“We lived with floods, pretty much every year.”
That was the reality for Saegertown Borough Manager Charles Lawrence and many others living in the wake of the frequently flooding French Creek before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District built Woodcock Creek Lake Dam.
He recalls a 1959 flood covering the valley and buckling his family’s basement floors. Lawrence and his brothers were sent to their aunt’s house on higher ground while their parents stayed back to keep water out of the basement.
“They tried to jack up the furnace and stuff like that,” said Lawrence. “In the town, firemen had to rescue people out of their houses.”
But in 1973, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District finished a two-year project to construct Woodcock Creek Dam. The dam mitigates flooding along the French Creek, saving communities like Saegertown and Meadville from catastrophic flooding year after year.
“I saw the value of the dam then,” said Lawrence. “I can honestly say that since 1973, there hasn’t been flooding in Saegertown.”
Community leaders and Army Corps employees gathered on a summer morning, July 14, to celebrate Woodcock Creek Dam’s 50th anniversary. Lawrence and the Meadville Mayor, Jaime Kinder, joined the corps to observe the dam’s golden jubilee.
In addition to recognizing the more than $38 million in flood damages prevented by the dam since its construction, the event celebrated other ways the project has benefited the community.
“When I was growing up, my mother took us camping at Woodcock every year on Memorial Day,” said Kinder. “We couldn’t afford to go on any other vacations, and she grew up camping, so it has turned into a family tradition. Even as she got older and it was harder for her to camp, she still made sure to get all 19 of her grandkids out there.”
“You can’t put a price tag on memories,” said Kinder.
It was not just Kinder’s family who took advantage of the lake’s free camping: she recalls having to get to the lake early, sometimes spending the night in her mother’s car to ensure they could get a camping spot.
“There was a line out the gate and up the street,” Kinder said.
While the dam created a local hotspot for people looking for affordable recreation, it also provided other benefits for the community. Even before its construction was complete, the dam helped protect the community from flooding caused by Hurricane Agnes in 1972.
According to Col. Czekanski’s speech, when Hurricane Agnes made its way up the east coast, the rainfall from it was forecasted to cause the half-finished Woodcock Dam to overtop. The district’s engineers, water management team, Woodcock staff, and other employees coordinated the construction of a four-foot temporary earthen dike atop the dam.
Over the course of three days, more than 11 inches of rain fell. The temporary earthen dike prevented damage to the dam and reduced flood damage to Meadville. He said, ‘let us try’ attitude makes Pittsburgh District employees among the best and makes me proud to be their commander.”
After the speeches, Lawrence, Kinder, Czekanski, the lake’s resource manager and the regional manager placed items in a time capsule meant to stay sealed until the dam’s 100th anniversary in 2073. They put mementos and other contemporary souvenirs in the time capsule, such as a daily newspaper, letters to the lake’s future project staff, a Woodcock Creek Valley arrowhead, and a commander’s coin.
While the time capsule symbolically looks forward to the dam’s 100th celebration, project staff looks for ways they can serve and benefit the public through the lake and dam now.
“We want to bring the project to its fullest potential,” said Ryan Hill, the supervisory natural resources manager at Woodcock Creek Lake. “We’re installing concrete cornhole boards, repaving parts of the project, and installing interpretive signage.”
Of the projects in the works, Hill said he is most excited about restoring the Bossard Nature Center to its former glory.
“Personally, this is one of my big goals…it was built in the ‘80s and boasted cutting-edge technology,” Hill said. “Nearly 40 years later, we are breathing new life into it by installing interpretative signs in and around the building, adding new furniture, and installing Wi-Fi. We’re excited to open it back up once we finish revitalizing it.”
The work to improve the lake and visitors’ experience will progress well into the future, but Hill said he appreciates the reward of his job here and now.
“Sometimes we’re stuck behind a computer screen and deal with the day-to-day nuances, but when you get to interact with the public and see the fruits of your efforts being enjoyed by others, that’s really what you take home,” Hill said. “At the end of the day, that’s how you know you’re doing a good job.”