History of Smith Mountain Lake

Smith Mountain Lake is not only a source of clean drinking water and electricity for residents; it is also where fishing and boating and all sorts of outdoor activities take place. The lake stretches for 40 miles and boasts 500 miles of shoreline. It is the largest “outdoor playground” in western Virginia. 


But, believe it or not, this haven did not always exist. The lake reached full water level for the first time in 1966. Prior to this, evidence places Native Indians in the area for up to five decades before Columbus and his men sailed to the New World. The first non-Native settlers arrived in 1670, but it wasn’t until 1924 that plans to build a dam surfaced.


Funding the Smith Mountain Lake Dam


The building of the dam began with seeking approval and funding. However, several studies in the 1920s and 1930s concluded that the dam was not feasible. Between 1934 and 1944, support for building the dam heightened and included a recommendation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Congress still refused to fund it, not once but twice.


By 1950, the situation became desperate, so much so that Appalachian Power announced that it would apply for a permit to build the dam without government assistance. APCO then struck a deal with the Roanoke-Staunton River Power Company to acquire the lands and rights necessary. In 1960, APCO finally received approval to begin building the dam. 


Preparing the Smith Mountain Lake area


The big task of designing a dam several decades in the making was then passed on to a 25-year-old engineer by the name of Dr. Jeffrey Fong. In a time before computer programs and calculators, all drawings had to be completed manually in pencil. 


Another big task APCO had to overcome was relocating graves that were on the land that would be flooded to create the lake. This involved searching through 50,000 acres of land and resulted in the relocation of 1,354 graves.


Next, the land had to be cleared. It took six years to remove all the debris, brush and trees from the area. When construction on the dam started, it created an economic boom in the area, employing up to 400 laborers at its peak.


Filling the lake


By 1963, engineers had already begun to flood the area reserved for Smith Mountain Lake. As the water continued to rise, lakefront property values rose with it. 


By 1965, the lake was already attracting fishermen and campers. Campgrounds and marinas sprang up all along the area. New bridges and roads were constructed, and APCO donated land to create Smith Mountain Lake Park. The state later expanded the park by purchasing additional land.


A new era


In 2016, the SML Chamber of Commerce celebrated the area’s 50-year anniversary. The celebration lasted for a year and even included the designer who made the dam a five-decade-plus success, Dr. Fong. From a Guinness World Book Record attempt to a time capsule to be opened in 25 years, it was an unmatched year of fun. SML residents and visitors will remember it for a lifetime.


Penny Hodges
Penny Hodges
Associate
16451 Booker T Washington Hwy Moneta VA 24121