming off victory in war, setting the stage for U.S. leadership of the world economy after the hardship and gloom that had prevailed in the preceding decade and a half. Suddenly the economy was running full tilt, and America brimmed with the confidence and capacity to do seemingly just about anything. It was an age of abundance, and bustling activity; nation-building was afoot, not just in war-ravaged Europe, but here at home.

Those who had witnessed the destruction of the Roanoke a few short years earlier seized the moment. By 1944, with Hitler’s defeat becoming more a question of when than if, the Corps of Engineers developed new plans for a dam-building spree, perhaps with an eye towards ensuring a busy future for the agency even as its wartime responsibilities waned. The Corps secured one of its greatest victories with passage of the Flood Control Act of 1944, also known as the Pick-Sloan Act, named after the head of the Army Corps and a top official with the Interior Department’s Bureau for Reclamation.

The 1944 flood control act led to the construction of more than 50 dams and lakes across America, including the Buggs Island dam and lake and a sister project, the Philpott Reservoir upstream on the Smith River. Pick-Sloan was the heir to the landmark Flood Control Act of 1936, which authorized some 100 dams in flood-prone regions. (Updated versions of the act were approved by Congress in 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1941.)

Back then, the point was not only to tame the country’s unruly rivers and manage natural resources, but to create new opportunities for farmers, businesses and communities to thrive across agrarian America. The earliest and one of the greatest achievements in this transformation was Roosevelt’s success in pushing through the long-sought Tennessee Valley Authority, which passed Congress in 1933 over the strenuous objections of electric utilities and free-market adherents who warned of the “sovietization” of the United States. Two years later, in 1935, New Dealers enacted the Rural Electrification Act, which revolutionized life on the farm — and created a market for the electricity that the new hydropower dams would generate.

Southside Virginian missed out on the first wave of hydroelectric development during the Roosevelt years, although it wasn’t for lack of project planning — or public need. The Army Corps’ initial proposal in 1934 called for erecting 17 small dams on the Roanoke, the Dan and in the James River basin, creating a string of small lakes instead of the 83,200-acre Buggs Island impoundment that exists today. Among the proposed locations for dams: at Melrose in Campbell County, which today is a popular spot for canoeists to shoot the rapids of the Staunton River (the local name for the Roanoke downstream from Altavista); at Randolph, across from the old Civil War battlefield; near Clarksville; and on the Dan River at Schoolfield, upstream from the city of Danville. The envisioned system would have tied together with several dams built earlier in the century: at Martinsville, at Dan River Mills, and at Halifax, creating Banister Lake.


***


Why did dam building in southern Virginia and northern North Carolina languish in the 1930s but take off from the late 1940s to 1963, the latter date marking the completion of Gaston dam, which forms Lake Gaston? The economic tenor of the respective eras — depression vs. boom — surely figured into the equation, but another factor that cannot be dismissed is Congressional leadership. The TVA example is instructive: Long a priority of politicians representing the Southern border states and Midwestern plains, the TVA overcame a history of failure with FDR’s First 100 Days, the new president’s frenetic effort to break the grip of the Depression. Yet without powerful allies in Congress who were ready to lend their support, it’s debatable whether the TVA would have made the administration cut.

By contrast, there is little to suggest the Corps’ 1934 plan for flood control on the Roanoke attracted the support of the region’s political heavy-hitters. (Nor is there much record of localities stepping up to satisfy the federal cost-share requirements for dam construction). By far the most powerful Virginian of the day was U.S. Sen. Carter Glass, who co-authored one of the key financial reforms of the New Deal, the Glass-Steagal Act that separated investment and deposit banking. (Glass was equally notable as one of the founding fathers of the Federal Reserve a generation earlier.) Glass was a Democrat and an FDR ally on banking legislation, but he broke early with the President on his spending proposals, which he viewed as an assault on the free market and a dangerous expansion of government power. In an April 1934 interview with The Washington Post — given around the same time the Corps of Engineers was stumping for money for its Roanoke River proposal — Glass thundered that the New Deal was “a disgrace” and added, “The time is not too far distant when we shall be ashamed of having wandered so far from the dictates of common sense and common honesty.” Plans for flood control on the Roanoke went nowhere.


