By Phil James
Nothing satisfies the thirst like a good, cool drink of water.
For the wary citizens of Charlottesville in the early 1920s, a very un-satisfying sight was the dwindling reserve of potable water adjacent to their new Lewis Mountain water filter plant. By the fall of 1923, a variety of groups and individuals were using the pulpit of Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper to trumpet the impending crisis:
“DON’T WASTE WATER! Waste now means ruin later… The situation is critical… Visit the reservoir and see how little is left for urgent need… Saving is our only salvation…”
Engineering firms evaluated a half dozen or more possible sources for additional water supply and unanimously pointed toward Moorman’s River in western Albemarle County, with its Blue Ridge Mountains watershed stretching from Jarman’s Gap to Brown’s Gap. A decision was made to construct an intake near William James’s ford in Sugar Hollow, near the confluence of the south and north forks of that mountain stream.
The initial dam built near James’s Ford was only three feet in height. Its purpose was to divert a steady portion of the stream’s flow through a hand-valve and into an 18-inch pipe where gravity funneled the water nearly 14 miles to the city’s filter plant. By early 1925, the impound’s daily average output of 2½ million gallons of water was providing a surplus to the growing town’s water requirements.
The Moorman’s River location actually had been eyed since the late-teens as a potential site for a large reservoir capable of meeting Charlottesville’s water needs for many decades to come. Periodic seasonal droughts helped to maintain such a lofty idea in the backs of the planners’ minds.
Sugar Hollow native William James (1866–1931) consulted with the project’s earliest planners, and was employed as the initial on-site caretaker of the waterworks. He was succeeded at death by his son Charlie, who protected and maintained the Moorman’s River facility for the next 42 years. At Charlie James’ retirement, he, in turn, was succeeded by his grandson Billy James, who extended the family’s faithful tradition of oversight of the Sugar Hollow Dam across six decades, until his own departure in 1979.
When the City of Charlottesville purchased the mountain acreage for their planned water impound, a number of families were still living in the mountainous watershed area. It was determined that their potential impact on water quality would be negligible. In 1926, the establishment of Shenandoah National Park was authorized by Congress. By 1928, land surveys had been made in preparation for acquisition of the Park lands, and all but a few of the nearby mountain families had moved away.
Any acreage flooded by a potential future reservoir would be on city-owned lands, but the watershed itself would be inside The Park. In May 1928, the Director of the National Park Service met with local officials to assure them that park rangers and wardens would be diligent in protecting the Moorman’s River water supply from fire and contamination.
Concerns fueled by international unrest and our nation’s own economic depression restricted the monies necessary to expand the initial impound into the soon-to-be-needed mountain reservoir. However, in 1935, the idea was advanced further when Civilian Conservation Corps labor from Camp Albemarle in White Hall relocated the pioneer trail passing through Sugar Hollow and placed the new roadbed above the future dam.
In the fall of 1941, the City Commissioners appropriated money to clear trees, rocks and undergrowth from the area near the Moorman’s River intake — taking yet another step toward expanding their future water storage capacity. Within weeks, though, when the United States formally entered into World War II, all plans for expansion were placed quickly on indefinite hold. Not until victory was achieved did the work move forward again.
In April of 1946, Faulconer Construction Company began preparatory work at the site of the Moorman’s River Dam. They established the on-site physical plant necessary to carry out the monumental task, and began excavation work for the dam’s foundation.
Neither before nor since has this section of the Blue Ridge Mountains experienced such an operation. A gas pump and oil tank were set into place to fuel the machinery. Upstream, the Moormans’ north fork was diverted into the south fork, allowing the placement of construction access roads. A 20-ton hoisting derrick with a boom radius of 115’ was mounted; an electric power plant and air compressors were set up; a rock crushing and screening operation was built in place to serve the concrete mixing plant. A so-called “dinky railroad” was put into place — yes, a railroad in Sugar Hollow — to move the concrete into position to be hoisted and poured into the forms; a full-sized carpenter’s shop for cutting lumber to construct the forms was built, as was a blacksmith shop and tool shed to maintain the machinery and fabricate whatever special apparatus might be needed in day-to-day operations. Offices were built for the contractors and engineers.
The dam’s superstructure was designed to be nearly 500’ long end-to-end, with retaining walls extending an additional 30’ on each side. Its height was 67’ from the bedrock base to the spillway lip. It was poured in 14 sections, or blocks, and the rock blasted or removed from the area was reused in the concrete pours.
Atop the structure, steel gates were installed to adjust maximum water levels; this system was used until 1999 when they were replaced with an inflatable bladder.
The mountain facility, titled the Moorman’s River Dam by its designers, has been known locally by various other names through the years, including: Charlottesville Reservoir, Sugar Hollow Dam, Moorman’s River Intake and the Sugar Hollow Reservoir. It has been viewed from on high by many millions of tourists to Shenandoah National Park from the Skyline Drive’s overlook at Milepost 92, situated 2,000 feet above the spillway’s lip.
Faithful caretakers have often endured dangerous conditions to keep the dam safe and the water flowing properly, while appreciating one of this region’s most beautiful work locations. Hurricane-bred floodwaters have tried to overwhelm the structure many times, but the diligence of the many laborers who saw to it that the designers’ instructions were followed accurately has assured the structure’s survival.
The major motion picture Evan Almighty featured a view of the reservoir with digitized effects, and a reliable source has hinted that another yet-to-be-released motion picture has used the reservoir’s backdrop in a special scene.
Recreationalists have documented their visits to the Sugar Hollow area of western Albemarle County since the mid-1800s. With its National Park backdrop and cool, refreshing waters, this very special place will be part of the unique memories and lore of future generations.
Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County, Virginia. You may respond to him through his website www.SecretsoftheBlueRidge.com or at P.O. Box 88, White Hall, VA 22987. Secrets of the Blue Ridge © 2003-2010 Phil James