Shem Blackley was a young civil engineer and recent Charlotte transplant who started working for Duke Energy in 1959, right around the time the utility company began clearing and surveying land to build Cowans Ford Hydro Station and create Lake Norman. “It was mostly sleepy rural farmland with some small mill communities along the river,” remembers Blackley, 81. “The scale of the project was incredible, and its place in Duke Power history was very important. Duke had built other dams up and down the Catawba River, but this was the first new project in 20 years.”Blackley worked on the 350-megawatt hydro station until its completion in 1963, followed by many other Duke Energy projects, until he retired in 1989. Blackley still lives in Charlotte, and during the summer often drives up to Catawba County near Sherrills Ford, where’s he’s had a family lake cottage since 1963. “We got one of the early leased lots,” Blackley says. “Three generations of us have grown up going to the lake. Just about every weekend in the summer my children and grandchildren are up there.”Blackley says that 54 years ago, when he first started working for Duke Energy, he never could have imagined how dramatically the Lake Norman area would grow and change. “I think it’s exceeded everyone’s expectations,” he says. “The project was originally conceived to be an electric power and water supply system with some recreational aspect to it. It has accomplished all of those objectives and so much more. It’s more successful than we ever dreamed.”
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