***


A decade later, the Corps of Engineers would find the advocate it needed in the person of John Hosea Kerr, a low-key but influential congressman from Warrenton, N.C. Kerr was a Caswell County native who graduated from Wake Forest College in 1895 and soon after began practicing law in Warrenton. Kerr methodically worked his way up the political ladder: becoming the town’s mayor in 1897, a prosecutor in 1906, and a Superior Court judge 10 years later. A Democrat, he first ran for and won a seat in Congress in 1923, filling a vacancy created by the death of Rep. Claude Kitchin. He would go on to serve 29 years in Congress, gaining a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Just as important, Kerr chaired the subcommittee that had oversight of the Army Corps of Engineers’ civilian budget.

The Corps, updating its strategy for the Roanoke following the 1940 disaster, presented plans for the Buggs Island dam to the 78th Congress as part of an expansive nationwide flood control program. Thanks to Kerr’s wheedling at the Capital, the 1944 Pick-Sloan Flood Control Act included $36 million for construction of Buggs Island dam and Philpott dam, a joint project that was among roughly 50 dams included in the bill. (In today’s dollars, the cost of the Pick-Sloan bill exceeded $20 billion. In 1950s dollars, the Buggs Island project cost nearly $100 million by the time it was fully completed in 1953. After obtaining the initial appropriation, Kerr would have to scramble to maintain funding in later budgets). The Corps’ original plan in 1944 — for 11 dams along the river basin — evolved into a configuration for six, all of which would be built over the next two decades: Kerr/Buggs Island, Gaston, Roanoke Rapids, Smith Mountain, Leesville and Philpott. The Buggs Island project was the biggest of the bunch, and the lynchpin of flood control on the Roanoke.

Kerr pushed for the Buggs Island dam in the face of lukewarm support, at best, from Virginia’s congressional delegation, although the tide later shifted with the decision by then-Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. to line up behind the project. (Virginia’s junior senator, Willis Robertson, father of present-day evangelist Pat Robertson, was an early, albeit tepid, supporter.)

More worrisome was opposition from Big Business heavyweights, especially the electric utilities, although by the 1940s there was a distinctly tired feel to the industry’s opposition. Rural electrification, achieved with little help from the power companies, had remade rural America, and government support for hydroelectric power was seen as a logical next step. Railroad companies also jumped into the fray, complaining that hydro power would cut into their business of hauling coal from the mountainsides. In retrospect, the argument may seem a bit silly: yet no one could anticipate the extent to which demand for electricity would explode, creating an abundant market for coal irrespective of hydroelectric power’s rise. Then, too, opponents faced another problem: by the time the debate had begun to crystalize, Kerr already had obtained Congressional authorization for the project and the first infusion of cash towards its construction.

Congressman Kerr’s advocacy at the Capitol was bolstered by grassroots support at home. The Army Corps held a public hearing on the Buggs Island dam in South Hill on Dec. 5, 1945. The meeting attracted citizens throughout the basin who overwhelmingly voiced their support. (The meeting spurred the formation of the Roanoke River Basin Association, which became a reliable ally of Congressman Kerr’s.) Such opposition that did surface came from railroad lawyers and representatives of Appalachian Electric Power Company, which initially was a foe of hydroelectric development. Utilities would change their tune, however, once it became apparent they, too, could benefit from dam-and-reservoir construction boom on the basin. Lake Gaston, to cite one such example, is today owned by Dominion.

