Walking was the best part of completing the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. But a close second are the people I met both on the trail and now, when writing a book on the trail.
The 65 miles around Falls Lake are a major part of the MST. The creation of Falls Lake mirrors the creation of many big lake projects, where the government bought the land of the residents and people had to move out.
And yet, it has its own story. Unlike the story of the Smokies or the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is recent history. The lake was built between 1978 and 1981 and it occurred at a time of increased environmental awareness.
Janet Steddum chronicles that story in her book The Battle for Falls Lake. I had a chance to talk to Janet.
What fascinated you about the history of Falls Lake?
I live pretty close to Falls Lake. I saw things that seemed to not fit in the forest. There were abandoned cemeteries and remnants of homestead. People were there and then they weren’t. Nature takes over but if you look closely, you can see human footprints and roads that drop into the lake.
People were in the way of progress but some residents were still alive when I started the project. It was such a thrill for me to interview the locals.
I started doing research into the past. I could go back to mid-1600s with written records. The Army Corp of Engineers was instrumental in looking at archaeological sites. I relied on the Corps so much.
I also used Elizabeth Reid Murray’s two volumes of Wake County. I looked at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill.
You studied the Falls Community but I assume other communities were also flooded and moved.
I focused the Falls Community because it was the oldest active community. The lake devastated the community and yet, it still exists around the River Mills condominiums at Falls of the Neuse. People from the original community are still all together but they’re dying off.
There were also communities in Durham but they didn’t survive the Civil War. I get asked to speak and I’m thrilled.
Was there any formal organized opposition to creating Falls Lake? I’m thinking about the Eno River that was saved from impoundment.
I didn’t think there was any choice on building the reservoir. There was some opposition but it wasn’t successful. The Federal Government paid for most of the lake and that probably wouldn’t happen today.
The challenge was more an environmental opposition. The Neuse River was dirty. People were rightfully concerned that they were going to impound a dirty river.
The nation finally realized that we needed to be better stewards of the land and the Corps was caught in the middle of it.
The Corps is under the Dept. of Defense but hires many civilians. It’s easy to take pot shot at the Corps but they have been so cooperative and incredibly open. They said that it’s public land, not government land.
Do you still have contact with the people?
I went to a Southern homecoming to meet some of the residents. Old timers want to speak to me.
A daughter whose parents lived in the original Falls community brought her widowed mother and said
You wrote the book that my father wanted me to write.
If you’ve walked the MST around Falls Lake or have done some trail maintenance, you’ll love The Battle for Falls Lake. And if you’ve studied the formation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 or the formation of Fontana Lake in 1943, you’ll want to read a modern day version of the story.