HOLLY SPRINGS - A private sanctuary washed away when the dam on Bass Lake broke in 1996.
As rain flooded down, Hurricane Fran's winds buffeted the trees clinging to the earthen ridge, then ripped them from the ground, weakening the once-solid barrier of soil and rock. Water gushed through the break, sweeping away the schools of fish that Harry Cornell had tended for decades.
"Boom! Out it went into Sunset Lake, and it was a big mudhole the next day," recalled Sabrina Thompson, a Holly Springs park manager. The long-lived man-made lake - once a mill pond, then a conservationist's playground - became a 110-acre creek bed, the late Cornell's beloved bass flapping across its ruined expanse.
The old man would have hated to see it, but he had died years before his paradise collapsed. The old boat shed rusted at the edge of nothing as field grass sprouted from the mud. No more private fishing club, no more jaunts on the water.
Now the last trace of Cornell's presence on the land, his cinderblock ranch house, is scheduled for demolition. Yet just beyond the doomed home's porch is a sight few once expected: acres of water, blue and green, full of fish.
A decade after the land lay low and muddy, a public park has sprung up at the shores of the restored lake, fulfilling the conservationist's dream.Private clubHarry Cornell landed at the local watering hole in 1952, just after moving from Pennsylvania to join the state Wildlife Resources Commission's fisheries division. The former World War II quartermaster quickly turned the communal waters into a more private, regulated refuge.
Cornell charged locals about $100 a year to fish the lake, said his stepdaughter Melissa Juhan. He made early-morning patrols, often dressed in a neat brown suit, always accompanied by a dog, always on the lookout for unwanted anglers.
"It was like we didn't even know what it looked like - you couldn't go up in there because it was a private lake," said Darrell Horton, who lived next door. "There was a sign up, told you the name of the fishing club. You had to go see that guy up on the hill - he had a little fish on his mailbox, and that's all I could tell you."
Black people also were barred from the lake, though Juhan is unsure why, noting her parents never espoused racism. Cornell's goal was not to keep people out but to protect the waters according to his environmentalist ideology, she said.
As chief of inland fisheries in a time when environmentalism was a nascent ideology, Cornell's task was to balance industrial and recreational demands with delicate and misunderstood ecosystems. Bass Lake was a place he could manage precisely to his standards. The fishing fees paid his tax bills, and the regulation allowed him to manage fish populations and the lake's biology.
"It was a lifelong thing with him, to preserve the environment," said Shirley Hayes, who interviewed Cornell in the 1970s for a local newspaper. "And in his personal little part of the world, he did."Protecting lake
When it breached in 1996, the lake's earthen barrier had been waiting a long time to unshoulder its load. Some say the break revealed three layers of supports and structures within the dam, caked on across a century or more.
Juhan puts Bass Lake's origin before the Civil War, though one magazine article cites a much later date. Across the years, the water was called Utley Pond, Norris' Pond and Mills Pond. It once was a rice paddy, according to Juhan's research, and had by the late 1800s become an industrial outpost with a grist mill.
Industry came to the lake with the "steaming power that opened up the lower section of Southern Wake," according to a Johnson family history book, which adds that the area once was called the "dark corner of Wake."
"The problem is, when I get into these books, I get so absorbed," said Sandra Simpson as she thumbed through her tidy box of photos, aging family tomes and newspaper clippings. She's the area's de facto historian and advocate, perched in a stately, rustic house above the water - the last residence, in fact, with a genuine stretch of waterfront.
Simpson's wood-floored home, greatly expanded over the years, was one of just two that Cornell allowed near the lake. Expanding suburbs, he saw, were a greater threat to the lake than errant fishers, and by the 1980s he had decided to create a bulwark.
"I can't imagine Bass Lake ringed with development," Cornell told Jim Dean, a friend and colleague, according to a 1994 article. He worried that runoff from construction and homes would ruin his waters. So a few years before his death in 1988, Cornell and The Nature Conservancy signed a legal document forbidding residential construction on his property around the lake.
The easement worked: little changed for decades after Cornell's death. Several subdivisions come to the property's edge, but none touch the lake's shores. Cornell had long talks too with the developers of those that came closest, trying to wrangle more eco-friendly designs.
"If he had not put a conservation easement on it, I'm sure that it would be a subdivision right here," said Thompson, the lake's current manager. But nature and age did slowly take hold, creeping in after Cornell's passing.Coming full circle
Three years after the water rushed from Bass Lake, the town of Holly Springs began to rehabilitate Cornell's preserve. The town bought much of his land from his heirs and agreed to create a nature park on the site. With significant federal funding, Holly Springs began to turn the marsh back into a lake.
Today that plan is nearing completion. The town has acquired all of Cornell's former estate, ringed it with trails, and added a boathouse and a window-lined retreat center. A trail called Harry's Walk runs along the best-preserved stretch of woods on the shoreline, and his cinderblock house still stands on a hill above the lake. On many mornings, mist rolls in across the new dam as early-risers fish from the shore.
The town says it will preserve elements of the old house, including its wood floors and ceiling, but it has found the cost of renovation to be too great because of the threat of lead and asbestos in the house.
Thompson wants to see the building stay, but Juhan said the town has fulfilled Cornell's plan.
"I did think I'd go watch them tear the house down, but I don't think I need to do that," she said, then paused. "It was a great place to grow up."