By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. — Robert Frost
That must have been what it was like the night before Susan Robinson Eller was born. Her parents, Elwin and Sue Robinson bundled up against the wet and cold and left their home in the country near Good Hope for Cullman Hospital in the middle of a deluge of rain the likes of which hadn’t been seen in these parts in awhile.
It was the night Smith Lake began to fill.
The Robinsons lived on family land that had been homesteaded back in the 1800s. At one point the family had accumulated 300 acres near Good Hope.
“Alabama Power came in and started buying up land for a lake and a recreation area a few years before they started filling it,” recalls Sue Robinson. “Most of it was rocky, bottom land, what they call wetlands now. But some of it was good farm land.”
She recalls that they had finished the dam and that they knew approximately where the flood plan would form the shores of what we now know as Smith Lake.
“I don’t think people realized what a big deal this would eventually become,” Robinson said. She remembers that most people seemed glad to sell their land. “Interstate 65 had just come through and we were all pleased about that.”
There were lots of little creeks out there in the backwoods, winding their way downward to the area set aside for the lake. “They cleared a lot of land, but they also left lots of trees just standing,” recalled Robinson. “Those trees have petrified now, and I think that’s probably part of the reason they have such a problem finding people when they drown out there.”
Into the night, the water continued to rise. All along roads that had once been rutted wagon trails, pathways and Indian land, the water greedily claimed everything in sight.
“They had to move a lot of people, houses, and even cemeteries,” said Robinson. “I remember one being down below Trimble, to the west of Bowman’s Chapel.” (According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama “It is unclear from historical records just how many families were displaced by the dam project. In addition to buying out residents, Alabama Power also paid to have 78 graves relocated from four cemeteries that were in the dam’s flood zone).
On Dec. 9, 1961, the lake continued to rise as the Robinsons left home about 11 p.m. Sue was in labor. “It was raining so hard we could barely see,” she remembered. “When we got to the hospital, people were talking about the lake, but mostly about the rain.”
“They knew it was going to rain, but no one expected this much,” she explained.
Dr. Frank Stitt, Sr. delivered to the Robinsons a beautiful little girl, Susan Elizabeth, weighing eight pounds and 12 ounces. With a head full of dark hair and big brown eyes, she was, of course, the prettiest baby in the nursery.
Outside her window, the rain continued to pour down. That week and the next it rained. Because of that, the lake filled in a lot more quickly than anyone had expected.
Dennis Richard, who was a child at the time, had watched the dam go up. “They built a tunnel to divert the water during construction. It was said to be the largest earth-built dam east of the Mississippi River.”
He recalls that the projection for the lake to fill in was five years. “With all of the rain, it took only eleven months,” said Richard.
(According to Channel 19 Chief Meteorologist Jason Simpson, “Records show that there was approximately 4 to 8 inches of rain from the 9th to the 12th of December, 1961. December, January, February, and March accounted for about 30 to 36 inches of rain in North Alabama. That’s about 50 percent more than you would usually get in that period. Since it occurred in the winter months when evaporation is low, that lake would have filled up much faster than in a year with ‘normal’ rainfall,” explained Simpson)
“It rained that whole winter,” said Robinson, thinking back. “Not long afterward, a big, terrible snow fell.” (Simpson’s records show that on January 9-10, there was a major arctic outbreak and a heavy snowfall. Birmingham recorded a high of 16ºF on Jan. 10, 1962 after a morning low of 3ºF. The low on the next morning was 1º F and there was about 4 inches of snow on the ground. Huntsville recorded a high of 11º on Jan. 10, 1962 after a morning low of 0ºF. The low on the next morning was -2ºF and there was about 5 inches of snow on the ground in the Huntsville area. Decatur had 6.50 inches of snow with highs in the 10s and lows around zero).
Lorene Bailey, who had lived in that area most of her life up until then, recalls getting out of her car and taking a long last look at the land, knowing that she would never see it above water again. Her father died just before settling up with Alabama Power. “Our largest field would be under water,” she recalled.
Later, her brother wrote to her in Orlando, “Be prepared for the mountains to be a little lower when you get home,” he cautioned.
“People who were in the flood stage knew that this had to be done because of the terrible droughts we’d experienced,” explained Bailey. “Most felt that they were bettering themselves.”
Bailey was baptized near the old covered bridge, at the age of 18. Her mother, Amy Speegle (1883-1960) was born in what used to be called “Speegle Territory.” Now people know that place as Goat Island.
Some families who had always lived just across a hollow from one another were cut off by the lake now. The previous spring there had been no lake, now there was one encompassing 21,200 acres with 500 miles of shorelines in three counties.
Many local legends and true stories have been told about the lake in the ensuing years. According to Susan Robinson Eller, there is an old railroad bed running under the surface. “It runs near the store at Trimble, out into the water,” she pointed out. “There never were trains running on it, they just built it and then the lake claimed it.”
Richard recalls hearing that the Queen of Austria sent people here to mine the coal in the area. “The story goes that the railroad track was built for the coal mine,” he explained.
Eller can recall swimming in Smith Lake as a child. “They would warn us that the water would get shallow, then deep again,” she said. “That’s where the railroad bed was.”
Like Bailey, Sue Robinson was baptized near the old covered bridge in 1952. Later, Susan and her friends were baptized there after the lake filled.
One story was reported of a man who went out for bread and milk or cigarettes back when the lake was forming. He didn’t return and his family never knew why.
During the 2007 drought, his car was found when the water receded more than normal. His wallet, preserved by the cold water, revealed who he was.
“They say that was a 100-year drought,” said Eller, who is now one of the coordinators of the Duck River Project. “The city was within 60 days of running out of water.”
Other mysteries surrounding the lake were never solved. People have drowned, their bodies never recovered.
Lewis Smith Lake has been good for the communities it boarders. Property values along it’s shores have increased dramatically over the years. Richard recalls that his family paid $1,500 for a 100x250-foot lot near Trimble following the formation of the lake. According to local, Coldwell Banker Realty agent, Jeff Hill, “Lots at Smith Lake now range anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000.”
Under the deepest parts of the lake there are said to be homesteads, barns and fences, left intact below hundreds of feet of water on which people ski, swim and take leisurely boat rides. What a ghostly sight that must be…
More on the lake
Lewis Smith Lake is 35 miles long and has 500 miles of shoreline. The maximum depth at the dam is 264 feet. Since the 1980s, residential and commercial development resulting from the lake’s beauty and its recreational attractions has increased dramatically. The reservoir’s location near the cities of Birmingham and Huntsville make the lake popular among second-home buyers. The lake is well-known for its deep, clear water and for its good sport fishing. In recent years, it has served as the site of several major professional bass fishing tournaments. Largemouth, striped, white and spotted bass; black and white crappie; bluegill, longear and redear sunfish; flathead and channel catfish may be found in the lake. Public-use areas, including boat launch facilities, are located at numerous sites around the reservoir. The lake and surrounding lands, including the adjoining William Bankhead National Forest and Sipsey Wilderness Area, also provide habitat for an abundance of other wildlife and threatened or endangered species, including the bald eagle.
Construction of Smith Dam began Nov. 25, 1957. The $29 million project was formally dedicated on May 23, 1961, and named for Alabama Power Company president Lewis M. Smith, who had been closely involved in its planning and design. The earth- and rock-filled dam is 2,200 feet long and 300 feet tall, one of the largest dams of its type in the eastern United States. The dam’s base is a quarter-mile wide. A high water emergency spillway was built on the west bank to accommodate heavy floods that were predicted to occur once every 50 years, but as of 2008, water in the lake has never risen high enough to flow into the spillway. (Encyclopedia of Alabama).