Claytor Lake: what’s in a name?

Posted by | June 27, 2014

It probably should have been named William Christian Lake, considering the multi-generational efforts of the Pulaski County, VA community to preserve that man’s legacy.

Instead, both the dam across the New River and the reservoir it creates were named for Graham Claytor, who just happened to be a senior executive of American Gas and Electric Company, the utility that built the dam in 1937-39. The Visitor Center at Claytor Lake State Park has an unremarkable small plaque about Claytor’s life in a tightly packed case surrounded by other plaques. It’s a facsimile of a typed page that reads like a resume. There are no portraits of Claytor in the public area of the Visitor Center, and the chief park ranger didn’t mention anything about his life to a tour group I joined up with last week.

Original caption reads: “In September 1938 this Appalachian Power dam on the New River above Radford was about a year from completion. The water it impounded became Claytor Lake. Courtesy Claytor Lake State Park/ Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

Original caption reads: “In September 1938 this Appalachian Power dam on the New River above Radford was about a year from completion. The water it impounded became Claytor Lake.” Courtesy Claytor Lake State Park/ Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation

William Christian, by contrast, captured the attention of the Count Pulaski Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution at exactly the time American Gas and Electric Company began to build the dam whose reservoir would engulf Dunkard’s Bottom, the colonial era town where Christian lived for 15 years.

In 1937, the DAR contacted the Cloyd family, owners since 1808 of William Christian’s property at Dunkard’s Bottom. Before American Gas and Electric flooded the valley, the DAR dismantled the chimney rock of the house Colonel Christian built in 1771 at “the first white settlement west of New River, made in 1745 by Dunkers”, and reassembled it as a memorial to Christian, on County 611 outside of Dublin, VA.

In 1989 the Pulaski County Sesquicentennial Commission, the Pulaski County Chapter of the New River Historical Society, and the Virginia Division of State Parks hired stone artisan Samuel Lucas to move the monument and its accompanying bronze plaque to their present site in Claytor Lake State Park, prominently displayed along the road leading to the administrative offices. “This chimney,” adds a new plaque, “formerly of the home of William Christian, brother-in-law of Patrick Henry and frontier militia commander, was built about 1772 a mile downstream at a site now submerged by Claytor Lake.”

Composite portrait of Colonel William Christian by Manx artist Victor Kneale in conjunction with, in 1976, Isle of Man issuance of a commemorative stamp honoring Col. Christian; from study of early portraits of presumed Isle of Man ancestors. Now hanging in Botetourt County (VA) Historical Museum.

Composite portrait of Colonel William Christian by Manx artist Victor Kneale in conjunction with, in 1976, Isle of Man issuance of a commemorative stamp honoring Col. Christian; from study of early portraits of presumed Isle of Man ancestors. Now hanging in Botetourt County (VA) Historical Museum. Courtesy Findagrave.com

Claytor Lake State Park displays a third plaque honoring Colonel Christian in this outdoor enclave. Though it’s undated and there’s no organization taking credit for it, it appears to be about the same age & style as the 1937 DAR plaque. This plaque reads: “Christiansburg, VA was named for this Revolutionary War leader and Virginia Patriot. Chairman of the Fincastle Resolution Committee and brother-in-law of Patrick Henry.” Not remembering what the Fincastle Resolution was? Stay with me, dear reader, we’re rounding that bend in a moment!

In 2005, Appalachian Power Company, the modern day successor to American Gas and Electric Company, submitted a periodic application to renew its license to operate the Claytor Hydroelectric Project to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission/Office of Energy Projects/Division of Hydropower Licensing.

“During the pre-filing consultation process,” notes a 2010 FERC progress report, “‘scoping meetings’ were held to determine what issues should be addressed in the Environmental Assessment. Scoping meetings were held in Dublin and Pulaski, Virginia on April 5 and 6, 2006, respectively, to request comments on the project.”

The Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer for Pulaski County, Friends of the New River, the New River Land Trust, and several other groups who were consulted, recommended that the Dunkard’s Bottom site be included in the National Register of Historic Places.

And they wanted one more thing.

Sketch of William Christian home, with ruins of a Dunkard home in foreground. From "Dunkard’s Bottom: Memories On The Virginia Landscape..."

Sketch of William Christian home, with ruins of a Dunkard home in foreground. From “Dunkard’s Bottom: Memories On The Virginia Landscape…”

Appalachian Power hired two architectural historians, Heather C. Jones, M.A. of Columbia, SC, and Dr. Bruce Harvey of Syracuse, NY to prepare a historical narrative of the site. DUNKARD’S BOTTOM: MEMORIES ON THE VIRGINIA LANDSCAPE, 1745 TO 1940 —HISTORICAL INVESTIGATIONS FOR SITE 44PU164 AT THE CLAYTOR HYDROELECTRIC PROJECT —PULASKI COUNTY, VIRGINIA —FERC PROJECT NO. 739 released in July 2012.

Representing the curt passive voice of bureaucrats who’ve been pushed to spend money when they didn’t wish to, the two announce in their introduction: “As part of Appalachian Power Company’s application for a new license to operate the Claytor Hydroelectric Project near Pulaski, Virginia (FERC No. 739), cultural resource studies of the dam and surrounding area were completed…Site 44PU164 was determined eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. Because the site is being adversely affected by the operations of the Claytor Hydroelectric Project, this booklet is being produced to mitigate those adverse effects. The booklet is a compilation of historical research on the inhabitants of the area, from the 1740s through the 1930s, and is intended to make this information readily available to the public.”

Christian chimney shown in modern day photo at its Claytor Lake State Park site. Courtesy Bernard Fisher/hmdb.org

Christian chimney shown in modern day photo at Claytor Lake State Park site. Courtesy Bernard Fisher/hmdb.org

Their full 35 page report is actually well sourced and thoughtfully written for the most part. Alas, poor Graham Claytor is named nowhere in it. And the Fincastle Resolution mentioned earlier? Here’s an excerpt from the ‘Memories’ booklet that speaks to that:

As the colonial relationship with England disintegrated, in 1775 and 1776, William Christian supported the revolutionary policies that his brother-in-law, Patrick Henry, advocated. In January 1775, Christian was one of 15 men selected by the freeholders of Fincastle County, which had been created in 1772 from Botetourt County, to represent the county‘s interests.

This committee, of which Christian was elected chairman, drafted a written address to Virginia‘s delegates to the Continental Congress, which was adopted on January 20, 1775, and came to be known as the Fincastle Resolutions. Many of the signers of these resolutions, including Christian, had at least distant family ties to Patrick Henry and his influence on the document is evident.

Although not calling specifically for war, the Fincastle Resolutions clearly stated that the men ―by no means desire[d] to shake off our duty or allegiance to our lawful sovereign…but if no pacifick [sic] measures shall be proposed or adopted by Britain, and our enemies will attempt to dragoon us out of these inestimable privileges which we are entitled to…we are deliberately and resolutely determined never to surrender them to any power upon this earth, but at the expense of our lives ‖ (The Fincastle Resolutions, in Glanville 2010:102–103).

Christian‘s political activities continued in 1776, when he was part of the Convention that adopted the Constitution of Virginia and elected Patrick Henry as the first governor of the new Commonwealth.

 

More personal experiences from Claytor Lake State Park here.

Sources: NOTICE OF AVAILABILITY OF ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT
Appalachian Power Company, Project No. 739-022-VA: online at claytorhydro.com/documents/ClaytorDraftEA.doc
DUNKARD’S BOTTOM: MEMORIES ON THE VIRGINIA LANDSCAPE, 1745 TO 1940

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