In the twentieth century, dams transformed the landscape of Appalachia. What was lost in the process?
By Caitlin Myers
Not long ago, I listened in on a phone call between Lydia Patton and David Adkins. Adkins, who is Patton’s uncle, was trying to give her directions. “You go down a hill, down to what they call Fisher Bowen Branch, and that takes you to the head of the lake where my family is from. But now, when you get to that intersection, if you turn left, that takes you up Beech Fork Creek, and I have—” He pauses to get the directions right. “My great-great-grandfather and great-great-great grandfather are buried in a cemetery up that road.”
The place Adkins is talking about is known as Beech Fork. It sits just south of Huntington, West Virginia, near the Kentucky and Ohio state lines. There’s another pause on the line, and then his words come out, slowly. “And there was a cemetery on the hill,” he says. “Right above the homeplace, where my grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather, great-grandmother were buried. And that cemetery—the state took that property along with the homeplace. And those graves were relocated to the Bowen cemetery, which is the cemetery up on the hill, above the campground.”
West Virginia moved the Adkinses on account of a flood control project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, during which it dammed two forks of a creek and flooded the landscape. The dam was completed in 1978, a couple of years after Patton was born. It created a reservoir across more than seven hundred acres of land, including farms, homes, and the not-quite-final resting places of the Adkins ancestry. On the phone with Patton, Adkins stitched the map together in his head, a map that exists layered on top of itself—one half above the water, and one half under it.
The old graves sit empty now. Disturbed from their sleep, perhaps, scooped from one resting place and laid to rest in another, the Adkinses look out from the hill over the Beech Fork State Park campgrounds and marina, the jewels of Wayne County, a popular tourist draw. And at the far end of the park, the former gravesites are buried forty feet or more below the green-gray waters of Beech Fork Lake.
There’s no other way to describe Beech Fork Lake except that it looks flooded. Patton, a professor at Virginia Tech, remembers thinking it was a natural lake, only to do her research and realize there is one single natural lake in West Virginia, and Beech Fork isn’t it. Now she sees. It looks like a place where a creek should be. The water rises right into the woods, right up the hillsides, with no specific beach or rocky outcropping to transition the dry biome into the wet. It’s full of sediment. And there’s coal around there, too.
Listen. We all mostly know it by now, don’t we? We know the land’s been taken from West Virginians, over and over again. The mountaintop mining that left wooded slopes dusty, flat, windy, and dry, like mesas in the desert. The timber and lumber. How, beneath a canopy of second growth, almost every hillside here has a railroad grade. But many don’t know this: throw a rock in Central Appalachia and you’ll hit somebody whose family lost land to a dam project.
Massive public works gained traction in the U.S., and especially in Appalachia, after World War II. Here’s how it happened in Beech Fork: In 1962, the Flood Control Act authorized the Army Corps of Engineers to map and survey Beech Fork’s tributary Twelvepole Creek, along with creeks and rivers all over the Midwest, South, and West. The Twelvepole Creek project was estimated to cost eleven million dollars. The report came back with a familiar recommendation: build a dam.
Dams came to represent a sense of optimism and power over the natural environment, and were advocated during the New Deal era as a means to create jobs and modernize the country’s infrastructure. There were many reasons given to build them. Some were for hydropower. Others, like Beech Fork, were for flood control. Beech Fork itself never flooded, as far as Adkins can remember. A U.S. Geological Survey map of West Virginia’s flood zones barely registers the area; it’s colored almost white, near the bottom in flood risk. But Beech Fork Creek flows into the Ohio River at Huntington, West Virginia, which did flood—in 1910, 1907, 1913, and, catastrophically, in 1937. The 1937 flood washed Huntington with fifteen feet of water.
The flooding was caused, at least in part, by overtimbering. Most land in West Virginia had been cleared of its original maple-beech-birch tree cover, after the Civil War’s demand for wood stripped the hills. When rain fell on this disturbed soil, gravity swept it down the watershed, gathering speed, spilling over the banks into towns and cities. But the Beech Fork Dam’s Environmental Impact Statement—a legal document which must be drawn before any major human-made change in a landscape—makes no mention of the timbering, blaming the problem instead on the “rugged topography of the basin and relatively low capacity of stream channels,” on “irregular winding ridges and deep narrow valleys”. It’s the land’s problem, says the document, and we, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, are here to fix it.
Not everyone benefited from this restructuring of the Appalachian landscape in the name of modernization. “Those who suffered from that tendency tended to be rural families living in cooperative, traditional ways,” says Dr. Ronald Eller, retired University of Kentucky historian. “They were displaced by what other Americans called progress.” Eller adds that urban interest groups were particularly powerful during this period in cities like Huntington, whose industrial strip lay directly in the floodplain.
Lydia remembers people downtown talking about the ’37 flood, when twenty-five thousand people found themselves homeless overnight. There are no more floods in Huntington, thanks to Beech Fork Lake and floodwalls. Some say it was the death wrought in that flood that spurred the government to action.
It stands, then, that as a rural flood control dam in a non-flood prone area, built to save a city, Beech Fork might produce some resentment in the local population.
