This story was originally published in the August 2017 issue of Wonderful West Virginia.
The rocky spine of Seneca Rocks. The Glade Creek Grist Mill at Babcock State Park. The gleaming Capitol dome set against a kelly green mountainside. The New River Gorge Bridge, as seen from the rocky outcrop at the end of the Long Point Trail.
No pictures are necessary to conjure these images in the mind of a well-traveled West Virginian, and for good reason. They’re gorgeous. Unforgettable.
They are also inescapable, emblazoned on countless coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, and mousepads.
It’s only natural to crave a view of our scenic state that hasn’t already been photographed to death. So, imagine a valley where a river once ran, with rock formations as big as houses and rock faces stretching to 50 and 100 feet, populated by animal life few people have seen in its natural habitat.
This place exists, and anyone can visit. You just have to find someone who will take you beneath the surface of Summersville Lake.
Diving the Dam
Danny Martin has been diving the lake since 1996, when he agreed to trade work on some jet skis for scuba certification classes. “I said, ‘What the heck, I’ll try it. If I like it, great. If I don’t, they’ll just have to pay me.’ I loved it.” He kept going back for training until he was certified to teach others how to dive. “I enjoyed it so much, I wanted other people to have the same experience,” he says.
Now, with more than two decades of diving under his weight belt, Martin knows the lake as well as anyone and can show his students all the most
interesting spots. Long Point is probably the most popular destination. Once the dive boat moors at this often-photographed peninsula, students have
the choice of heading off in one direction to explore cliffs, swimming another way to check out huge rock formations, or kicking their way through one of the multiple swim-throughs that run beneath Long Point.
Another popular diving spot is Bubble’s Cave. It’s not actually a cave, but an undercut in the rock that created an air bubble. Divers can swim up, fill the dome with fresh air from their regulators, and surface inside the bubble for a quick chat. Martin also takes divers to Waterfall Cove, where the bottom of the lake slopes off from the shore. It’s not uncommon to find a wristwatch lost by one of the scofflaws who risk a $5,000 fine to jump from the cliffs above.
But Martin’s favorite place to dive is the face of Summersville Dam itself. It’s not too scenic—”what you see above water is pretty much what you see below water,” he says—but it’s a great place to come nose-to-nose with a catfish or bass. “You just feel so free. It’s a whole different world.”
“A Good Deal of Dynamite”
The magic of Summersville Lake lies in its history. Before the reservoir was West Virginia’s largest body of standing water, it was a tangle of hollows hemmed by ancient rock faces.
When Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1938 as part of a raft of bills meant to loosen the grip of the Great Depression, the legislation included $48.5 million for the construction of the dam on the Gauley River in Nicholas County.
Construction would not begin for more than two decades as land agents bought up property for the project, including the entire communities of Gad and Sparks. Workers finally broke ground in February 1960. The dam took six years to complete.
In September 1966, President and First Lady Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson came to Summersville for the dedication. “As we look out at this magnificent new dam and reservoir to our backs,” the president said, “I have renewed hope that still other resources—the power of science and
the determination of man—will, along with a little prayer and a good deal of dynamite, empower us to quench the thirst of generations to come.”
Boaters were on the water almost as soon as the lake was filled. The lake became an even more popular hangout with the opening of campgrounds and the beach. But not everyone was content to remain on the surface.
When State Police Sergeant Robert Adams transferred to the Summersville detachment in the early 1970s, it didn’t take him long to break out his scuba gear. “He could not believe what he saw,” says Mark Allen, who later heard Adams recall the experience.
Adams saw that the rock formations jutting above the water also continued deep below, providing a diver with lots of nooks and crannies to explore and aquatic life plenty of places to live. He also found that, because the shores of the lake were surrounded by rock cliffs and not sand or dirt, the wave action near the shores did not muddy the water. The underwater visibility, on good days, stretched to 20 feet and beyond. And because the dam was constantly pulling the coldest water from the bottom of the lake, the lake maintained a comfortable temperature.
The Army Corps of Engineers might have intended to build a flood control dam but, Adams discovered, it inadvertently ended up creating a scuba diver’s playground.
Adams sensed a business opportunity and, while still working as a state trooper, opened “Sarge’s Dive Shop” in a garage on U.S. Route 119. He and his sons began offering classes and outfitting fellow divers.
The Little Bahamas
Allen showed up at Sarge’s in 1979. Then 24 years old, he’d been obsessed with scuba diving since he was in seventh grade. He would rush home from school to catch reruns of Sea Hunt, which starred Lloyd Bridges as a scuba diving, crime fighting former U.S. Navy frogman.
There was nowhere to learn to dive in Allen’s native Moorefield, however, and his parents weren’t crazy about the idea anyway. But by 1979, Allen was teaching high school science at Midland Trail High School, just a 20-minute drive from Summersville. He took diving classes from a guy in Oak Hill named Cooter. On the day he completed his certification, Allen drove straight to Sarge’s to buy a set of diving gear. He kept taking classes until he was a master diver and began teaching classes and working at Sarge’s shop over the summers.
The dive shop eventually moved from the garage to a spot near the lake marina. Allen and his brother Eric bought the place in 1990 when Adams retired. Since then they have welcomed divers from all over the United States, who come to the lake to see why Skin Diver magazine once dubbed Summersville “the Little Bahamas of the East.”
Mike Nadler started going to the lake regularly after he opened Divehards International, his Pittsburgh-based diving instruction company. “It’s a little hike, but well worth my time.”
He says his students appreciate the wealth of hotel, camping, and dining options in the area. But the lake is the main attraction. “The biggest thing for me is, it’s warm and relatively good visibility,” Nadler says. The variety of depths available also make it a great place to safely train beginning divers.
If divers want lots of visibility, it’s best to avoid the lake right after it fills up
to its summer pool level in May. By mid-June things have cleared up a bit, and the conditions persist through August, when the Army Corps of Engineers begins drawing the lake down for Gauley Season.
There’s only one downside. “It’s sort of hard to explain why you don’t start your diving earlier,” he says. Since Summersville Lake is a flood control dam—filled to 300 feet each spring and drawn down to about 230 feet each fall—conditions aren’t right for diving until around mid-June, and scuba diving trips have to stop around the beginning of September.
It’s just part of doing business for Nadler, but he says it sometimes leads to confused calls from customers. “What do you mean they’re filling the lake?”