Controversy and Mystery Still Surround Lakes Built by the Army Corps of Engineers

Apr 13, 2018

In this week's episode of Inside Appalachia, we visit communities impacted by creation of flood-control lakes. In one, the Village of Lilly, about 40 families were pushed off their land along the Bluestone River in Summers County, W.Va., in the 1940s. Many of these families had lived there for more than 200 years. 


Inside Appalachia Host Jessica Lilly has deep roots in this community, as we hear in this episode. 

In Central Appalachia, there are more than 30 man-made lakes, built and maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. Across the United States, there are more than 700 man-made lakes created by dams. Some of these lakes were made to prevent flooding in populated areas while others were built to create recreational activities.

Burnsville Dam

Mari Lynn Evans grew up with her grandparents in West Virginia. In the 1970s, they were forced off their land -- some 2,000 acres -- to make room for Burnsville Lake, a recreational body of water. Evans, a documentary filmmaker, said says her grandparents lost everything they knew when they had to leave their farm.

"They raised cattle and they raised vegetables for generations, and in 1977, the Army Corps of Engineers -- through eminent domain -- took all of that land, and took our home, and all of our outbuildings and took our silos, and it still hurts," Evans said. "It still hurts to lose your home."

Stonewall Jackson Lake

We also hear an archived recording from a 1984 documentary produced by filmmaker Michael Kline. In it Barbara Heavner talks about why she refused to leave her home in Lewis County, W.Va., when the federal government told her the Stonewall Jackson dam would put her house under water. Residents were paid for their property, but some , like Mrs. Heavner and her son, Bob, didn’t leave without a fight. We hear her recount the showdown between her family and a federal marshal, who was tasked with physically removing them from their property.

Stonewall Jackson Lake was completed in 1990 and is now used for boating and fishing recreation. It also provides flood control for areas downriver of the West Fork River. And although there is an exit off Interstate 79 named after the town of Roanoke, that place no longer exists -- along with Barbara Heavner's farm and nursery, it sits at the bottom of Stonewall Jackson Lake.

Hikers at the 1967 protest at the Red River Gorge. Some people recall there were about 800 people on the hike, some against the project to build a lake in the Red River Gorge. Others supported the project because it would help prevent flooding.
Credit USDA/ Daniel Boone National Forest

Red River Gorge

Some projects to build dams have come against pushback from historians and environmentalists. That’s true in Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. In this episode we hear an excerpt of a radio documentary, Kentucky’s Red November, produced in 2016 by Charlie Baglan. The piece explores how the fight to protect the Red River Gorge, and block construction of a dam, turned into one of the nation’s earliest environmental controversies. 

While a few local citizens spoke out against the dam, residents of Powell County mostly supported the project because it would help with flood control for communities like Clay City. By 1967, the project to create a lake in the Red River Gorge seemed like a done deal. 

But then, the newly formed Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club helped organize a protest hike. Local resident Carroll Tichner suggested they invite avid outdoorsman and U.S. Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, to walk the gorge and help raise awareness. And he showed up.

We had help producing Inside Appalachia this week from Charlie Baglan, of Kentucky Afield Radio, a production of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, Michael Kline and Berea College.

Music in this episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions, Seth Partridge, Fog Lake, Dr. Turtle, Jake Schepps, and Dinosaur Burps. 

Inside Appalachia is produced by Jessica Lilly and Roxy ToddGlynis Board edited this episode. Our executive producer is Jesse Wright. Our audio mixer is Patrick Stephens. Molly Born is our web editor. You can find us online on Twitter @InAppalachia. You can e-mail us at InsideAppalachia@wvpublic.org