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“This past week, the capital city of West Virginia was leveled by unprecedented flooding following torrential downpours across the southern region of the Mountain State. The rising waters left hundreds dead, thousands homeless and the seat of West Virginia’s government inoperable in what may prove to be one of the worst national disasters in American history.”
The above is an excerpt you never read from a news report this past week, thanks in large part to a single dam and a lake you may have never heard of – Nicholas County’s Summersville Lake.
If you live along the Kanawha River, you owe a debt of gratitude (possibly even your life) to this fifty-year-old, 2,700-acre lake that keeps the raging Gauley River and the powers of nature in check.
It took six years for the (1960-1966) United States Army Corps of Engineers to construct what would become the largest lake in West Virginia; recognizing the significance of the dam’s construction, President Lyndon B. Johnson was onsite to dedicate the new lake on September 3, 1966.
Prior to the dam’s construction, the city of Charleston, among several other communities downstream, suffered routine flooding on a near annual basis.
Though one of the most beautiful capitol buildings in the nation (yes, we’re a little partial), the Mountain State’s capitol building is also one of the most vulnerable seats of government in the entire North American hemisphere – constructed just yards from the unstable Kanawha River.
In the summer of 1960, a rather insignificant flash flood washed away the driving records of more than 2,800 West Virginia motorists when rising waters flooded the State Office Building’s basement.
It was out of this reality that local, state and national leaders recognized the need for greater management of the Gauley and New Rivers – thus Summersville Lake became a reality.
Built to hold back flood waters from reaching the Capital City, the half-a-century old man-made lake was tested in a significant manner this past month and passed its test flawlessly.
In less than 24-hours, the lake’s water level jumped 38-feet, and though the water levels ultimately crested roughly a single story below the spillway, and campgrounds upstream suffered from the water backup, the lake and dam did exactly what they were designed to do – save Charleston from unspeakable tragedy.
Days later, when it was finally safe to release the stored water, the lake’s spillways showcased an unimaginable water outflow of 15,000 cubic feet per second.
On a final note, the lake and dam were never supposed to have even been named after Summersville. Originally, the dam was slated to be named after the village of Gad (located near the present-day marina), which was flooded at the opening of the reservoir. After briefly considering the name “Gad Dam,” however, it was instead decided to name the project after the next nearest town – Summersville.
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