Post-Civil War History of the Basin

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After the Civil War, the Catawba Basin was transformed from a rural backwater to a major textile manufacturing center, transportation hub, and financial center.

For an overview of the history of the Catawba-Watere River basin before the Civil War, click here.

The Catawba-Wateree basin experienced nearly exponential growth after the Civil War.  At first, the growth was driven by the development of the textile manufacturing industry (and related support industries, such as the manufacture of chemical intermediates for the textile industry).  In the late 20th Century, the region's importance as a transportation hub and financial center began to replace the textile industry as the primary engine of the economy.  (For a description of the view of the upper Catawba River from the window of a train in the late 1800s, click here.)

Creation of Lake Wylie

The potential of Catawba and Wateree Rivers for industrial development was largely untapped until the beginning of the 20th century because the river was flood-prone, shoal-filled, dotted with waterfalls, and generally too turbulent for water traffic.  It was not until the early 1900's that a handful of men recognized the river’s powerful potential.  

Although James B. Duke (through the American Development Company) began to acquire the rights to build dams along the Catawba in 1899, Lake Wylie, created in 1904, was the first major lake to be established on the main stem of the Catawba River.  Dr. Walker Gill Wylie, a New York physician and former resident of Chester,Lake Wylie Dam after 1916 Flood SC, decided to build a dam on the Catawba to encourage industrial development around his hometown.  Dr. Wylie and his brother created the Catawba Power Company in 1900, and began work on a dam near Fort Mill, SC. When the dam was completed in 1904, the lake that resulted was christened "Catawba Lake."  The dam was destroyed by the flood of 1916 (see photo above), but in 1924, the dam was enlarged and rebuilt.  In 1960, the lake was renamed to honor the man who turned the Catawba River into Lake Wylie.

Other dams quickly followed the construction of the Lake Wylie dam.  In 1907, construction began on the Great Falls Hydro Station, located near Great Falls, South Carolina.  This was the first hydroelectric construction project of Southern Power Company.  In 1909, a second hydro station near Great Falls was completed (the Rocky Creek Hydro Station).  In 1915, the Lookout Shoals Hydro Station, near Statesville, North Carolina, was completed.

The Great Flood of 1916

In July of 1916Nations Ford bridge after flood of 1916, two Category 4 hurricanes converged over western North Carolina causing more than three days of downpours and the worst flood in history of the Catawba River.   The first storm arrived early in the month from the Gulf of Mexico with the second storm coming from the Atlantic in mid-July.  This storm dropped over 13 inches of rain in one 24 hour period and the Catawba River rose to 47 feet above flood stage.  The flood water was nearly twice as deep as that of any previously recorded flood.  In addition to destroying the Lake Wylie dam, the flood of 1916 washed out every bridge across the Catawba except for one.  All rail, telephone and telegraph connections were severed.  Mills along the waterways throughout the Catawba basin were destroyed and many dams were destroyed or damaged.  At least 13 people died when a double-track railroad bridge over the river between Charlotte and Gastonia gave way.  A few survivors were rescued from treetops the following morning.

Dam Construction after the Great Flood

The Great Flood of 1916 prompted renewed interest in damming the Catawba, both for flood control and to generate power. The Fishing Creek Hydro Station (2-miles north of Great Falls) was completed in December 1916, but what was really needed to control flooding and harness the energyLake Wateree Damy potential of the River was larger dams.  In 1919, the Bridgewater Hydro Station (creating Lake James) and the Wateree Hydro Station (creating Lake Wateree - see photo to the right) were completed.  In 1924, the rebuilt and enlarged Lake Wylie dam was completed, and the dam creating Mountain Island Lake (near Charlotte) was completed.  In 1925 and 1927, the Lake Rhodiss and Lake Hickory dams were completed.  The largest lake in the basin, (as wells as the largest lake in North Carolina) Lake Norman was created by the Cowans Ford Dam. Completed in 1963, it was the last major dam to be built on the Catawba River.

The Population Explosion

During the past 50 years, the population of the Catawba-Wateree basin has exploded.  Until recently, the primary pressures placed on the river were related to the large number of dye houses, textile chemical manufacturing facilities and other industries that discharged into the Catawba.  However, since the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the more recent decline of the textile industry, industrial discharges have ceased to be the primary source of water pollution in the basin.  Today, the biggest source of pollution is stormwater from construction projects, parking lots and other "non-point" sources of pollution.  As a result, in 2008, the Catawba River was named the "Most Endangered River" in the United States.  Sewage discharges are also an ongoing problem.

Burton Creek Runoff

The Future

The water quality in the Catawba-Wateree basin and the ecosystems that depend on the water in the basin are likely to continue to decline without improved development policies and better stewardship of the Catawba River.  This will require more efficient use of water, smarter growth practices and better management of the water resources in the basin.  The silver lining in this dark cloud is that it should be relatively easy to make significant improvements.

Pending litigation between North Carolina and South Carolina over the water in the Catawba-River, the Bi-State Catawba-Wateree Commission and proposed legislation in the legislatures of both states has the potential to result in substantial improvements in the management of water in the basin and the health of the River.  Recent water shortages and increased public awareness of threats to the Catawba are also beginning to change public behavior.

Additional Information


Click on the subheadings below for additional information about the Catawba-Wateree Basin.Upper Catawba Waterfall





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Jan 25, 2017 NC Riverkeeper Report
From the perspectives of 12 NC Riverkeepers, this report discusses how multiple environmental issues pose challenges in the pursuit of clean, plentiful water. Whether you are in North Carolina or downstream in South Carolina, read this report about the state of environmental enforcement.
Dec 13, 2016 Community Foundation of Gaston County grants $5,000 to CRF for Riverkeeper Program
The Community Foundation will fund Catawba Riverkeeper's work in Gaston County.
Dec 12, 2016 A Successful Launch of our Water Education Program at Great Falls Elementary
Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation in partnership with 4-H Clemson Cooperative Extension successfully completed our pilot Education Outreach Program with 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students from Great Falls Elementary.
Sep 27, 2016 Lake Wateree Fall Cleanup a Sweeping Success
86 volunteers collected 5,490 pounds of trash from Lake Wateree
Jun 13, 2016 Dozens of Youth Reached in Water Education Outreach Program Pilot Lessons
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Click here to fill out a pollution report or to report water pollution to Catawba Riverkeeper by phone, call 1-888-679-9494 or 704-679-9494.  In addition, to informing your Riverkeeper, you should also report spills or contamination to federal, state and local environmental officials.

To report South Carolina water pollution call 1-888-481-0125.

To report North Carolina spills or fish kills, call your local regional Department of Environment & Natural Resources office during normal business hours (704-663-1699 for most Catawba basin areas or (828) 296-4500 for Burke, Caldwell, McDowell and other mountain counties) or 800-858-0368 after hours.  (For more information on NC spill reporting, click here)


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