HUNTERSVILLE Steven Jester was a boy in 1963 when his family packed a picnic and drove two hours on a Sunday afternoon to see North Carolina’s newest and largest reservoir.
Word had spread all across the state about Lake Norman and its 520 miles of shoreline, even to the rural crossroads community where his family lived near Virginia.
Jester was only 7 or 8, but said he will always remember the stunning sight as he stood on shore: “Water stretched all the way to the horizon,” he said.
“For some, a 50-year period may seem like a long time,” Jester said. “But for those of us who were here, 50 years came and went” in no time.
Jester is now Duke Energy’s vice president of water strategy, hydro licensing and lake services. On Monday, he and other Duke Energy officials joined business and government leaders in celebrating the lake’s 50th anniversary at the Cowans Ford Hydroelectric Station, off N.C. 73 near the Mecklenburg-Lincoln county line.
Included were rare tours inside the station and atop the 130-foot-tall earthen dam.
The concrete span of the mile-long dam contains enough concrete to build a three-foot-wide sidewalk four inches thick and 2,000 miles long. Five-and-a-half million gallons of water pass through its turbine each minute, and the station at full power generates enough electricity for more than a quarter-million homes, Duke Energy officials said.
Security concerns ended public tours of the facility many years ago. The hydroelectric station and dam are near Duke Energy’s McGuire Nuclear Station, whose Unit 1 opened in 1981 and Unit 2 in 1984.
Commercial operation of the Cowans Ford Hydroelectric Station’s first three units began on Sept. 30, 1963, marking what Duke Energy considers the official opening of the lake. Duke Energy manages the lake under federal license.
Plans for the Cowans Ford dam and hydroelectric station were announced on May 15, 1957, and Gov. Luther Hodges detonated a blast on Sept. 28, 1959, to mark the beginning of construction.
The area was all farmland and forests, Jester recalled. “This was a very different place, very remote, not a lot of people,” he said.
Now it attracts 3 million visitors a year, and 75,000 people live along its shoreline, Jester said. “That’s pretty amazing,” he said. “I’m not sure we could have imagined that 50 years ago.”
Coupled with the many businesses and industries that have moved to the four-county lake region, “it’s hard to imagine another reservoir that’s had an impact on an entire region as this one has,” Jester said.
Monday’s gathering also included family members of executives of the former Duke Power Co. who oversaw the lake’s formation.
Van Cocke came from his home in Linville. He is the grandson of former Duke Power president Norman Atwater Cocke, for whom the lake is named.
Van Cocke, 62, grew up in Charlotte and witnessed the lake’s construction. He recalled how workers drove high-water mark stakes into the ground after the land had been cleared for the lake but was still dry.
That made for some interesting sights, he said, including looking a half-mile out onto dry land in 1962 to see where his family’s pier had been built.
His grandfather bought five lake lots in eastern Lincoln County for $3,000 apiece and insisted on nothing pretentious, Van Cocke said.
His grandfather built a two-story home with two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen – and no air conditioning at first, Van Cocke said. It was basically a weekend getaway home from Charlotte, in a setting for boating and fishing. Beside the home was the family’s “Bunk House” with bunk beds for the children, and another structure to store the lawn mower and tools, Van Cocke said.
His grandfather “was a normal-type guy,” Van Cocke, 62, said. “He and my grandmother weren’t flamboyant. He was just a hard worker.”
As for Lake Norman: “My grandfather would be very proud of the lake today,” Van Cocke said.
Marusak: 704-987-3670; Twitter: @jmarusak
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