COLUMN: Thoughts on 50-year-old Lake Norman

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Posted: Thursday, August 1, 2013 11:38 am

A June 17 R&L front-page story was titled "The Lake Turns 50," referring, of course, to the great inland sea bordering the southwestern quarter of Iredell — Lake Norman. I am not sure why the celebration of the lake's creation is taking place this year, rather than next year. Probably it is because on July 3, 1963, the Cowan's Ford Dam was first opened for the generation of hydroelectric power, and so marks the official completion date of the lake by Duke officials.

A half century ago, give or take a year, two months and a few days, Lake Norman was officially dedicated as North Carolina's largest lake, man-made or otherwise, and I, your humble columnist, was there at the dedication ceremony for Cowan's Ford Dam and Lake Norman. The time was noon and the date was Tuesday, Sept. 29, 1964, more than a year after the July 1963 lake completion date.

Besides myself, my wife-to-be Judy and some 80 other members of the Mooresville High School Band, under the direction of Mr. Robert O. Klepfer, were there to provide some music for the occasion.

North Carolina Gov. Terry Sanford had been invited to make the main address. Sanford also took the occasion to take up the baton and "direct" the MHS band in a march. To be honest, Gov. Sanford was a better governor than he was a band conductor and we in the band basically followed the tempo set by our percussion section and ignored the governor's somewhat erratic arm waving. I am glad to report that our playing and the governor's arm waving ceased at the same time. The crowd applauded respectfully.

The dedication of the dam at the site of a Revolutionary War battle was the culmination of a decades-long project to make the Catawba River what was touted to be the "most electrified river in the world." It may still hold that title.

For several years previous to that day with the governor, my father, mother, brother and I had often driven out to the site of the up-coming lake, usually going on Sunday afternoons, to see how far the lake had risen since we had last driven west from our home in Mooresville. We had seen how giant machines had cleared what was to be the lake bottom. After all, no one would like a log or part of a house to suddenly bob up on the surface in front of a motor boat or water skier. We looked for arrowheads along the advancing shoreline and ventured into abandoned buildings that were to be razed. Every time we went there, the water level had come up a few feet; markers that had been visible a week or two ago were now submerged.

Although Duke Power (now Duke Energy) officials had planned the development of the Catawba for decades, it was in the May 23, 1957, issue of the Mooresville Tribune that the projected lake was officially announced. That day's headline read: "Shoreline of Duke Lake Will Be About Five Miles from Town."

Few remember that initially this body of water was to be called "Cowan's Ford Lake," but the name finally settled upon would be "Lake Norman," its 32,510 watery acres honoring a former president of Duke Power, Norman Atwater Cocke. Cocke was present at the ceremony to hear the band and the governor.

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Although I have the complete speech given that day by the governor courtesy of the state department of cultural resources, let me draw attention to something Sanford mentioned that has relevance today.

In speaking of Duke's investments, Sanford said, "Industrial development of this magnitude, with accompanying population increases, will require the parallel expansion of our educational facilities to develop the human resources and talents necessary to solve the technological and human-relations problems that will come with this growth."

Sanford continued, "Our system of community colleges, industrial education centers and facilities to provide advanced technical education must be strengthened to meet this challenge. Along this line we in North Carolina are now moving into the full stream of industrialization. What is happening here today underscores the urgency of our educational program at every level and tells again why we have greatly increased our support both for public schools and for state supported institutions of higher learning. There is an enduring partnership between industry and education, for in order for free enterprise to work, the individual must have the opportunity to develop his capacities."

That's what our governor said at the dedication of the dam and the lake on Sept. 29, 1964. Sanford is remembered as an education-friendly governor. Sanford was president of Duke University from 1969 to 1985 and then a U.S. senator from 1986–1993.

You have to ask yourself: Has the state of North Carolina and Iredell County developed and expanded educational facilities and ensured a steady supply of adequately trained and adequately paid professional teachers and support personnel to provide students with an advanced technical education?

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Besides Iredell, Lake Norman borders Mecklenburg, Lincoln and Catawba counties. Construction of the dam was begun in 1957. Its total length is 7,387 feet, which includes the earthen dams. The 130-foot high concrete portion is 1,279 feet long. At full pond, the lake would have some 520 miles of shoreline.

In 1964, Duke Power already had 13 hydroelectric power plants and two major steam-generating stations on the Catawba. Plant Marshall Steam Station was yet to come on line. Cowan's Ford was viewed as being "the last feasible site" for development of power generation on the Catawba River.