More than anything, though, the success of the ‘40s flood control legislation signaled that the Corps of Engineers was coming into its own. As far back as the 1920s and ‘30s, the agency was the designated arm of government for bringing relief to flood-prone communities across the United States. But while flood control provided the chief rationale for the Buggs Island dam, the Corps plainly was growing comfortable with taking on sideline businesses such as electrification, resource management and recreation. (The Corps was not alone in recognizing its growing reach. The Roanoke River Basin Association, in presentations to Congress, lobbied for more to be done to boost the river’s rockfish population.) The Pick-Sloan Act broke new ground for the Corps in several respects, including establishing its mandate to sell low-cost power to rural cooperatives, municipalities and other quasi-public entities. The law also strengthened the Corps’ standing as the nation’s recreation department on public waters. With Congressman Kerr’s assistance, the Corps of Engineers emerged from World War II bigger and more assertive than ever, as Southside Virginia was soon to find out.


***

The Corps representatives who criss-crossed Mecklenburg and the surrounding area buying up land for the new impoundment were known by locals as “government men.” Some of these government men hailed from local communities, were known and trusted by their neighbors. Others were not. All came to the job vested with the full authority of the United States to acquire land for the new Buggs Island dam and reservoir — if not through voluntary means, then by property condemnations backed by the full force of federal law.

Landowners in the same boat as G.W. Gilliam — the Sussex man who said he’d had enough of farming after the Great Flood of 1940 wiped out his crops — probably were happy to have a government buyer for their soggy, low-lying fields. But others were not so keen to give up the way of life that Southside farm families had known for generations. The post-war years may have represented America’s Age of Consensus, but in Mecklenburg County cracks were beginning to show.

Old family animosities towards the Corps persist to this day. Andy Hargrave, a county supervisor from the Henderson Point area near Clarksville, remembers the years prior to the lake’s construction when his family tended some 125 acres of farmland, much of it fertile and highly productive. Hargrave’s father had acquired land through marriage — his wife was a Tarry of Longrass, the granddaughter of an enslaved woman — and he proved to be an able farmer, carving out a middle-class existence for the family by successfully raising cucumbers and tobacco. In the 1940s, Hargrave recalled, the Army Corps came through and gave his father an ultimatum — take $47 an acre for 100 acres he owned that the government needed for the lake. Like most farmers in the area, Hargrave’s father did not try to fight the government.

Softening the transaction was a promise by the Corps that farmers could continue to use those parts of their former lands that sat dry in the flood plain. (The Corps bought up property up to 320 feet above sea level to provide storage during times of heavy flooding. Higher up the reservoir, the Corps’ property line inches up to 325 feet, for the purposes of containing backwater. At full pool, the reservoir expands from the customary 48,900 acres to 83,200 acres.) Hargrave’s father, like many farmers at the time, leased a portion of his old land from the Corps, but he was disappointed to discover his leasing rights were not transferable to the next generation.

Hargrave’s father would exact a measure of payback years later, after the Corps had planted pine trees for harvest on the 30 acres formerly owned by the family. The only way foresters could drive their trucks out to the strand was by crossing property that remained in Hargrave family hands. On his deathbed, the senior Hargrave issued a command for his survivors to carry out once tree-harvesting time arrived for the Corps: “Make them use the water.” The Corps may have used their condemnation power to acquire all the Hargrave property below 320 feet, but it had no magic wand it could wave to secure a land route leading out to it.

The official account offers a high-minded interpretation of the Corps' land acquisition practices: “prompt and generous payment” to the 380 families displaced by construction of the lake; fair negotiation and impartial dealings towards all affected; no favorites played. Local historian James Sheppard, whose grandfather, Nathaniel Talley, lost land to the Corps, wryly counters that many of the “government men” were honest and upstanding, and “some lied like dogs.” Some politically connected landowners received more generous terms from the Corps than other landowners, insists Sheppard. His grandfather, like many others, sold out without realizing his children wouldn’t have the same grandfathered rights to farm the land below the flood line as he had enjoyed. “They talked sweet to him,” said Sheppard.

