The Lake that Saved Charleston from Total Destruction

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Summersville Lake Photo Courtesy: Ken ThomasNever Miss Appalachian Updates, Like us on Facebook:
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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.

West Virginia Capitol Building Photo Courtesy: O Palsson
West Virginia Capitol Building
Photo Courtesy: O Palsson

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.

Close up of Summersville Dam spillway. The larger output is approximately 20 feet in diameter; the smaller approximately five feet. Photo courtesy: Squashpup
Close up of Summersville Dam spillway. The larger output is approximately 20 feet in diameter; the smaller approximately five feet.
Photo courtesy: Squashpup

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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48 COMMENTS

  1. WV flood, did not leave hundreds dead like you have written. There were I believe 23 people, but Praise the Lord not hundreds.

    • You are exactly right… read the second paragraph.

      As always, thank you for reading Appalachian Magazine.

    • I noticed that hundreds died was stated in this article. I don’t live in the state any longer, but knew I had not missed that much news on the death toll. I still have questions of a family member in Clendenin and home.

    • I cannot believe the number of people commenting about the article being wrong! The article is written to state how important Summersville Lake and Dam really are!

      • This article is a great testimony to foresight, planning and action. Summersville, Burnsville, Stonewall Jackson, Summit and a couple of other lakes lessened the damage of this rare storm and others tremendously. A couple of those Corp of Engineer lakes have earned their keep with this single event.
        It also seems to be a testimony to modern technology and social media that allows all people, regardless of their abilities to read or write, access to public comment.
        A reduction in misunderstanding (and comments admitting they just don’t get it) might come from making the second paragraph first and editing it to start ” Following is an excerpt you did not read….”

  2. Let’s build more dams and lakes, its good business, construction brings in money, lakes will bring in receational tourism, and continue to provide protection against flooding. Greenbrier River, Cherry River, Elk River, Wiliams, just name a few we need to control.

    • Cherry and Williams go into the gauley and are controlled my Summersville dam. Elk River is sutton dam.

    • @ A Amick — While lakes and dams can have economical and enivornmental importances, they can also be very destructive to the natural cycles of water. Dam led to beach erosion ( some of the soil never makes it to the ocean, even from the streams of WV ) they stop the cycle of pond-swamp-meadow-forest, and can change the ground water table. — A well planned out lake and dam are great things. But, if they ever fail the destruction would be tenfold due to the force and value of all that water. See Richwood, WV. :: This was a great article. Thank you!

  3. Gad…and we used to love saying we were going to go to dam dairy Queen as kids. Now Fat Eddie’s but still call it that. Summer tourism has been crushed right now. Summerville Lake Retreat and lighthouse campground open and undamaged. Sits high. Battle Run underwater. New electric outlets will have to be replaced, etc.

  4. I have a http://www.gofundme.com/WVwecare site for smaller communities like Birch River, Muddlety in Nicholas County. Home of Sville dam. My goal is 1863 dollars for WV’s birth year. We distributed 1200 this weekend to those who lost everything. I started it before the Brad Paisley site. I’ll stop and close site at 1863 and distribute those funds. There are also a lot of funds for Richwood. Thanks

    • Nicholas county community Foundation is assisting all areas of the county with flood relief through donations.

  5. I grew up in the Elk River valley, and was a young boy when the 1961 flood happened. We lived high up on the hill, but I remember waking up that morning and being actual able to see the river – normally out of view in its banks, surrounded by trees. It was pretty frightening. We have home movies somewhere that were taken of all the devastation brought by that flood. That was prior to the construction of the three major flood control dams on the Kanawha system: Sutton, Bluestone and Summerville. They all played a part in limiting the amount of water that made it to the Kanawha, and probably preventing Charleston itself from flooding.

    And one wonders what would have happened in the Elk River Valley without the Sutton Dam. All the creeks below the dam, particularly Big Sandy at Clendenin, poured billions of gallons into the Elk, but at least the water above Sutton was held back.

    Should there have been some smaller dams constructed on Blue Creek, the Big Sandy and Coopers Creek? Hard to imagine the number of people who would be displaced, but this flood may have done a lot of that already.

    Dams are not generally favored by the ecologists because of the destruction of aquatic habitat. But floods like this might be more common as our climate continues to change. Might be time to move to higher ground.

  6. Thank God taxpayers in the 60s believed we were stronger together and elected representatives with the foresight to embark on expensive and ambitious projects like this. Today we want a government small enough to drown in a bathtub, even if we drown (literally or figuratively) right with it.

    • Large government has always proven to be a very poor choice that has never worked out. The Sam was not a product of large government, that is silly. It was a product of good foresight. Smaller government leaves much more funding so that projects like this can become a reality. Large governments end up corrupt every time. It’s why we fought for our independence from the British.

  7. What an awful way to start an article in order to get the readers attention. You could have found a better, if not more subtle, way to include “what might have happened” in your article. The opening paragraph was not only coarse, but I’m sure it must be confusing for those who do not live here in West Virginia and are not familiar with what is, and has, actually happened.

    But mostly, it is irresponsible reporting as it gets weaved in with the threads of thousands of other reports and stories of what REALLY happened in West Virginia this past week.

    What could have been an excellent read-simply was not.

  8. Of course we’ve all heard of Summersville Lake here in Southern WV.. I’m from Putnam Co and people from here go there all the time….. A lot of people probably didn’t know about the naming of the dam though.. I love that story.. If you go to where the spill ways are located, where the Gauley begins, there’s a plaque there that tells the story… The Army Corps of Engineers ALWAYS names a dam after the town it’s built in, not the closest large city…. There’s only very few times this hasn’t happened including the almost Gad Dam..

  9. I think sutton damn help a little also…. Just sayin it wasn’t “all” Summerville Dam

  10. We would drive over there on Sunday afternoons and watch the activity! My Dad took home videos of some blasts that took place. I remember this as I was only a small child, but a fond memory. Later my Dad bought a boat and camper. We spend a lot of summers on that lake!!!

  11. The story as I heard it was the Corp of Engineers also considers naming dams after the river, as in Tygart Dam. However they didn’t feel Gauley Dam was much batter than Gad

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