Many local folks remember what this area looked like before a hydroelectric dam was built that created the largest impounded body of water in North Carolina.
Before there were speed boats and million-dollar homes, there were woods for kids to explore and back 40s to be plowed. What follows is the recollection of four area residents who were there before the damming of the Catawba River created what is now Lake Norman.
Anyone who knows Woody Washam will tell you he is not only a resident of Cornelius – he is Cornelius. He was born in 1950, which was a census year, so he may or may not have been counted among the town’s official population at that mid-century point of 1,548 people.
Few could have imagined that the rural, sleepy, wooded and farm-checkered hamlet – so small and agrarian that it would not even have ranked as a Charlotte suburb – would become a lakeside destination that has found its way into the relocation plans of the well-to-do from all over the country.
Inside the decade of Washam’s birth, however, the seeds of that transformation were germinating within the minds and blueprint drawings of the movers and shakers at Duke Power.
“But my dad saw this coming,” Washam said of his father, Woody Washam Sr., who played an important role in the creation process of Lake Norman.
By the year of Washam Jr.’s 10th birthday, Cornelius had lost more than 100 residents, and it would lose another 150 during the 1960s. But Washam Sr. had taken a job with Duke Power as a real estate negotiator that would start the ball rolling to a reversal of that trend. Indeed, some of the people who no longer lived in Cornelius had taken money offered to them by Washam Sr. for their property and moved to greener pastures.
Their old pastures – literally in many cases – were slowly being covered by the waters of the Catawba River which was backing up as a product of the gradual construction of the Cowan’s Ford Dam.
“My parents would ride out there every other Sunday or so and watch as the water would rise to the level of the dam,” Washam Jr. recalled. “That was our Sunday entertainment.”
Washam’s father passed away in 1991, which is right around the time people started catching wind of the incredible lake-front properties that had resulted from the damming of the Catawba. “He didn’t really get to see the evolution, but he knew it was going to happen,” Washam said. “My father really was a visionary.”
When the final heights of Lake Norman were reached – at the established 760 feet above sea level – 520 miles of shoreline were established. About 10.4 percent of which – 54 miles – lie within the town limits of Cornelius.
It’s ironic in some ways that original name of Denver was Dry Pond. Local folks changed it in the 1870s to that of the capital of Colorado. That was long before Bob Hecht’s family arrived on the scene. Hecht, a real estate agent in Denver and lifelong resident of the area, recalled his time as a child on and around land that would become Lake Norman.
“I have just loved being around the lake,” he said in an email. And then he recalled a time from about 1960 when the Cowans Ford Dam was still being built before the lake got there, and work, such as tree-cutting, was being done around the lake.
“About that time, I was a Boy Scout and very fortunate that my Scoutmaster was Carl Blades.”
Hecht explained that Blades was with Duke Power and, like Woody Washam Sr., was among those who purchased the land under onto which Lake Norman would form.
Hecht said Blades had chosen about three acres of land to lease from Duke Power.
“It was near the outer end of the cove that I have lived around for many years,” Hecht said in describing an area just to the west of marker No. 5 on the lake.
Even before the water from the dammed Catawba had reached what would become that cove, Blades had already built a small cabin on the property and had constructed a pier.
And he decided to have his Boy Scout group meet at his house and go out into the Lake Norman project that Duke Power was working on.
“This was great, because we had all been Boy Scout-hiking around the bottom of the cove, since there was no water there yet and hiked out to the location of Catawba River,” Hecht said and added that he recalled that the bridge over the Catawba was still standing but that its sides had been removed and dropped into the river.
“I still remember standing at the end and bottom of his pier and looking up so high to the top of the pier and wondering how (Blades) would know just how deep the water would come up on his pier,” Hecht said. “When the lake came up, his pier at full pond was maybe about 5 feet too tall, but he did a great job having it built before the lake was here.”
Hecht recalled riding with his father to Westport in 1967 around the time the elder Hecht was retiring so they could look at some waterfront properties.
“The lot that he bought was directly across the wide cove from Carl Blades’ house,” Hecht said. “And my Dad was really upset that he had to pay $5,000 for this lot.”
Hecht said that with the creation of the lake he became an avid water skier.
“And we skied mainly in this same cove where I had walked the bottom of back when I was a Boy Scout,” he said.
Hecht built two houses on the lake, one in 1975 and the other in 2000. The second one was on a tract of land fronting water he also remembered walking on before the lake came.
Cashion stores are a local staple in the Lake Norman area, and Louise Cashion, matriarch of the family that owns them, said one of her favorite times of the year is the week of Independence Day, when the whole brood gets together for an extended family reunion she calls Camp Cashion.
“During the week they filter in and out,” she said. “But everyone has to be here on the Fourth.”
Here, in this case, is what is now the family lake house that is located on one of the many peninsulas that have cropped up when Lake Norman was formed.
Remnants of the road that once traversed the property can still be seen from a satellite map, as pointed out by Louise’s son, Gordon Cashion.
It started back in the 1920s with Carl Cashion, the father of Louise’s late husband, Bob. The family owned a 170-acre farm on a neck of land that is now mostly underwater. An 8-acre lot that the family lake house sits – and site of Camp Cashion – is shared on the Bob Cashion side of the family, which also included a sister. And the portion of the road that became unusable when the Catawba was flooded was converted into a boat ramp.
Technically, Louise said, the family still owns the 90-plus percent of the land that is covered by water.
“They actually leased the land for $100 per acre,” she said. “And if, for whatever reason the lake dries up, the land is ours.”
The lake house was built in 1975. The family homestead once occupied the spot that house is on but was moved. Louise sad in the early years of their marriage she and Bob would come out on weekends and make repairs on the old house.
“And we’d watch as the water started to trickle in,” she said. “That is a great memory.”
While it’s true that Lake Norman was formed over the course of a few years in the 1960s, that is not the first time the plains in the area that now bears that name were under water.
Jack Conard was very close to a woman named Lu Belle Robinson White, whom he came to know as a second grandmother, who spent her 10th birthday more than a century ago wondering if she was going to survive the great flood of 1916.
He also said Interstate 77 is not the first local travel passage that had tolls attached to them.
Conard has a photo that shows White, her parents and maybe another couple of dozen people standing in front of what was called the 150 Bridge, which crossed into Mooresville around the time Teddy Roosevelt was making his second run at the White House.
“Her daddy was toll collector,” Conard said. “And this was like the grand opening of the bridge.”
Conard said the bridge was designed to be at least 10 feet higher than any level of water the Catawba had ever reached. But that in 1916 a literal perfect storm hit North Carolina from the Piedmont into the mountains as two hurricanes, Frances and Ivan, came through the area within about a week of each other. More than 22 inches of rain fell in a single 24-hour period, which was the greatest amount ever recorded in the United States at the time and remains a state record.
“The 150 Bridge got swept away,” Conard said. “And so did a lot of houses.”
Conard wasn’t around for that flood that nature wrought, but he remembers well when the man-induced flood that formed Lake Norman occurred.
“Just like a lot of kids who grew up around here, I’d go out there with my Boy Scout troop. We used to meet at Mt. Zion Church, and that area was popular for Scout outings.”
Conard is something of a local historian. He grew up in Cornelius, moved to Charlotte when his father took a job with the former Mecklenburg County Rural Police Department and returned to live in the house his grandfather purchased in 1905.
Regarding the filling in of Lake Norman, Conard said it was such a gradual thing its progress was hard to gauge.
“It was a mudhole,” he said. “And then the next thing you knew things were getting covered up. It was like a slow-motion kind of flood.”