The Corps ended up taking about 115,000 acres for the lake, which extends from the eastern tip of Halifax County at the confluence of the Staunton and the Dan rivers all the way to Buggs Island, a lump of rock and vegetation that lies a short distance from North Carolina, protruding from the river below the dam. The blunt effort required to sweep away all obstacles blocking the massive project ensured that not everyone would be happy with the results. Corps employees readily concede Buggs Island Lake could never be built today. The support and authority the federal government enjoyed at the time does not exist in today’s world. Back then, though, the dam was built in a mere five years. In keeping with the no-complaining spirit of the times, people by and large adapted.


***

Charlie Mayer, the son of Austrian immigrants, who had seen enough of farming by age 19 to last a lifetime, remembers exactly the pay set by the Corps for the low-level survey job he took: $1,800 a year. With experience, his salary rose to $3,000. It wasn’t much money, but it beat raising chickens and cows. “Everybody was happy with what they got, and damn happy to have a job,” said Mayer.

He was among 2,000 persons employed on the dam project, the largest public works program in the history of rural Virginia. Survey work was pleasant enough, allowing Mayer to spend most of his time near the dam construction site while occasionally venturing across the county to check out property around Clarksville. He recalled a foray to Occaneechi Island, nestled in the middle of the Roanoke River below town, before it was flooded by the dam. Farming, camping, and other outdoor pursuits were commonplace on the island. Mayer visited Occaneechi on a hot day, sweat pouring down into his galoshes. For his trouble he contracted the most severe outbreak of poison oak in his life. “From my knees down it was nothing but a big itching sore,” he recalled. “But I haven’t had poison oak since.”

The surveying job brought Mayer into contact with people he likely never would have gotten to know otherwise — friends on the crew included Herb Talley of Clarksville and Ralph Pittard of Buffalo Junction, now deceased — but by the same token, Mayer said he had no dealings with landowners whose property was being taken by the Corps. Mayer recalled the government would generally pay property owners around $50 to $60 an acre (a fair price, he believes) and most people seemed to be satisfied with that.

Still living at home in South Hill, Mayer would catch rides to the job site with a group of construction workers from Alberta (“there was plenty of work for carpenters and just laborers”) and check in first thing at the office at Castle Heights, the temporary barracks-style community built for Corps managers and other personnel nearby the dam. Castle Heights had its own restaurant and grocery, and for lunch Mayer and his crewmates would buy a loaf of bread and split it up to make sandwiches. Castle Heights was nothing fancy, but it wasn’t rowdy, either. Mostly it was functional, and transitory. “When the job was finished, that place was dead,” said Mayer.

His surveying work generally took place in the vicinity of the dam. The construction was an impressive sight to see — and hear. The blasting of dynamite rang across the flatlands above the river. The dam attracted crowds of gawkers; thousands streamed to the site to witness the rise of the concrete-and-steel behemoth. It was the area’s preeminent tourist attraction.

Meantime, the Corps spread out across thousands of acres of what would become Buggs Island Lake (Kerr Reservoir in North Carolina) and carried out the work of relocating roads and homes, scouring the land of trees and brush, digging up graves to be reinterred (1,504 graves and 56 cemeteries were relocated, the Corps estimates), and taking a final assessment of the Native American archaeological assets that would be submerged. (Resentment over the loss among native tribes, little noted at the time, would find an echo 60 years later when the Town of Clarksville sought to build a golf course on culturally significant property at Occoneechee State Park. Native American opposition helped to sink the project.)

Among those dismayed by the loss of native lands was Judge John Tisdale, the preeminent historian of the Occaneechi tribe, which held a central role in the famed Bacon’s Rebellion. Tisdale mourned the destruction of Indian artifacts even as he suffered the loss of his own land.

