By Phil James
Some believe that you can get a feel for a neighborhood just by hearing the names associated with it. That flawed notion might have been a possibility ages ago when names were fewer and reputations carried considerably more weight than do today’s online profiles.
Place naming followed a similar suit. Pioneering landowners applied names to features that, centuries hence, still bring to mind families and geography that once defined a vicinity. Or, as in the matter of Beaver Creek that rises from the foot of Buck’s Elbow Mountain in western Albemarle, it was the critters that were memorialized. Early Albemarle historian Rev. Edgar Woods noted that Beaver Creek had a tributary named Wolf Pit, perhaps denoted as a caution to wayfarers.
Agriculture defined life in Albemarle, especially during the first two centuries of the county’s existence. Fertile, well-watered lands were highly prized. Landowners on Beaver Creek in the 18th and 19th centuries had surnames that included Burnley, Duke, Jones, Mills, Rea, Wallace, and Woods. The Irishman Michael Woods of Woods’ Gap fame had several descendants named William. Of particular note was one commonly known as Beaver Creek Billy, “a remarkable man, in his sphere somewhat of a born ruler, of fine sense, and great decision.”
The rich bottom lands watered by Beaver Creek between Buck’s Elbow and Mechum’s River were quite productive, but, like similar streams whose waters originated on mountainsides, they were prone to freshets, flash floods brought on by thunderstorms or fast melting snow. Just as the fruit and vegetable farmer feared ill-timed frosts and freezes, the lowland farmer prayed that his field crops would not suffer water damage.
By the mid-20th century, changing times had laid hold on central Virginia. Manufacturing jobs were replacing those lost in the waning fruit industry. The small town of Crozet had, seemingly overnight, become home to industrial giants. Acme Visible Records was the largest producer of visible filing systems in the world, while next door, Morton Frozen Foods had established itself as the largest frozen food processing plant in the world. These two production facilities employed 2,100 capable workers whose attributes mirrored those of Beaver Creek Billy.
In its early decades, Crozet’s water needs had been met adequately by wells. Tom Herbert’s Cold Storage filled its towering water tank with water piped from off-site wells. The surplus water not needed in their ice-making department was sold to subscribing customers in the downtown area. As the town grew, lakes and a pumping station were established below Little Yellow Mountain at Mint Springs.
A period of drought-plagued years coupled with ever-increasing demands for water by local industries led to the 1957 formation of the South Rivanna Watershed Committee, chaired by C. Mercer Garnett Sr. Partnering with soil conservationists led by G. Bourne Wayland, chairman of the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, surveys were made and plans explored to develop the county’s water resources. From these meetings, the Beaver Creek Watershed Project was born.
The long-sighted project sought to harness the continuously flowing Beaver Creek to provide a dependable source of water for Crozet’s long-term industrial and residential needs. Soil conservation practices implemented on farmlands upstream of the required dam would complement the protection provided to flood-prone lands downstream from the reservoir. Additionally, the dam was designed to carry a modern roadway across its top, thus rerouting a dangerous portion of Rt. 680 and eliminating an antique, one-lane steel truss bridge.
The project’s designers envisioned the county’s future recreational needs by providing for fishing, boating, picnicking and nature areas adjacent to the public lake.
Construction commenced in October 1963 and by August of ’64 the 614,000,000-gallon reservoir was filling with the sustaining waters of Beaver Creek. The 59-foot earthen dam was named by the County Board of Supervisors in honor of county leader and visionary C. Mercer Garnett Sr. Grandiose plans were drawn up to dedicate the structure “To A Growing Community.”
Underscoring the great and urgent need for the new water source, on two separate occasions prior to the completion of the new filtration plant, a temporary filter plant had to be set up to process water from the reservoir when local water reserves reached critically low levels.
In November 1964, a pomp-filled dedication ceremony took place. Uniformed Albemarle High School band members provided musical backdrop for the anticipated 1,000 attendees. The simple, draped stage platform was presided over by Dr. B.F.D. Runk of the University of Virginia. A bevy of national, state and local leaders were introduced, and by ones and twos they approached the speaker’s podium that had been outfitted with microphones from several local radio stations.
The dedication plaque for the C. Mercer Garnett Dam was unveiled by G. Bourne Wayland and Edgar N. Garnett. Conrad L. Wirth, a giant among conservationists and former director of the National Park Service, then introduced United States Senator Harry F. Byrd Sr. who gave the keynote address. At the end of the dedication ceremonies, a beaming Senator Byrd, then near the close of his storied political career, was surrounded by autograph-seeking youth who had been bussed to the special event on a school day.
Today, Beaver Creek Park comprises 219 public acres, 104 of which are covered by Beaver Creek Lake. The waters of the reservoir are managed by Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority as a water supply for the town of Crozet. The lake is 1.75 miles long with 5.25 miles of shoreline. The Beaver Creek watershed drains a whopping 7,010 acres.
In addition to electric-powered fishing boats, canoes, kayaks and sail craft (no gasoline motors or swimming allowed), the surface of Beaver Creek Lake is populated by competition craft of the Western Albemarle High School Rowing Team. The privately funded program was established in 2006, and by 2007, it adopted Beaver Creek’s calm waters for regular practices. Two years later, team boosters erected a storage boathouse and dock at the lake for use by the team.
Nearly 300 years have passed (Hasn’t time flown by!) since western Albemarle’s earliest settlers first came to appreciate the waters of Beaver Creek. Pause to remember them (and the critters) when you take that next drink of water or enjoy the amenities at our beautiful park.
Follow Secrets of the Blue Ridge on Facebook! Phil James invites contact from those who would share recollections and old photographs of life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of Albemarle County. 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 © 2003–2013 Phil James