The Catawba Lake: Mountain Island

You know, that lake roughly in the middle of the Catawba River chain, between Lake Norman and Lake Wylie.

Long, long ago … like back in our June-July issue, we ran an overview of the Catawba River as it runs down the hill from the Blue Ridge Mountains and McDowell County through the Piedmont of North Carolina and into northern South Carolina. The Catawba is a working river, with impoundments pretty much side-by-each until it reaches the Lake Wylie dam near Rock Hill.


The river gets a bit of free rein until it hits three of the smaller Catawba lakes: Fishing Creek, Great Falls, and Rocky Creek, then runs into Lake Wateree roughly near Camden. There it joins the Wateree River and assumes that name, rambling on without much man-made impediment until it finally reaches Winyah Bay and the Atlantic at Georgetown.


Coming out of the Blue Ridge, the first stop for the Catawba is Lake James, followed in close order by Lake Rhodhiss, Lake Hickory, Lookout Shoals Lake, and Lake Norman. After Norman, there’s Mountain Island, our subject at hand, followed by Lake Wylie et al. Each of these lakes were created as a result of dams built to harness the power of the water to generate electricity for the area, initially for the cotton and textile mills that seemed to be everywhere. But that’s a story for another day.


Mountain Island is the diminutive lake wedged between Lake Norman to the north and Lake Wylie to the south. Beginning at Cowan’s Ford Dam, the lake meanders along the path of the Catawba River and divides Mecklenburg and Gaston counties. Besides the electric power generated by the Mountain Island Hydroelectric Station, the lake provides drinking water for better than one million peeps in Mecklenburg County as well as Mount Holly and Gastonia in Gaston County.

A slow day at the Riverbend Access on Mountain Island Lake. The NC Highway 16 bridge crosses the lake in the background.

The westerly edge of the lake is largely protected by the Mountain Island Educational State Forest from Cowan’s Ford nearly all the way to the Mountain Island Dam. It’s currently one of seven educational state forests maintained by the North Carolina Forest Service. While the land is preserved, the various offerings of the Mountain Island Forest are still being planned and constructed, but the focus of the forest is to exhibit forestry management best practices related to water quality.


At the top of the lake, just below the Cowan’s Ford Dam and on the eastern side of the lake, is the 850-acre Cowan’s Ford Wildlife Refuge. The refuge occupies a peninsula created by the flow of the Catawba River that is a part of Mountain Island Lake. There is limited public access, except for a parking area and observation deck at the end of Neck Road. The refuge is being maintained as a nature preserve by Mecklenburg County as a part of their water-quality management program.


Following the meander of the river and the lake, and still on the Mecklenburg side, below the wildlife refuge is Rural Hill Park and Recreation Area. Rural Hill is what remains of one of the largest plantations in Mecklenburg County, begun with the purchase in 1761 of 250 acres by John Davidson. The Davidson family owned the land which grew to as much as 5,000 acres and included a large grist mill, cotton gin, and sawmill, until 1992 when the remaining property was sold to Mecklenburg County.

Today, the site operates as an event center, educational resource, working farm, and recreational getaway with 265 acres of sights, sounds, and hiking trails. It’s very much open to the public and can be accessed off the same Neck Road that’ll take you to the Cowan’s Ford Wildlife Refuge.


But wait, there’s more! Continuing down the Catawba and the lake, and again on the Mecklenburg County side of the lake, is Latta Plantation Nature Preserve, a 1,460-acrea nature preserve operated by Mecklenburg County Park & Recreation. The Latta Plantation was a cotton plantation dating from about 1800. The original plantation house, along with eleven out-buildings, is open to the public. The larger preserve is a source for educational programs and features a nature center with live, native animals, an outdoor amphitheater, and gift shop.


There are also two launch areas for paddlers, as well as a fishing dock, and 16 miles of horseback and hiking trails. Plus, the preserve is dog-friendly, if the friendly dog is leashed.


The Carolina Raptor Center is also located on the preserve. Begun in 1975 at UNC-Charlotte with a mission to rehabilitate injured and orphaned raptors, the center moved to the Latta preserve nine years later.


The center has expanded its mission to include environmental and science education and today serves about 27,000 students per year. It sports a three-quarter-mile raptor trail and has an environmental education center that sees about 35,000 visitors annually. The Raptor Center’s medical center treats between 900 and 1,000 bird per year, releasing almost 70% back into the wild.

by Mike Aldridge

But that’s all stuff on the water’s edge. We were talking about the lake. You know, Mountain Island Lake. It’s a giant squiggly thing that has a significant horseshoe bend near its middle, roughly at Latta Plantation on the east, and the appropriately named Horseshoe Bend area to the west. The Horseshoe Bend peninsula contains a good bit of residential development and features a great sandbar in a large cove before yet another bend that’ll carry you under NC Highway 16.


Beyond the bridge, just upstream from the Mountain Island Dam is the actual Mountain Island. The first cotton mill in Gaston County was built on the island in 1848, taking advantage of the shoals around the island for use as a mill race. A village of brick homes sprung up around the mill, but all that was wiped away in the 1916 flood, caused by a hurricane, which devastated the Catawba River region. Today the island is visited by boaters and used as an anchor point for recreation, picnicking, and camping.


Construction of the Mountain Island Dam began in 1920 and was completed in 1923. It’s a four-unit hydroelectric station that generates 60 megawatts of electricity and continues to operate today. The lake resulting from the dam’s construction has about 61 miles of shoreline with a full-pond surface area of about 3,281 acres.


There are no marinas on Mountain Island Lake, and only two boat access ramps, one at Riverbend just off the afore mentioned Highway 16 in Gaston County, the other is the Neck Road Access in Mecklenburg County off, you guessed it, Neck Road.


Along the Catawba River, Mountain Island Lake is unique in the volume and combination of educational, environmental, and recreational opportunities it offers. So, besides watersports, there are days and days of things to see and do. What are you waiting for? 



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