Patton never really knew the world below Beech Fork Lake. The world above it was fun—full of jet skis and pontoon boats and summer hikes. “See, that’s what got me started on this,” she tells Adkins over the phone. “We were going on a pontoon boat to Beech Fork Lake, and Dad said something about how this all used to be farmland.”
“That lake took a lot of really, really nice farms and cemeteries and homes,” Adkins says, simply. Patton remembers hearing about these farms. They were mostly small and self-sufficient, she told me, homesteaders with no need to participate in the industrial economy beyond buying and selling groceries in town, which was a day’s wagon ride away before Route 52. “There were a lot of really nice farms,” says David a few more times.
When surveying for the dam began, in June 1970, people were bought out by the government at a going rate of about $15,000 per property. By the time the newspapers reported, in 1974, that a widow, Ethel Carson, wouldn’t budge, most of the other homeplaces were abandoned. “My aunt Ethel,” says Adkins, “who was quite a…character. She was a widow. She was going to get the homeplace because she stayed and took care of Granddad.”
“Yes,” says Patton.
“Well, she didn’t wanna leave.”
Ethel’s face is the one that made the papers. In the photo I’ve seen, she looks out from her porch, from a little behind her shoulder, her hair coiffed in a perfect helmet around her head, peering over black-rimmed glasses. She looks ready for a fight. The bulldozers are out of the frame, but they’re all around. In the interview, she said she’d leave if she was given a decent alternative, but she wants land, and for the price the state assigned her house, she couldn’t afford it. They basically had to drag her out. “She was a protester of her day,” says David, who reserves an amused respect for her.
Ethel wasn’t the only angry landowner, but she stood alone. The rest of the family didn’t love the attention. But she left a mark, evidence that not everyone went quietly. “She’s setting on the front porch,” says David, relishing the memory, “and the bulldozers are out in the yard. She was defying them to—”
“To come and get her,” says Lydia.
“They were going to have to physically remove her,” David says.
Nobody is sure what happened to Ethel—only that she must have left, and once she left, she must have lived, like many of her kin, in a more expensive place with less land, where she didn’t know her neighbors, couldn’t grow food, and had to get a job. As for her house, all the buildings were knocked down before the flood. All that was left were the roads and bridges, the memories of farms and houses, an empty map of where things used to be.
After the flood, the Adkinses scattered all over Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky. Some say when this is all over, they will go back to Beech Fork.
But we know what happened when the Adkinses settled Beech Fork the first time. The clock doesn’t start at the Civil War, or when the first settler families built the first homesteads along the Ohio watershed. No, the clock turns back, and back, and back. The Ohio River weaves its way around the valley, as rivers do, and the old growth crops up on the mountainsides—hemlocks a hundred feet tall, oaks too big to wrap your arms around. And the first peoples return, then, to build cities in along the Ohio, roads to the Mississippi and the Missouri, to chart routes to either coast, as we know they did.
We know West Virginians took Indigenous land. The state might have encouraged it, tossed them money to homestead and set the course, but the Protestant ethic was still in settlers’ hearts, and that carried its own consequence. The Shawnee, Osage, and Cherokee lived here before, knew the creeks and rivers and mountains, knew one another, and knew the magnitude of what they lost when they lost it. For them, the Ohio River and its tributaries were the center of the world.
Hardly anyone builds dams any longer. Perhaps, says Eller, we’ve begun to ask ourselves the hard questions. “After World War II we believed the power of industry could overcome anything,” he said. “But what does it do to people when we encourage them to break their ties to one another and leave home?” Only four major dams, says Eller, have been built over the past thirty years. In the Pacific Northwest, some muncipalities are taking them down, to let the salmon run, as newer understandings of flood control point towards things like re-forestation and construction far from the floodplain. In Appalachia, dams don’t get torn down, but they’re not being put in either.
Nonetheless, the alterations to the landscape are etched deeply here, and what has been lost is really gone. “The people from my grandmother’s generation knew everyone,” says Lydia to me. “There was an encyclopedia of family knowledge.” Now all that knowledge—of people, of places—is mixed and muddled up between the states, strung out somewhere on the highway between the old home places people came from and the factory towns to which they migrated. There will be no returning to the way things were. Not for the Adkinses or for Lydia Patton, or for the Indigenous people of the Ohio Valley. Just individual futures that might meander their way back, or press forward to something else completely.
A lot of people love Beech Fork Lake. It saves Huntington from flooding every year. Without it, people would die. The dam smoothed out irregularities—no more droughts and no more floods, presumably, if the river could be appeased with the sacrifice of a few homesteads. The lake brings millions of dollars in tourist money to Wayne County every year. Lydia went there. She still goes there. She has pictures of herself in sunglasses, out on boats, fishing. With her parents, with friends. David will come to picnic, too. But he’s never boated on the lake, and he’s never swam in it, not even once. ■
Caitlin Myers is a freelance writer and educator living in Knoxville, Tennessee. Her audio and written work has appeared in Scalawag Magazine, Inside Appalachia, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter at @stopitkatie.
Cover image by Justin Murphy.
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