A History of Lake Norman
Fifty years ago, a river became a lake and woods became water. Ever since, Lake Norman has shaped lives and traffic patterns and even the language of this once-rural region of North Carolina
Shown is a common scene on Lake Norman.
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On a weekday afternoon by the lake, a breeze ripples through pine and oak leaves. A rope patters against a metal flagpole. And in the distance, a speedboat sends a faint buzz across the quiet waters.
Dianne Robinson peers across Lake Norman from the backyard of her home in Cornelius. A spacious one-story with high ceilings and more than a couple of thousand square feet, it’s still modest by this neighborhood’s standards.
“Michael Jordan just bought a place over there,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone, the light catching her jewelry as she points around a bend in the cove.
She points again across the water, drawing a line from the brightly colored roofs of boathouses on the water to a spot a few hundred yards offshore. She smiles.
“That’s where our farm was.”
A mile away, out on Catawba Avenue, it’s a different late-afternoon scene. Engines idle. Horns blare. Brakes groan from constant grinding. The traffic here is some of the worst in the Charlotte area. Every afternoon, cars stream out of uptown parking garages and suburban office parks—north from Charlotte, south from Mooresville—and rush onto Interstate 77, which the lake squeezes like a vice down to two lanes around Huntersville. Roads and driving play an outsized role in life here on the Mecklenburg-Iredell County border. This summer, a proposal to widen I-77 with toll lanes is bringing spirited crowds out to meetings of usually obscure transportation boards. In the 1990s, as new subdivisions sprouted so quickly that it became impossible to keep up with their names, the interstate and its exits became shorthand. Natives and newcomers alike developed their own way of talking to keep themselves oriented with the rapidly changing geography.
Where y’all from?
New Jersey, but we’re at Exit 28 now.
Ease off the traffic-clogged roads and into one of the countless shopping centers and you’re as likely to hear a Long Island clip as a Southern drawl. As Charlotte sprawled outward, folks from around the country streamed into towns around the lake. They came from Ohio and Michigan, leaving fading Rustbelt towns for office jobs in data centers and banks. And from Connecticut and California, escaping bone-chilling winters and overheated housing markets. You can see the growth and change in the bars and bakeries and the Italian market that draws displaced Northeasterners from hours away to get ingredients for Nonna’s meatball recipe. Or you can follow the Census Bureau’s lead and count the people. Population figures since 1990 show Davidson doubled, Mooresville tripled, Cornelius quintupled, and Huntersville grew sevenfold.
The story of the lake doesn’t begin with booming subdivisions and bustling shopping centers and backlogged roads. It begins years earlier, when few in the tiny hamlets 20 miles north of Charlotte could envision such change. And it begins with the few who had a vision for progress and the means to work toward it.
Progress. It was on Governor Luther Hodges’ mind one muggy September day in 1959 when he set off the ceremonial charge of dynamite that would make Lake Norman possible, sending clumps of red dirt flying. The Mooresville High School band played a fanfare as Duke Power employees held back the crowd of 1,000 threatening to rush as close to the blast as they could.
The Cowans Ford Dam and the lake it would create were projects for their time—massive in scale and ambitious in scope. The lake was meant to quench an ever-growing thirst for electricity and water. Between 1,200 and 1,500 engineers, laborers, and managers made calculations, poured concrete, and cleared land during the four years it took to build and fill. In all, Duke Power spent $62 million on the project—in today’s money, that’s $481 million. And every day, local folks came to watch as another familiar farmhouse or patch of forest fell to the bulldozer and the land disappeared under the slowly rising waters.
Duke and its predecessor, Southern Power Company, had been building dams and flooding lakes up and down the Catawba River since the early days of electricity—Wylie and Wateree, Mountain Island and Lookout Shoals, Hickory and Rhodhiss. They all harnessed the power of rushing water to spin and cool turbines, lighting up farmhouses and factories along the river basin. Lake Norman would dwarf them all.
