WESTON, W. Va. – Most people who picture a lake think of a unified body of calm water. Yet, from the sky, Stonewall Jackson Lake resembles a series of lightning bolts striking in different directions than a traditional lake.
What seems like endless creeks, forks, and tributaries give shape to the reservoir. Navigating its waters on a boat requires sharp turns around hidden curves. The high West Virginian hills and staggering mountains envelop the waters in their steep topography.
All kinds of boaters visit the lake: fishermen, kayakers, jet skiers, and motorboat speedsters all share the water. Bird watchers and nature enthusiasts come from across West Virginia to observe a range of wildlife, from osprey swooping in to catch fish to ordinary squirrels, rabbits, or white-tailed deer.
The reservoir’s 26 miles of sprawling waterways flow north. West Fork River is the largest tributary, merging with Skin Creek, Sand Fork, Glady Fork, Wolf Fork, and more to form the reservoir. Their waters converge into a single point, where a 90-foot concrete dam stops their current.
Stonewall Jackson Dam forms the youngest of 16 reservoirs within the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. The district manages them within the watersheds for the Allegheny, Monongahela, and upper Ohio rivers.
“It’s the baby of the district,” said Scott Hannah, the lead park ranger who is more than a decade older than the dam he manages.
The dam’s construction began in 1986 and began operating in 1988. At least half of the other dams in the Pittsburgh District are 70 years or older, making them more than twice the age of Stonewall Jackson. It took 107,000 cubic yards of concrete to build the dam, enough to cover a football field with a concrete block nearly five stories high.
The dam offers flood protection to the communities living along the West Fork River, which flows into the Monongahela River. Since it became operational, Stonewall Jackson has prevented more than an estimated $423 million in flood damages.
The team includes a few park rangers, a maintenance crew, and a resource manager who manages the dam, its waters, and the surrounding federal lands.
“I think our team is one of the smallest, but we pack a pretty good punch,” Hannah said. “We take a lot of pride in maintaining and improving our areas.”
The team won the district’s esteemed “Project Site of the Year” award in 2023 for improving the visitors’ experience. The team built a handicap-accessible overlook area, a fishing deck, a sand digger pit for kids, picnic tables, pavilions, and a sandbag tossing game, among other amenities, for the public’s enjoyment.
“A big theme for us is to do everything we can in-house,” said Jeff Toler, the resource manager at Stonewall Jackson. “We want to complete as many maintenance and improvement projects ourselves rather than contracting them out.”
The maintenance crew recently added a second viewing deck near the dam with a direct line of sight across the water. From the overlook deck, visitors can watch deer and turkey feed on a small field of wheat and clover. Toler’s team planted the feeding area away from any hunting zones.
“Visitors have already come up to us and told us they love it,” Toler said.
The team aims to tie in as much environmental stewardship into the recreation experience as possible. Toler, like his rangers, has a heart for wildlife conservation.
“We want to give back to the wildlife with our reservoir wherever we can,” Toler said.
The team partners with local nonprofits who help raise funds for improvement projects. Toler calls them their “dance partners.” They help provide materials for new structures, and his team of talented maintenance workers put in the labor to create the amenities.
“We strive to make it the best place we can for people to visit,” Toler said. “I’m very proud of this team. They have the work ethic and attitude of, ‘Let’s get it done. Let’s do it.’”
Toler said keeping the projects in-house increases his sense of pride in their work while decreasing the cost to taxpayers who visit.
Toler said Stonewall Jackson had very few amenities for the most of its years, making it challenging to attract people to the dam. Some people would stumble upon it almost by accident without realizing the dam existed, but there was not much to encourage people to spend their day there.
About four years ago, Toler and his team emphasized adding more recreational benefits so families could visit the dam and stay for a picnic, go fishing, or sit down at the new park benches and enjoy the scene of the dam spewing water downstream.
Next, the team plans on adding a pollinator garden to attract bees and butterflies and park benches for people to sit and enjoy while reading a book, Toler said. For the first time since the pandemic, the rangers have also resumed weekly dam tours, which people can register to attend. The goal is to teach visitors, especially children, about the dam’s mission of flood-risk management so more people can appreciate why the dam exists.
“We are trying to offer our public more and draw them in so we can tell our story and give them something to enjoy,” Toler said.
“Headwaters Highlights” is part of a story series to highlight every one of the facilities or teams that make the Pittsburgh District’s mission possible. Pittsburgh District’s 26,000 square miles include portions of western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio, western Maryland, and southwestern New York. It has more than 328 miles of navigable waterways, 23 navigation locks and dams, 16 multi-purpose flood-control reservoirs, 42 local flood-protection projects, and other projects to protect and enhance the nation’s water resources, infrastructure and environment.