STANLEY – It’s no secret that the lake bearing former Duke Power President Norman Cocke’s name has changed greatly since it opened 50 years ago.
What began as a 32,000-acre lake surrounded by few people and plenty of open space has grown into a vibrant, successful region expanding in scope and population yearly.
Lake Norman marked its golden anniversary on Sept. 30 with a celebration at Cowans Ford Hydro Station, which opened on the same day in 1963.
The site on which the lake rests, however, has a history dating back further than when the lake was created.
The area played host to the Battle of Cowan’s Ford, a pivotal Revolutionary War skirmish, in Feb. 1781. In a British victory, the Patriots lost Gen. William Lee Davidson, who became the namesake of the nearby town and its college.
“The battles down here made (The Battle of) Yorktown possible,” Davidson College Archivist Jan Blodgett said. “What happened here slowed down the British army to the point that when they got to Yorktown, the Americans could beat them.”
The lake and its power source haven’t slowed down since their opening, either.
Duke Power announced its intent to build Cowans Ford Dam and its first three generators on May 15, 1957. The dam added a fourth generator in April 1967 after the initial trio opened in 1963. By then, the hydro station had begun to make some noise in more ways than one. But it wasn’t expected to become a prime location for families, businesses and recreation seekers.
“Most people thought that with the beginning of the decline of the mill industry, this would provide some more jobs,” Blodgett said. “It initially provided power. It was the central thing (in the region).”
Visitors who attended the hydro station’s anniversary event had a chance to tour the dam and see its generators from the top of the dam, which is more than a mile long and 130 feet tall at its highest point.
The hydro station’s use as a job creator still exists, said Steve Jester, Duke Energy’s vice president of hydro licensing and lake services.
“I’m hard-pressed to think about a reservoir that has had more of an impact to an entire region than the one on Lake Norman,” he said. “It was a very different place (when it opened). It was very remote and (had) a lot of farmland and forests. While I don’t think you can’t say the existence of Cowan’s Ford Dam and the lake behind it has driven all the changes in the 50 years since, I do think it’s safe to say that much of what the region has become is the result of this. It’s served the region well.”
Jester said he doesn’t believe the region will be transformed in such a drastic manner as it’s seen in its first 50 years. The chances of more growth and success, however, are very promising.
“The area has always been a draw, almost from day one,” said Jester, who grew up at the same time as the lake. “When the lake was being filled, it would draw people out here who were wondering, ‘What’s the water level this week?’ I think it’ll continue to be a huge draw. I expect just as people 50 years ago may not have been able to foresee what would happen, it’s tough for us to predict it, as well. It’ll be really exciting. The area is a good place to live, a good place to work and a good place to play. I don’t think that’s going to change in the next 50 years.”