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THE PROJECT THAT MADE THE LAKE COUNTRY
SoVaNow.com / October 31, 2012America in the 1950s was becoming comfortable with a way of life that would have been unimaginable a few short years earlier as the country struggled to overcome the Depression and the burdens of war. With those hardships left behind, people had time for something new: the pursuit of leisure.
By 1953, with the John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir open, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [USACE] turned its focus from building the project to managing it — a substantial challenge for a war department whose historic mission consisted of flood control at home and combat mobilization abroad.
The transformation of the Corps into an agency with a broad mission to manage natural resources, oversee land use and development, provide hydropower and encourage public recreation wasn’t always smooth or seamless: there were always “philosophical-type debates” about the priorities that should reign over the project, noted John Feild of Clarksville, who served as project manager before retiring from the Corps in 1994. Among the issues batted around internally within the department: how heavy a hand should the Corps exert in its dealings with the public?
“There was quite a bit of hesitancy at the upper levels about having a department of the Army enforcing rules over and regulations over private civilians,” said Feild.
The civilians, meantime, had their own notions about what to do with the 800 miles of shoreline that had sprung up in their midst. Kerr Reservoir — still known in Virginia by its historic name, Buggs Island Lake — hadn’t been open for long before the first boating marinas began to operate, including the Palmer Point marina near the dam, no longer in business.
Corps recreation areas were an immediate hit: ages young and old discovered the joys of fishing and camping by the waterside, and Mecklenburg County, long a farming community with a basic manufacturing component to its local economy, became something much more diverse: an outdoors haven and tourist spot.
Unlikely as it may have seemed back in the days when the floodwaters of the Roanoke River inflicted perennial damages, the flow through the basin became the foundation for the county’s new identity: the Lake Country.
Today, the Corps of Engineers nationally receives more visitors to its recreation areas than any other federal agency, including the National Parks Service. Kerr Lake makes a healthy contribution to that record with millions of visitors each year to its recreation areas in both Virginia and North Carolina. The Lake Country also draws a healthy stream of guests at Occoneechee State Park, a spinoff project that is part of the Virginia State Parks system. Corps’ oversight of the reservoir — which includes a mandate to manage natural resources such as waters and woodlands — helps to preserve its pristine, unhurried character.
It also regularly puts the Corps at odds with those who want greater development of the lake, a task complicated by the original, and still paramount, purpose of the Kerr project: flood control. With the Corps owning all lands up to 320 feet around the reservoir (and sometimes higher), and controlling access to the water, inevitable conflicts arise — whether the issue involves the clearing of brush, placement of docks, or the permitting of new businesses. To its critics, the Corps is hidebound in its decision-making; internally, the Corps sees itself as responsible for balancing sundry (and competing) prerogatives.
“As the density of use by the public increased, the need for restrictions also increased,” is how Feild gently puts it.
The Corps’ mandate for the Kerr project, set forth in the enabling Congressional legislation, was to construct, maintain, and operate public parks and recreation facilities for boating, bathing, and fishing, while preserving area fish and wildlife habitats in and around the lake. To accomplish this goal, the USACE joined with the National Park Service, Virginia Conservation Commission and the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development to create a recreational plan for the use and development of land under USACE control.
The original Shoreline Management Plan divided the Corp’s land according to three main purposes: public recreation, protected shoreline, and limited development. Slightly more than one-third of the shoreline was set aside for parks, recreational trails, and wildlife management areas. Slightly less than one-third was set aside for conserving natural and cultural resources, providing fish and wildlife habitats and reducing conflict between private and public activities. The balance of the shoreline was to be used for private floating and certain land-based facilities and activities.
As so often happens, recognition by the public of the new lake’s potential proceeded on a separate track from the bureaucracy — and not surprisingly, businesses and individuals spurred a rapid transformation for the Lake Country, sometimes in tandem with the Corps, and sometimes not.
By the summer of 1953, less than a year after the dedication of the dam, local communities were already promoting their water playgrounds. Clarksville became the home of the “Water Festival,” an early precursor of today’s Lakefest. Princesses from the 1953 event were featured on the cover of the magazine section of The Washington Star — the newspaper of record for Washington, D.C., published from 1852 until the paper folded in 1981. Among the beauties photographed in their bathing suits on the veranda of the Grace Hotel in Clarksville was a 17-year-old Marianne Buchanan.
Clarksville’s actual Lakefest, a celebration of its status as the only lakeside town in Virginia, was not born until 1977, when “Buck” Buchanan, manager of the John H. Kerr Powerhouse, served as mayor.
