The Catawba River: Go Where You Want to Go

by JPaul Henderson

Lake James, Lake Rhodhiss, Lake Hickory, Lookout Shoals, Lake Norman, Mountain Island Lake, Lake Wylie, Fishing Creek Lake, Great Falls Lake, Rocky Creek Lake and Lake Wateree.

What do these eleven lakes have in common? They’re all essentially just big, wide spots, created by a series of dams, on the 225-mile-long Catawba River.

 

And because the surrounding land differs considerably along the river, from its source near Asheville, North Carolina until its confluence with Big Wateree Creek at Lake Wateree to become the Wateree River in central South Carolina, each man-made lake has its own characteristics and personality.

 

This creates many excellent opportunities for people (about eighty percent of boaters) who trailer their boats to the water. Having a boat slip is convenient, but it all but ensures that you’ll be going the same places on the same water. Yawn. With your boat on a trailer, you can choose where you want to go. In fact, you can change your destination every single weekend.

 

I guess it’s that people are largely creatures of habit. Or maybe convenience. Or maybe it’s the trauma borne of ineptitude at the boat ramp (Practice, practice, practice.) But I’ve always been surprised by people who do the same thing over and over and over. They’re missing some fine opportunities just around the bend in the river. It’s called adventure. Exploring. Trying new things.

 

Something else that surprises me is how little most people know about the place they call home. Because what is, is. But what is, was created by a series of events over many years. There’s more of what was, than what is. And the Catawba River basin is no exception.

 

The first known inhabitants of the land surrounding the Catawba River were the people of the Catawba Indian nation, and the name “Catawba” (Essa or Iswä), which in their language means “river people,” gives the river its name. They occupied this land for at least 6,000 years and when European settlers recently arrived, the estimated population of the Catawbas was about 20,000. The Catawbas were friendly, and they traded widely with the colonists. When the war for independence broke out, the Catawbas were one of only three Indian nations who sided with and aided the colonists’ fight for freedom from British rule.

 

A few years later, a series of four smallpox epidemics, brought by those afore mentioned European settlers, reduced the population of the Catawbas to barely 1,000. In fact, they weren’t forced west in the trail of tears because it was believed they would soon be extinct. Not so. Today, their numbers have grown conciderably and they occupy a small portion of their ancestral land, on a reservation near Rock Hill SC.

 

The Catawba River has another kind of history: a sometimes-unpleasant relationship with the ever-changing weather. Historically, the Catawba would nearly dry up during periods of severe drought, and flood mercilessly in times of heavy rain. So, the river was only as predictable as the weather.

A relic of the Great Flood of 1916, this railroad trestle testifies to the power of a raging current on the normally placid Catawba River. Lake Wylie, south of the Highway 74 bridge.

In 1916, before meteorologists could accurately track storm systems, and decades before hurricanes were given proper names, two major hurricane forces struck the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Catawba River Valley.

 

Just northeast of Asheville, rainfall was measured at an incredible 22 inches over a twenty-four-hour period. It was the largest recorded accumulation in the entire country at the time and still holds the state record for rainfall over a twenty-four-hour period.

 

The river flooded for hundreds of miles from the North Carolina mountains to the South Carolina midlands. Almost every bridge and railroad trestle over the Catawba was damaged or washed away. By the time flood waters receded an estimated 80 lives had been lost, and entire towns, homes, and farmlands laid in ruin. The Great Flood of 1916 is still considered one of the worst natural disasters to hit the Carolinas.

 

During the 19th century, the Catawba was briefly made navigable because of the construction of a series of canals. Beginning in the early 20th century, dams along the river helped to provide the electricity needed primarily by textile mills, and later to provide a source of water for the area’s growing population.

 

The first of these dams, built in 1904, was at India Hook, SC forming what was then known as Lake Catawba. In 1924, the level of the dam was raised, increasing the surface area of lake from 668 acres to the present 13,400 acres. This first of the Catawba impoundments was renamed “Lake Wylie” in 1960.

 

Today, the Catawba River basin is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. The river and the lakes are used to generate power for industry, agriculture, and homes. Important by-products include drinking water, and water sports, not the least of which is fishing. The primary responsibility for managing the Catawba and its lakes belongs to Duke Energy, one of the world’s largest utility companies. Duke manages this valuable resource as a public trust through a license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

 

There’s also a “nature” side to the story. Spanning more than 200 miles, the Catawba winds its way from the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina to central South Carolina, traveling from beautiful unspoiled land through densely populated cities, such as Charlotte. For this reason, each part of the river, and the multiple lakes it fills, is unique. What you see and experience is different, depending on where you are along that 225-mile path.

