Thursday, July 23, 2015

The CCC and Lake Mattamuskeet

Earlier this week I wrote about Percy Carawan, who lived most of his adult life near Lake Mattamusket. I thought I would write about the lake since Pete and I visited it earlier this year. It was the first time my Yankee husband had seen it and he was pretty impressed, especially as we talked about the lake's history as we continued on to New Bern to visit my Dad.

Bald Cypress growing in Late Mattamuskeet; photograph taken by me in
June 2015

Lake Mattamuskeet is the largest natural lake in North Carolina. It is a shallow (average water depth is 2 to 3 feet), coastal lake on the Albermarle-Pamlico peninsula. The lake is home to Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, one of the major wintering sites for waterfowl along the Atlantic Flyway. The lake has a very interesting history.

A map by John White of the Albermarle-Pamlico peninsula. Paquippe is
today's Lake Mattamuskeet; image courtesy of the Trustees of the British
Musem

No one really knows how the lake was formed. Because the lake bed is 3 to 5 feet below sea level, many believe it is the result of a meteor crashing to Earth a millennia ago. Indian legend attributes its formation to a peat fire that burned for thirteen months. There are numerous other theories.

In 1585 the lake covered 120,000 acres, about three times its size today. It was also about 6- to 9-feet deep then. There was interest in draining the lake during Colonial times as people thought the lake bed would provide some of the richest farming soil in the colonies. Soil experts have compared the loam to the rich land in the Mississippi and Nile river deltas. However, it wasn't drained for the first time until 1837. A canal to the Pamlico Sound was dug using slave labor from neighboring Hyde County plantations. The canal 40-feet wide and 8-feet deep and drained most of the lake until the size of the remaining lake was 55,000 acres.

Because the farmers were so successful farming the former lake bed land, North Carolina wanted to drain the entire lake. They built a series of canals and pump houses and drained the lake in 1916, 1920 and again in 1926. The last time the land was kept relatively dry for five years. The entire enterprise went bust during the Depression. President Roosevelt had plans for the area -- to re-establish Lake Mattamuskeet and preserve the native wildlife that used to frequent it.

Civilian Conservation Corps workers near Lake Mattamuskeet; photograph
courtesy of NC GenWeb

A Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp was established in Hyde County and CCC workers spent nine years working on various projects to create the Mattamuskeet and Swan Quarter Waterfowl Refuges. An old pumping plan was transformed into Mattamuskeet Lodge and is a memorial to the workers of the CCC. It opened on 26 November 1937. During its heyday guests included governors, senators, congressmen, doctors, and lawyers.

Lake Mattamuskeet pumping station at New Holland; photograph courtesy
of the Mattamuskeet Foundation

The structure was closed in November 2000 when corrosion was found on the steel beams supporting the structure. In 2006 the United States Congress gifted the lodge to the State of North Carolina. The state has been renovating the lodge since then though the work has been on hold due to budget issues. Only Phase III remains to be completed. The Mattamuskeet Foundation has been established to engage in research and educational activities to preserve and publish stories about the history and ecology of the lake and Eastern North Carolina.

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