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


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There aren’t many places to view  Lake Norman unless you know someone who lives there. So much of the land has been built on and subdivided. You can see the lake up close from a backyard or catch a fleeting glimpse from a car on the I-77 causeway at 70 miles an hour. That highway view, residents say, has caused annoying and dangerous slowdowns as rubberneckers hit the brakes to catch a view of shimmering waters or sunbathers in skimpy swimsuits. Frustrated officials seriously considered in the mid-2000s building a fence to block drivers’ views.

There are places where you can launch a boat or use a grill—like the lakefront parks in Mecklenburg County, Ramsey Creek and Jetton and Blythe Landing. But years ago, the county banned swimming. Too many people drowning meant too many chances to get sued.

There are plans to change that. Mecklenburg County intends to build a public swimming area near Ramsey Creek Park sometime between 2014 and 2016. It will be the first public swimming beach in the county since the 1970s.

It’s a different place from what it was in the 1970s, when Mooresville teens raced on the cleared roadbed that would become I-77, then found a place off N.C. 150 to cool off in the water, leaving their cars on the roadside, caked in red clay.

“The lake was a place to go and hang out,” says Mooresville Library historian Andy Poore. “Those of us who grew up here, we didn’t see this idea of possession. ‘Oh, here’s a dock, but you’ve got to be a member.’ You see that more today.”

After the interstate connected the area to Charlotte in 1975, the trickle of growth—a cluster of cabins here, a new marina there—grew to a steady stream of homes and restaurants. The lake wasn’t just a weekend destination anymore. It was now an easy commute to and from an uptown office tower. Developers rushed through a tide of subdivisions unprecedented in size and price. These projects carried forceful names oozing exclusivity—The Peninsula, The Point. With each lot, another acre of shoreline became the backyard of a banker, hospital executive, or NASCAR driver. 

“Everywhere there’s a little bit of water, someone has built a house,” Robinson says. “There doesn’t even have to be that much of it.”

All those new roofs and lawns and parking lots aren’t good for the environment, says Rick Gaskins. An environmental lawyer and executive director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, Gaskins quotes a statistic—37 percent of land around the lake that was forest in 1988 had by 2008 become impervious areas like rooftops or parking lots. Runoff flows into the lake that provides drinking water for the towns in northern Mecklenburg, southern Iredell, and eastern Lincoln counties. It carries oil, gasoline, rubber, and chemicals from the surface into the water. Rapid growth strains sewers too, causing overflows. Fortunately, the lake is big enough to dilute most of that. Water quality is good, Gaskins says, “but the trends are not.”

Four counties and a dozen or so municipalities have claim to area surrounding the lake, which makes controlling growth more complicated. Newcomers often don’t realize what jurisdiction controls what area. “You’ve got a lot of entities involved in what goes on at the lake but no one taking charge and saying, ‘Look, here’s a one-stop shop. You can come here and get your permit for the dock, or you can report if you see someone’s boat leaking oil,’” Gaskins says. “Everybody else thinks somebody else will take care of the problem.” 

It’s everyone’s lake, and it is no one’s lake.

Dianne Robinson drives her black Mercedes slowly down a neighborhood side street, looking for the lake through the trees and houses. The word “house” doesn’t really capture these structures. They are behemoths—some ornate, some downright opulent. A glint there between the pine needles of a manicured tree line. Is that water?

Robinson is nostalgic but in no way wistful. She sometimes wishes her granddaughter could have some of her childhood experiences—riding for hours on bikes through the countryside or sneaking watermelons from a neighbor’s farm. That seems impossible now. But growth has been good to her, as it was good to her parents. After high school graduation, she left the new lakefront. She went to college. She got married. She helped her husband build a successful concrete business. They installed curbs and gutters in Virginia and Florida, transforming other rural areas into suburbs that now look much the same as Cornelius.

In 2011, a few years after her husband died, she decided to come home. Only, on Lake Norman, the home she found wasn’t the home she left. On family visits through the years, she had seen the area grow. But change is swift here. A few months gone and you miss a lot. One day, not long after she moved back, she went driving around Huntersville. She let her mind wander as minds are prone to do in familiar territory. A few turns later, the roadside didn’t seem so familiar. She kept turning, hoping to pass something she recognized—an old house or store or sign. She turned past gas stations and car lots and grocery stores and strip malls. On N.C. 73 by the Lincoln County line, she found the one structure that could guide her home, the last sign of permanence in the wholly changed landscape.

“I saw the dam,” she said. “Then I knew where I was.”

Chuck McShane is a freelance writer in Davidson. He can be reached at chuckmcshane@gmail.com.

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