Beating Back The Dam

The seldom told story of an idea to flood Clarke County by building a chain of dams along the Shenandoah and Potomac

By Colleen Lentile

Imagine driving through Berryville or Boyce and instead of seeing the vast, beautiful countryside speckled with farms and historic landmarks, you see water. Lots of water that covered acres of once bountiful land. Hard to imagine? It certainly was for the citizens of Clarke County in 1945 when they learned of Washington’s plans to dam the Shenandoah River, flooding thousands of acres in this and other neighboring counties.

In February 1945, during the Second World War, citizens of Clarke County became aware of the War Department Office of Engineers’ proposal to create fourteen dams along the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. One of these dams was to be constructed in Millville, West Virginia. If the proposal were accepted by Congress, the plan was to build the dams within the first 20 years after the war ended. And since Millville, in Jefferson County, is so close to Clarke County, making a dam there would greatly affect the land along the Shenandoah in Clarke County.

The initial idea behind the proposed dam was brought on by Washington’s fear of a repeat of the flooding that occurred in 1936 and 1942. Those floods destroyed wide swaths of city and countryside over several states. Planners wanted to safeguard the Washington area and surrounding counties. Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., a Berryville native, arranged for a representative to stay at the George Washington Hotel in Winchester, so that the representative could receive the maps and data from Washington and report back to the landowners that would be affected by the dam.

Throughout February, the surveys of the land that could be compromised by the Millville Dam changed because the engineers had problems acquiring accurate maps, which left residents confused about what land was going to be obtained. Clarke County residents were mostly concerned about the costliness of the dam, both in economic and societal terms.

Close to 200,000 acres were being considered for the creation of all fourteen dams—8,000 acres in Clarke County were to be flooded or kept for potential flooding.  To put this into perspective, the water depth at Castleman’s Ferry, better known today as the public access to the Shenandoah River on River Road off Route 7, would be 120 feet.

Many families would have been displaced, and acres of fertile land would have been destroyed. Economically, taxes would be affected as land was removed from the tax roles. New bridges would be needed, too. The scope of issues mounted the more people considered the project.

Clarke residents became engrossed in the subject in late February and early March, requesting accurate surveys of the land that would be flooded through petitions that circulated throughout the county.

After an accurate survey was released, many citizens and organizations committed themselves to the opposition of the Millville Dam. Some of the organizations pointed out another disadvantage of the dam: its disruption to the beauty of the Shenandoah.

In an article published by the Courier on April 5, 1945, titled, “If The Dam Breaks,” J. Richardson wrote, “Have we come to such a pass in this truly great country of ours that ‘only the dollar counts’ when either Government, or very possibly heartless Shylocks, propose to literally wipe from human vision so much of God-created beauty by the massing of waters into a great inland lake?” Richardson also mentions Washington’s “lack of vision,” and refers to the possibility of a war-related attack on Washington breaking the dam and causing unnecessary harm to citizens and a waste of materials.

From the beginning, residents did not appreciate the deal. On February 15, 1945, in an article called The Dam at Millville, an angered citizen said, “The damages Washington has suffered through floods have been negligible, we believe . . . with only the low lands and areas bearing the brunt of overflowing rivers, and we are not being narrow-minded when we say we cannot see why Clarke County homes and farms have to be destroyed to save the tenement and river districts of Washington, or to furnish more electricity to an area that is already amply supplied, or will be after the war.”

People became even more enraged about the proposed dam when they learned why Washington really wanted to dam the Shenandoah. Thomas B. Byrd took the floor, leading the discussion. According to an article in the Courier printed on March 29, 1945, he said, “The proposed dam represented from 92 to 98 percent hydro-electric power, about two percent for flood control and other percentages for pollution and recreation.” Byrd meant that Washington was not so much afraid of possible flooding; they wanted to use the water in the Millville Dam and the other dams for electricity in their counties. Not to mention, the building of the dams would cost close to $300 million.

On April 3, 1945, 500 Clarke County citizens made the trip to Washington for a hearing. The Clarke community supported the citizens in their journey by cancelling school and closing some of the stores in town. The group met at the Interior building with a panel of seven men. There were at least 500 more residents in attendance there from Clarke’s surrounding counties, included Warren, Rockingham, Jefferson, and Loudoun.

Senator Byrd was one of the main speakers to defend Virginia and voice opposition to the dam on the Shenandoah. He was backed by Congressman A. Willis Robertson, Congressman Howard Smith, and T.E. Demaray, the associate director of the Interior Department’s National Park Service. Other representatives spoke for West Virginia and Maryland with as much passion as the other. West Virginia’s Senator Revercomb stated there was no support for the project in his state. Representative Randolph of West Virginia wrote to the President about the project.

Two days after the hearing, word came from Washington stating that the Board of Engineers “has ruled against the construction of all the dams proposed in the Potomac Basin.” The news travelled quickly, with the help of Senator Byrd.

The impact of this hearing was vital to the continuance of everyday life in Clarke County, which was taken into consideration by residents who offered their gratitude. In an editorial called The Last Chapter, published in the Courier on April 12, 1945, a thankful citizen shines a light on the dam committee that organized the citizen’s trip to Washington. The citizen also pays tribute to the delegates who helped them succeed at the hearing, referring to their actions as “the greatest public service ever performed.”

The Shenandoah River is one of Clarke County’s defining features. Looking back, the audacity of a plan hatched in Washington could be beaten back only by the matched determination and influence of county residents and their U.S. Senator. Perhaps even more remarkable than the scale of the plan is the speed by which it was dismantled.

In the words of the author of The Last Chapter, “For the time being, and for all time, we hope, the dam has been defeated.”