Even before the Corps completed its first marina, local Chambers of Commerce recognized the economic development and tourism potential of the lake. Clyde Finch, president of the Vance County (N.C.) Chamber of Commerce when the reservoir was first created, told The State Magazine in April 1954 that “local people are buying or leasing water-front property and building cottages. Inquiries from outsiders indicated the possibility of a real estate development of substantial proportions.” He added that the lake, with “its utility for recreation and relaxation” and “excellent fishing,” was also highly desirable as tourist destination.
Boaters from the area were quick to discover the benefits of what was at time referred to as “The Inland Sea.” Speedboat as well as sailing regattas were often staged on the lake. One such regatta, the Governor’s Cup, sponsored by the Carolina Sailing Club and held at Satterwhite Point Marina near Henderson, N.C., recently celebrated its 55th anniversary.
Today, the John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir project has expanded to 30 recreational areas. These include campgrounds, day-use areas, Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), boat ramps, marinas, an environmental education center, multiple visitor information centers and interpretive and hiking trails.
These facilities were merely a dream when Les Sutphin returned to the area in 1959 as an assistant manager with the Corps. It was his job was to develop recreational sites around the lake. Sutphin remembered, “They [the USACE] hadn’t done much with recreation before I came back.” Much of the early years was spent cleaning debris from the shoreline and the bottom of the lake and controlling the mosquito population. According to Sutphin, the USACE routinely doused the area surrounding the lake with DDT until the early 1960s.
The only existing state park in the area in the late 1950s was Staunton River State Park, located at the confluence of the Dan and Staunton (Roanoke) rivers where the lake originates. What now exists as Occoneechee State Park was, Sutphin believes, park land but under the control of the county. Under his leadership, USACE developed Kimball Point and “at least a half dozen other parks and facilities.” Though it came much later, Sutphin negotiated the lease of Occoneechee by the Virginia State Park System and oversaw the installation of the first boat ramp at the park.
His work developing recreational areas on the lake was not always easy, particularly when it came to dealing with landowners who resisted the influx of outsiders seeking recreation on the lake. The Raleigh News & Observer, in an article published during the period, reported on the ongoing resistance to the Corps’ shoreline management plans from landowners who had lost their property to the project, dubbing the conflict, “Ducks versus Farmers.”
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sought an additional 7,300 acres of privately-owned farm land near Henderson Point. In a newspaper account from the era, local farmers were told the land would be seeded with grain to attract game, specifically ducks.
Landowners fought back, claiming that USACE had significant holdings that were underused, including several hundred acres given to the University of North Carolina for recreational purposes. At the time, the land was untouched except for a sign denoting that the property was a UNC park.
The farmers argued that these or other similarly unused properties should be given to the Fish and Wildlife Service instead of allowing the government to take over more prime tobacco farmland.
Sutphin concedes it took a while to build the parks and recreational areas, because funds were not originally allocated to recreation: “As funds were made available, we developed more recreational areas.”
Feild notes that North Carolina was more aggressive than Virginia in seeking federal dollars to create its state-run system of Kerr Reservoir recreation areas — an echo of the political dynamic behind the dam itself, which was championed by North Carolina congressman John H. Kerr and initially resisted by Virginia politicians. “Virginia didn’t seem to grasp the opportunity,” said Feild. “The funding was disproportionate on the North Carolina side.” (North Carolina’s parks on the lake include Henderson Point, Hibernia and County Line.)
Even as sites were created, the Corps did not spend money to promote the facilities. “It was all word of mouth,” Sutphin said. As a result, in the first year North Bend Park opened for camping, its sites were not full. But over time, word spread. “A few years back, North Bend Park, along with Occoneechee, was named one of the top parks in the country,” beamed Sutphin.
Sutphin, who retired in 1989 as the project’s resource manager, said he spent much of his early career trying to find private groups willing to work with the Corps to develop marinas and other such facilities. For example, he said, “I tried for years to get someone to develop Willow Grove Marina.” He considers his inability to accomplish the creation of that marina as one of his biggest disappointments.
Even now, Sutphin does not see any new marinas, campsites or other facilities coming to the lake unless developers are able to enter into public/private partnerships with the federal government. “The [Corps] did not and still does not have the money, and neither do the states.”
Overall, as he looks back, Sutphin is proud of what he accomplished, including his awards for promoting volunteerism and environmental stewardship. “Things are going well. The parks are in good condition.”