Marinas on all the lakes provide conveniences and services to boaters and watersports enthusiasts. This summer scene comes from the Pier 88 Yacht Club at River Hills Marina on Lake Wylie.

One of the most interesting, and often overlooked parts of the Catawba is Landsford Canal and the adjoining Landsford Canal State Park in South Carolina. The lower stretch of the Catawba is also home to one of only four large populations of the rocky shoals spider lily, which grows most abundantly in Landsford Canal State Park and blooms every May and June. The annual “Lily Fest” is a popular event in the park, held mid-May each year.

 

The longest stretch of the Catawba river that remains un-dammed is a mere 30 miles. It starts at the Lake Wylie hydroelectric station, ending at Fishing Creek Lake. Wildlife is abundant along this part of the Catawba, thanks to the national park, Wateree Blue Trail, which is a natural floodplain forest winding about 75 miles south and providing a home for bald eagles, river otters, belted kingfishers and other species. From one end to the other, and in all the lakes, fish are abundant.

From there, Duke moved up and down the river, building dams, which created lakes, from one end to the other. Since then, more than 2 million people have moved into the area, with the rapid growth putting a strain on water resources.

 

Duke does a remarkable job of managing water flow along the river, and, for a time, Duke subsidiary Crescent Land & Timber – later Crescent Development – managed shoreline development. But the unforeseen or unintended consequences of rapid population growth has impacted the Catawba in some very negative ways. For these reasons, American Rivers has named the Catawba one of the ten most endangered rivers in the southeast.

 

Rampant development, sediment runoff, industrial waste, and occasional spills from waste-water treatment systems have posed a significant risk to the river and wildlife. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources

The Oxford Dam with its adjoining hydroelectric station, is the primary barrier that creates Lake Hickory and marks the top end of Lookout Shoals Lake on the Catawba River.

The park is also a favorite nesting place for American Bald Eagles and other species of wildlife. And history. You can see the well-preserved remains of the canal system that made the river commercially navigable from 1820 to 1835, the park store is housed in a restored log cabin, and the park museum is located in the Great Falls Canal lock-keepers house, which has also been restored. When you go, remember to take your camera!

 

For a completely different experience, you might want to consider Lake James, a pristine lake located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Like the other lakes it’s popular for swimming, boating, water skiing, and fishing but, due to its proximity to the headwaters of the Catawba and relative lack of commercial development, Lake James holds the cleanest, and coldest, water of the eleven lakes. But each lake is different and well worth some personal exploration.

 

The dam and accompanying hydro-electric station that formed Lake Wylie (which became the cornerstone of what is now Duke Energy) started it all just after the turn of the twentieth century.

A picturesque view that could be attributed to any of the Catawba lakes, except sailing is more prominent on Lake Norman. Midway Marina at the Highway 150 bridge, Terrell NC.

Commission, as a result, publishes a Fish Consumption Advisory, as does the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

 

Another pollution problem is coal ash, a byproduct of energy production, which was stored in ponds close by coal-fired electric generating plants. The plants, and their residual coal ash ponds, are located along the river, of course. This poses a serious threat to drinking water coming from the river, in the most populated part of North Carolina and Upstate South Carolina. Duke Energy is working with both states to clean up these ponds and alleviate the threat.

 

But all isn’t bad. History is full of cycles; what’s bad can become good, and in time, usually does. Take Pittsburgh, for example. The dirtiest and most polluted city in American during its days as the world’s center for steel and aluminum production, is now clean and beautiful.

 

And we’re beginning to see good things happen along the Catawba River, as well. For example, there haven’t been any great falls at Great Falls since the construction of the Great Falls Hydroelectric Dam a century ago. Thanks to an agreement reached last year, Duke Energy will restore water flows to areas where bypassed, resulting in about eight miles of whitewater rapids, great for kayaking, rafting, and fishing.

 

As a result of agreements related to the recent renewal of the license Duke Energy has to manage the river, improvements to conservation and recreational areas, and access to the river and its lakes are being implemented all along the 225 river miles. There’s even work being done to reopen the Catawba to the short-nose sturgeon, a fish once harvested in both Carolinas by the Catawba Indians but made scare in the river by the construction of the power-generating dams.

 

So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? The river and its lakes are beautiful, and as rich and varied as the lands in the two states that surround them. And recreational opportunities abound. For those of you who trailer your boat, you’re missing a lot if you don’t experience some of this great resource, all of which is surprisingly close to home.

 

Next time? The Yadkin River.

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