By Jody Brumage
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson traveled to Summersville, West Virginia to dedicate a new dam and reservoir on the Gauley River. The Summersville Dam is the second-largest rock-fill dam in the eastern United States at 390 feet in height and 2,280 feet in length. The adjoining reservoir forms the largest lake in West Virginia. However, the project represents much more to the history of the state than its technical achievements.
The 75th Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1938, authorizing funds for the construction of several projects throughout the United States. The act called for the development of flood control infrastructure that also supported improved river and stream quality and also promoted recreation. However, construction on the Summersville Dam did not begin for over 20 years due to delays caused by World War II and difficulty in securing funding. By 1960, excavation work began on a diversion tunnel, over 1,900 feet in length. When completed, the construction of the dam progressed, wrapping up in 1965 when the dam was topped out.
Throughout its construction, residents of nearby towns witnessed hundreds of Army Corps of Engineers workers and the movement of heavy machinery and stone needed to build the dam. However, they were also preparing for the promise of tourists who would visit the reservoir to enjoy recreational activities. The plan for the reservoir included scenic overlooks, picnic areas, swimming areas, boat ramps, and campgrounds. In a press release dated November 2, 1965, Senator Byrd reported that the Army Corps of Engineers expected over 1 million tourists to visit the Summersville Reservoir annually.
[Below] The dedication of the Summersville Dam. Congressman John Slack is the first on the left and to the right of the sign are Lady Bird and President Johnson, Senator Jennings Randolph, and Senator Byrd. Representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers are also present among the group.
The Summersville Dam and Reservoir have both proven beneficial to the state over the last half century. Tourism did increase with the opening of recreational facilities around the reservoir, benefiting the nearby city of Summersville and becoming part of the Gauley River National Recreation Area in 1988. The dam has also proven to be an effective control against flooding on the historically-volatile Gauley River. Summersville Dam is one of three dams that control the water flowing into the Kanawha River Basin. In the summer of 2016 as a front stalled over West Virginia and dumped historic levels of rain across the eastern and southern regions of the state, the dam held back 42 feet of water which could have led to serious flooding in the state capitol of Charleston had the dam system not been in place.