At the dam site, work commenced in stages: The Corps built up an earthen dike on the east bank of the river and extended the land mass out into the middle of the river, providing a buffer for the cofferdam where workers would blast and dig all the way down to bedrock. Once the rock bed had been exposed and cleaned, the steel framework was erected and concrete poured; one half of the project would take shape, then the Corps would switch over to the western bank and begin the process a second time. In the course of this massive undertaking the Corps cut a trench to divert the flow of the river southward; it also built rail lines and a rock quarry next to the project site to extract 1.1 million tons of crushed stone and sand for the 650,000 cubic yards of concrete that would be used to form the dam and powerhouse. The Corps was engineering a gravity dam — which, per the name, was anchored to the earth by nothing more than the force of its own gravity. Buggs Island dam was a giant weight plopped in front of the roaring Roanoke, built to withstand the river’s enormous power.

The river dished out a surprise or two: in 1950, the project suffered a setback when the abutment on the western (south) bank collapsed in a raging torrent. More often, problems were comparatively minor: J.B. “Shorty” Thompson of Baskerville worked as a welder and pipefitter during the construction phase, remembers his son Bill today, and early in the dam’s existence pipes would get clogged up. His father would have to open the 6-8 inch tubes to clear the obstruction — usually, a catfish that had the misfortune of swimming through. Thompson went on to work 20 years at the project. When construction was finished, the Corps granted him permission to dismantle tool shacks at Castle Heights and take the materials left over for his own use. Some of the lumber and metal remains in use today,incorporated into the Baskerville family home.

Mayer joined the labor force as a surveyor, but as time went on he gained the opportunity to work inside the dam itself, inspecting the concrete pours to make sure they were built to the proper height. It wasn’t a challenging assignment — mostly he checked the measuring lines that were strung across the cavernous monoliths to make sure the concrete crews were hitting their marks — but the work brought him close to the action. “I didn’t have a lot to do but sit around. You could do forms if you wanted to,” he said.

The experience could be unsettling at times. One of the jobs he saw other men do was to vibrate the poured concrete, ensuring it would settle properly. Men also would guide heavy concrete buckets, suspended from cranes, into place — backbreaking work; Mayer recalls that virtually all of the workers assigned to the job were African-American. One was a black preacher from the Brodnax area, although Mayer didn’t know his name. One day a cable snapped and the bucket fell on the man, killing him instantly. Mayer did not witness the accident but saw the stretcher team rushing to the scene. Another time, a Corps safety inspector visiting the project from the Hampton Roads area was killed by a moving crane. Evidently he didn’t pick up the loud beeping of the moving rig. “He must have been hard of hearing,” said Mayer.

Cleveland Ratliff, 86, of Boydton, also worked at the dam during its construction. (He would remain a Corps employee for more than three decades, retiring in 1982.) He started out as a maintenance helper and worked his way up to a “B-mechanic,” working on the turbines, doing maintenance and painting, whatever was needed. The construction period was “a wonderful experience,” he said, and he especially enjoyed “seeing how things were put in place to make the dam and power house and to make electricity.” Ratliff remembers when workers poured the first bucket of concrete for the dam though he can no longer recall the exact date: “I was there from the day they poured the first bucket to the last.”

He, too, remembers worker fatalities at the dam, although his recollection is different than Mayer’s — either the result of referring to similar but separate incidents, or having divergent memories. The way Ratliff describes it, there was a problem with a crane that was carrying a full bucket of concrete. He never knew the exact problem with the crane, though someone told him the braking device on the cable broke. The malfunction caused the bucket to drop onto three workers — killing them instantly. “They never had a chance to get out of the way,” said Ratliff.

Even though local lore suggested the remains of the men were left inside the dam, Ratliff says it’s not so, that the bodies were carried out. (Corps employees today make the same point. Also, the Corps recorded only two deaths associated with the project, although Mayer contends that a number of men fell from scaffolds to their deaths, in addition to the two fatalities he was more closely exposed to.) Of the three men who were killed by the falling bucket, Ratliff said a supervisor collected their hardhats and placed them on display near one of the construction offices as a memorial. Ratliff did not know the names of any of the dead workers: “There were so many people working there at that time, it was hard to know everybody.”