Thirty-two thousand, five hundred acres of surface water, 520 miles of shore, 50 square miles of land.
That’s one way to measure progress.
For a girl growing up on the banks of the Catawba River in the late 1950s, progress meant paved roads, and paved roads meant she could finally use the roller skates her aunt bought her for Christmas. Later, Dianne Robinson could watch the lake fill each day from her yard off Nantz Road. The area was different then. Dirt and gravel roads snaked through verdant forests to the muddy red-clay banks. Everyone farmed, whether for a living or for extra food. “There was nothing else to do out here,” Robinson says.
Farming connected the area to its past. Technology had changed many day-to-day tasks, and more people sought success in factories or office jobs. Still it was easy in 1959 to imagine the rural landscape around the Catawba looking similar to the day in 1781 when Cornwallis and British troops crossed the Catawba at Cowans Ford, taking the life of General William Lee Davidson. Road names such as Sherrills Ford and Beatties Ford served as constant reminders of the earliest white settlers and spoke to the river’s importance. Back in the 1750s, these restless travelers discovered the area, flowing north on the Charleston Highway and south from Pennsylvania on the Great Wagon Road. The Sherrills and the Beatties and the Pottses. The Davidsons and the Cowans and the Jettons. They found the narrowest and shallowest spots in the river—the fords—and claimed them as their crossings. They also found land. Rich, dark bottomland that had for centuries provided corn and squash and beans to the Native American tribe living along the riverbanks—the Catawbas, or as they called themselves, Ye Iswa, “the river people.”
These farmers—and for many years their slaves—would produce corn and cotton and wheat and watermelon. Cash crops like cotton gave some families a country-style affluence. But James Buchanan Duke and his successors at Duke Power had plans for an industrialized South. In addition to other projects along the Catawba and Wateree rivers, the company had been snapping up farms in the area in preparation for the dam since around the 1910s. Some farmers sold out, then rented the land back from Duke to keep farming. The desperation of the Great Depression only sped the process. Others sold outright for as little as $80 an acre to as much as $1,000 an acre and moved into town or another farm. The luckiest—or most forward-thinking—sold the land that would be flooded but held on to the future lakefront property.When the waters filled the lakebed in early 1963, newspapers predicted a boom of development. Charlotte’s first “genuine suburb.” Mooresville changed its slogan to “Port City,” hoping to lure businesses and bodies to the small mill town. But growth swelled slowly after an initial burst of excitement. A 1965 Duke Power map shows a sparse shoreline—only eight places to get gas, five to get groceries, and two restaurants.
It was hard to get there. The lake had severed the old network of farm-to-market roads, cutting access and connections between communities in Mecklenburg and Iredell and Lincoln and Catawba counties. The only moderately efficient way from Charlotte became U.S. Highway 21.
“The lake wasn’t a big draw at first,” Davidson College archivist Jan Blodgett says. “Initially, it was this big thing in the way.”
Stories of missed opportunities abound from those early days too. At some point during the 1960s, a Davidson College fraternity wanted to build a lakefront house. But it balked at the land price—$700 for a half-acre, Blodgett says.
“No one imagined you’d have $1 million homes on the lake,” Blodgett says.
But signs of potential were there. Weekenders from Charlotte and Winston-Salem drove boats down to fish or parked their Ford Fairlanes 30 yards from shore to take a dip. Others took tours on a replica steamboat, the Robert E. Lee, or on what the Outrigger Harbor called its
“Polynesian war boat.”
And land prices inched up too. Subdivisions of half-acre lots sprouted with vacation-themed names—Moonlight Bay, Point Largo, Surfside Estates, Malibu Beach. Weekend homes sold for as much as $25,000 at a time when the average home price nationwide was $18,000. As one developer predicted, “there will be no shacks here.”
Robinson’s parents bought three lakefront acres from Duke Power in 1965 for $1,500. By the early 1970s, they had divided and sold six half-acre lots.
“They retired on that money,” Robinson says.