Fishing Creek Dam amazing feat of century-old engineering

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By Reece Murphy

Fishing Creek Dam is an amazing feat of early 20th century engineering.

Built in 1916, the dam originally included only a spillway, instead of the 22 massive 25-feet tall by 45-feet wide, spill gates, which were added in the mid-1920s.

The dam is 75 feet high and 1,770 feet, or approximately one-third of a mile in length, and contains a 3,112-acre reservoir.

The water on the reservoir side at the back of the dam is approximately 55- to 60-feet deep, while the “bridge side” is approximately 40-feet deep.

Most of the time water flows through the dam and down the Catawba to the Great Falls/Dearborn dams and then on to the Rocky Creek/Cedar Creek and Wateree dams.

When water is high, however, it flows over the side of the cofferdam, which was dug to divert water around Fishing Creek Dam as it was being built. The overflow, bypasses the Great Falls/Dearborn dams and flows on to Stumpy Pond and the Rocky Creek/Ceder Creek dams.

Though officially the “Fishing Creek Hydroelectric Station dam,” the dam is known locally as the “Nitrolee Dam” after a fertilizer plant built near the dam by Duke Energy pioneer W.S. Lee with the help of German engineers.

According to geologist Donald R. Privett, the fertilizer plant intended to use nitrogen from the air, water from the lake and electric arcs from the dam powerhouse to make calcium nitrate fertilizer, but was never finished due to the development of new processes.

Fishing Creek Dam has five turbines, two of which produce 10 to 11 megawatts, and three that produce nine megawatts.

Though Duke Energy’s total hydroelectric output amounts to only 2 percent of its total energy output, district manager Rick Jiran said it’s “very valuable electricity” in that it supplements customers’ peak energy demands.

For those who work there, among the most fascinating things about the Fishing Creek Dam is its history.

“You know, they were some smart people back in the early 1900s,” Fishing Creek Dam Operation Maintenance Technician Karl Johnson said. “They used mules and wagons, and we’ve got pictures of them using cranes made of wood.

“It took a lot of manpower. They even had to chip away rock to build this dam,” he said.

Terry Harris, an operations maintenance technician at Cedar Creek Dam and amateur regional dam historian, said he is constantly in awe of the structure.

“The technology they had then, and the amount  of manpower and work they had to put into it – and have it last almost 100 years and still working is amazing to me,” Harris said. “It’s still maintaining the flow of the river, still producing electricity, still doing what it was built to do.

“It would probably be a completely different world around here without it,” he said.


 Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151