Lake plays key role in flood control
This section of the lake is a split between Lovills Creek (the waterway on the right) and Halls Branch (the waterway on the left). The grassy land in between Is said to be the Tolbert-Westmorland Cemetery, and some days, you can see cattle there from your boat.
The week before last, a fairly strong storm rolled through bringing a heavy rainfall with it. The National Weather Service and our weather apps started alerting us to look out for flash flooding, not for the first time this summer and surely not for the last, and I and many others watched rainwater start to wash down the street.
It was, thankfully, a short storm, and I was able to drive home safely shortly after it stopped until I got to the road I live on, a little dirt road with no major flood prevention design. It has occurred to me this summer that few people really know about some of our biggest tools in keeping flood water in check, but one we should all know is the enormous 55-acre flood control lake called Lovills Creek Lake. This lake was built in neighboring Cana, Virginia, less than eight miles from downtown Mount Airy, and as the name suggests it is a manmade lake that was built to dam and control Lovills Creek as it flows down the mountain and branches into the Ararat River.
Why build such a big flood control lake? If you thought the piddly rain we got this month was something, our most historic floods would blow (or wash) you away. Within the same week more than 100 years ago this entire region was devastated by six days of rain during the July 14, 1916 flood. It impacted most of western North Carolina, and destroyed railroad tracks, homes, industrial buildings, you name it, this flood damaged it.
At the time it was the most record-breaking flood this region of the state had ever seen and the death and destruction it brought was unparalleled. The historic flood that many people in the area are more familiar with is the flood of 1979 that cost approximately $40 million in damages to Mount Airy. Many people were not driving home safely that September afternoon, in fact several roads were completely washed out, such as Riverside Drive. People were abandoning their vehicles, wading through knee-high water to safety, evacuating buildings, and some even needed to be rescued.
My aunt who was working at a restaurant on 52 recalled being rescued by boat, and they weren’t the only ones. This level of flooding wasn’t common, and thankfully no one lost their life, but it was becoming apparent that here in the Piedmont, our creeks and rivers can only hold so much water, and we needed a plan B.
Not too long after the 1979 flood, a collaborative effort began between Mount Airy and neighboring Carroll County in Virginia where many local water sources begin or cross before entering Mount Airy. The lake is owned by Carroll County, but the dam and grounds upkeep is maintained by Surry County making it a joint project even to this day. The large-scale goal was to dam the creek so they could control the flow of water. That would require a lot of land, and thankfully they found just the right spot off of highway 52 in Cana.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service began the project in the 1980s, and it was completed in 1990. The land was purchased from local residents and farmers even today have no fence up and their cattle come down to drink from the water. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries entered a management agreement with Carroll County to manage the lake for fishing in 1990 and even added a boat ramp and fishing pier in 1995.
In the middle of the lake there is said to be a family cemetery on a piece of land right on the water that is listed as the Tolbert-Westmorland Cemetery. The land has no fence or obvious marker to let visitors know a cemetery is there, but is still an interesting part of the lake’s history. Today people who visit the lake go to enjoy the fishing, boating, and peaceful nature, but many never think about the real job the lake is doing – protecting us from floods. We’ve come a long way when it comes to controlling the water in our community and the Lovills Creek Lake is thankfully a part of that history.
Cassandra Johnson is the programs and education director at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and loves to encourage others to find the history in the little day to day aspects of their lives from what roads we drive to work or to shop.