Ratliff would go on to undertake other jobs connected to the project, including the construction of a new bridge to replace the low-lying span across the river from Clarksville. Another of his tasks: testing rock, sand and concrete to make sure it had sufficient strength and durability to support the massive structure. “My wife always told me if the dam breaks, it’s my fault,” he laughed.

It would not break. Slowly the project rose to its full 332-foot height, and by fall 1952 the dam would be ready for its formal dedication. On Oct. 3, 1952, officials flipped the switch to begin power generation at the dam. On hand for the ceremony were Lt. General Lewis A. Pick, head of the Army Corps, after whom the enabling legislation for the dam was named; Virginia Gov.John Battle; members of the Roanoke River Basin Association and other local Virginia and North Carolina leaders; and Congressman Kerr, then in his 70s and on his way out of Congress, having failed to win another term as his North Carolina constituents turned away from Democrats and the party’s standard bearer, President Truman. For one day, at least, Kerr soaked in the accolades that came his way as the original champion of Buggs Island dam, which Congress had renamed John H. Kerr Dam. Virginia officials joined in lavishing praise on the aging representative, but in a final irony insisted on using the original name of Buggs Island Lake. The General Assembly made the designation official, giving rise to the lake’s ongoing dual identity — a source of confusion among visitors to the area to this day.


***

Before the dam was finished, Charlie Mayer was drafted into the Army, an upheaval in his life brought about by the Korean War. He didn’t advance further than the training base at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, and by the time he returned to the area in 1952 he hoped to get his old job back. By that time, though, the work was finished. “I drove over one day and when I got there, the place was closed.”

Mayer thought about trying to land work on other Corps projects, but instead he found a job with South Hill Motor Company in late 1952. He had a knack for tinkering with motors, and the car and tractor dealership offered plenty to do as automobile ownership became more widespread and farming continued apace. Pretty soon, he was called upon to service another type of motor that the customers were bringing in: outboard engines. Boating was becoming a big deal on Buggs Island Lake, and the company branched out to sell watercraft alongside the standard offerings of cars and farm equipment

Mayer remained with South Hill Motor Company until the last partner sold out to him in 1988. He later moved the business to his home on U.S. 1-N, peacefully situated off the highway, where a work shed serves as the home of the business and Mayer keeps busy fixing vehicle and boat engines. Remarkably fit and energetic for a man in his mid-80s, Mayer went on to marry and have three children, two sons, both living in the South Hill area, and a daughter, now living in Switzerland.

The experience of working on Buggs Island Dam was an enormous positive for Mayer; others came away from the project less happy. Linda Satterwhite Keel, who now lives in North Carolina, is the granddaughter of Joseph Henry Satterwhite, whose land was taken by the Corps to build the earthen embankment on the dam’s eastern end. She was a young child and an enduring source of joy for her grandmother, who had just recently lost her farm and lost her husband, too, with the death of J.H. Satterwhite in 1944. “Grandmother had to break up the house and move out,” recalled Keel, who said the Corps “gave her a small percentage of money and told her she had to move out.

“All I can remember is the sadness around the whole situation,” she continued. “She had just lost her husband, and then she lost her land … I’m sure she felt quite abandoned due to the situation.”

Most of the Satterwhite land was submerged by the project, but a portion below the dam remained above ground. Left behind from the upheaval around the construction site was an umbrella tree that grew in her grandmother’s yard. Keel doesn’t think the tree is still standing at the spot — it’s been some time since she’s driven by the dam to check — but she does remember how, in her younger years, she would occasionally come across reminders of the old family property.

“The dam was a good thing, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “It brought us electricity, there were good things that happened with it. The lake is a beautiful thing.”

A small addition to that beauty comes from the daffodils growing on the side of the earthen dam. They were upturned by the earthmoving equipment that ripped through her grandmother’s property, coming back to blossom each year.

“That delighted my grandmother,” Keel said.
























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This is an extraordinarily good article.


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