The Corps’ focus on enhancing the fishery at Kerr/Buggs Island Lake brings generous praise from a fan of the sport, “Bobcat” Whitlow, whose Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle Shop outside of Clarksville has thrived in the project’s wake: “We are blessed to have Buggs Island. It is one heck of a fishery,” said Whitlow. “Without it, we would be no more than a spot on the road.”
Whitlow grew up in Mecklenburg County, near Trottinridge, and fished the lake in his youth. As an adult, he’s travelled the country as a tournament angler. “I can tell you, I consider this one of the top five fishing areas in the country,” he said.
Recreational and tournament fishing has been an economic boon for the area, Whitlow added: “Farming and industry are gone from here. But these guys [the tournament fishermen] spend money. When I go into an area to fish, between the hotel and food and supplies, I can easily spend $1,000 or more.”
He also has seen firsthand the impact the lake has had on Clarksville and the surrounding region: “The buying power of those who come for vacations and tournaments is tremendous.”
While this lake is considered highly desirable among tournament competitors, Whitlow thinks the Clarksville area “misses opportunities for more tournaments” due to an insufficient number of “good boat ramps” in the area and a lack of facilities — such as a pier or dock — for kids learning the sport.
He credits an early decision by the Corps and fisheries groups to introduce striped bass, Arkansas Blue Catfish and flathead catfish, among other species, into the lake as a “main reason” tournaments love to venture to Buggs Island Lake. “They’re very popular,” he said, as are crappy, which are native to the area.
Another unique factor — this one created by nature — makes Buggs Island Lake popular among different fishing groups. “It’s almost three lakes in one,” Whitlow explained. “From Grassy Creek up to the river, then from Grassy Creek to Eastland, and then further on down where the water is clearer, each area serves as a habitat for different fish.”
Whitlow cautioned that the lake runs the risk of becoming “overfished,” which is why he hesitates when asked if additional campgrounds or marinas are needed on the water. Still, he loves what the lake offers to community through its place as a fishing destination. “I have had the opportunity to make contacts and meet people from all over the country and around the world,” Whitlow said.
By the 1970s, even before Whitlow opened his store, the lake and the Clarksville community were both thriving. The latter owed its success in part to the presence of Burlington Industries, then a worldwide textile industry giant. Burlington was preceded by Robbins Mill, which was established in Clarksville before the lake was built, but the industry’s presence in town pointed to another benefit of the lake: its abundant supply of water for municipal and industrial users. Today the impoundment supplies the drinking water for all of Mecklenburg’s towns, plus Henderson and Oxford across the line in North Carolina, and — indirectly, through the Lake Gaston pipeline — millions of users in the Hampton Roads area.
When Fred Majors decided, in 1975, that he no longer wanted to operate the Clarksville Marina, the Diamond family jumped at the chance to take over the operation. Beth Diamond says of her father-in-law, Don Diamond, “He was one of the few people in the town to see the potential with the marina.”
At the time, executives at Burlington were major supporters because many of them either owned or leased boats docked at the facility.
When David and Beth Diamond began running Clarksville Marina, it had about 20 slips and 30 additional moorings. Today, they’ve expanded the site to accommodate 180 boats, and upgraded the store and fueling facilities.
The experience of working with the Corps to expand the marina left the Diamonds with an appreciation for the challenges that awaits anyone who aspires to open a new marina on the lake. “Don’t get me wrong, we have a very good relationship with them [the USACE]. They call us a model marina,” Beth said. But she also agrees that working through the Corps’ processes can be protracted.
She doesn’t see the Corps as attempting to thwart new development on the lake. Instead, she attributes the problems that can arise to agency cautiousness and unduly complicated applications and paperwork. “People might get frustrated and give up.”
Diamond’s hesitant response when asked if the Corps has done a good job promoting Buggs Island Lake is telling, and a reflection of the tension that strains at the heart of the project. With the passage of time, the project’s original mission of flood control has receded from the public mind, giving way to an identification of Buggs Island Lake as a playground for outdoors enthusiasts. Meantime, appreciation for the Corps’ other tasks — involving everything from fisheries management to forestland conservation, aiding local economic development while restricting landowner incursions on the floodplain, and supplying drinking water and producing power — is often hard to pick out from the millions of people who visit each year.
But therein lies the point: maybe an undertaking as big as John H. Kerr Project is capable of accommodating many different visions of its purpose. It doesn’t need a single, all-controlling plan to ensure a bright future.
“The lake sells itself,” said Diamond.
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