Draining the Lake
Residents could cross the dry Lake Mattamuskeet bed on dirt roads, circa 1920.
First Attempts to Drain the Lake
The efforts of humankind have altered the lake from its natural state. Originally the lake was more than twice its present size. On the south side, the lake extended beyond present-day highway 264. Efforts to drain the lake to reclaim its rich bed for farming and provide drainage relief to adjacent wetlands date back to 1773. From 1825,
the State Literary Board of North Carolina (forerunner of the State Board
of Education) held title for swamp lands owned by the State of North Carolina,
including Lake Mattamuskeet. In the 1830s, the State appropriated $8,000
to enlarge an existing ditch from the lake to Wysocking Bay in an attempt
to drain the lake by gravity. They bought right-of-ways and contracted
for slave labor to dig a canal called the Great Ditch. When opened, a river
of water flowed from the lake, reducing its size from 120,000 to 55,000
acres. This canal is now known as Lake Landing Canal. Hyde landowners
dug other canals from the lake to the sound during the 19th century. By
1910, the lake was just under 50,000 acres. The remaining lake was below
sea level, preventing further gravity drainage.
The Draining and Planting of Lake Mattamuskeet
From 1825-1911, the State Literary Board
(State Board of Education) owned Lake Mattamuskeet. In 1909, the North
Carolina General Assembly created the Mattamuskeet Drainage District and
authorized the State Board of Education to join with landowners of Hyde
County to drain 100,000 acres of wetlands, including 50,000-acre Lake Mattamuskeet.
The legislation dictated that a three-man Board of Drainage Commissioners
would manage the affairs of the Drainage District. Soil experts rated the
lakebed among the richest soil in the world, so the State expected to sell
the reclaimed land for a high price and use the money for public education.
Before any construction began on the drainage
system, a group of private investors made an offer to buy the lake and
assume the State's responsibility in the new Drainage District. The State
Board of Education accepted the offer and sold the lake to the Southern
Land Reclamation Company. This private stock company envisioned draining
the lake and selling the reclaimed land as family farms, residential and
commercial lots. They patterned the drainage system after the successful
1852 drainage of Haarlem Lake in Holland.
In 1915, the private lakebed owners changed
their corporate name to New Holland Farms, Inc. and incorporated all of
their land as New Holland Township. The Mattamuskeet project became known
as the "New Holland Project." Under a contract with the Drainage District,
A. V. Will & Sons of Pittsville, Illinois came to Hyde County and dredged
130 miles of canals. The dredging cost $266,965, and included a seven-mile
canal from the Pamlico Sound to the lake called "Outfall Canal." They used
floating steam-powered dipper dredges to excavate the canals.
Under a $205,000 contract with the Drainage
District, Morris Machine Works of Baldwinsville, New York, built the world's
largest pumping facility to pump the fresh water from the lake into Pamlico
Sound. Pumping began for the first time in May 1916. Powered by four German-designed
Lentz coal-fired steam engines, the eight centrifugal pumps could move
1,200,000 gallons of water per minute. However, design problems in the
pumps as well as a coal embargo during World War I forced the Drainage
Commissioners to shut down the pumps in 1917, permitting the lake to refill.
Plagued by these costly delays in the land
reclamation project, New Holland Farms sold their lake property to an Ohio
company in 1918. This group, called the North Carolina Farms Company, persuaded
the Drainage Commissioners to restart the pumps so they could continue
the development plans of the first company. They built the proposed railroad
and a number of buildings in the town of New Holland but ran out of money
in 1923 and went into receivership.
In 1925, August Heckscher, a wealthy industrialist
from New York City, bought the bankrupt assets of North Carolina Farms
Company for $200,000 and formed a third company called the New Holland
Corporation. The purchase price of $200,000 included the lake property,
the railroad, the New Holland Inn, and all other improvements. It did not
include the pumping plant or drainage canals outside the lakebed, as these
belonged to the Drainage District.
Heckscher abandoned the original plan and
set about to create a huge commercial farm in the lakebed. Alongside the
private lake owners, the Drainage Commissioners had the pumping system
overhauled, the canals cleaned out, and drained the lake for the third
time. New Holland Corporation operated in Hyde County for seven years,
and at the peak farmed over 12,000 acres of soybeans, corn, wheat, and
flax in the lakebed. In 1932, the lake owners shut down their farming operations.
They had decided to sell the lake property.
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