History & Geography

Why isn’t Charlotte built on the water?

The I-77 bridge (foreground) over the Catawba River, south of Charlotte. Photo: Nancy Pierce

After visiting a city with a waterfront, maybe stopping for a drink and a bite to eat along whichever river or ocean it’s built along, I’m usually left with one overriding thought: “Wow, Charlotte could really use some of this.”

That notion was reinforced recently when I told a friend of mine who lives in Washington, D.C., that he should visit the U.S. National Whitewater Center the next time he’s in Charlotte. 

“Wait, Charlotte is near water?” he texted back - this from a person who’s been here multiple times, and at least knows enough not to confuse us with Charleston and Charlottesville.

Lake Norman's waterfront, which is largely privately owned with limited public access. Photo: Nancy Pierce. 

Water plays a prominent role in the design and history of most cities, whether it be a river, bay or ocean. And Charlotte’s skyline and downtown sit tantalizingly close-but-yet-so-far from a major river and lake system. So, the question looms: Why isn’t Charlotte built on the water? 

It’s a straightforward question I realized I had never actually asked, despite a decade living in Charlotte. So, I called up Tom Hanchett, longtime community chronicler and now the first historian-in-residence at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library.

As you might suspect, the answer goes back to the city’s early days, when “Charlotte Town” was first settled by British colonists. They built their village at an intersection on the “Great Trading Path,” Hanchett said, a route that had been used by the native people and a crossroads of which would later become Trade and Tryon Street. 

Why not put the new settlement on the river? Well, the river was miles from the trading path, and - worse by far - not a navigable passage for trading craft. 

“The function of rivers back in the day before railroads, before interstate highways, was as transportation,” said Hanchett. “The Catawba River is rocky, and there was not much point in building there if you could build somewhere better...And we had a better transportation route.”

Charlotte is above the “fall line,” or the geographic zone where the Piedmont meets the Atlantic coastal plain. Many cities grew on the fall line, where the navigable portions of rivers end, including Washington, D.C., Richmond, Va. and Augusta, Ga. 

Mecklenburg County’s plentiful streams supplied sufficient water for drinking, washing, cooking and other needs. At the time, a waterfront wasn’t seen as an economic development tool in its own right. 

“We now see rivers completely differently,” Hanchett said. “We now see them as leisure amenities.”

But that didn’t mean the Catawba wouldn’t play a key role to play in the region’s future.

“The river was of negligible importance - until James Buchanan Duke figured out how to dam it up,” said Hanchett. When the company that would eventually become Duke Energy began building dams to supply textile mills with hydroelectric power in the early 1900s, it kicked off a major economic boom. And as Duke grew, so did the dams and lakes, until the biggest, at Cowans Ford, established Lake Norman in the early 1960s. 

Fishing for shad on the Catawba. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The dams created huge bodies of water near Charlotte that were now available for recreation and lakefront homebuilding, including Lake Norman, Lake Wylie and Mountain Island Lake. Duke owned much of the waterfront, and its subsidiary Crescent Resources (since spun off, and now Crescent Communities) developed much of that land into luxury subdivisions like The Sanctuary at Lake Wylie. Most of the waterfront near Charlotte has thus remained in private hands with limited public access points, with the exception of a few areas such as Lake Norman State Park. 

Another reason Charlotte can feel disconnected from the water is the way the city’s airport grew and effectively blocked a lot of development from moving west. The least developed part of the county now is the stretch of land between Charlotte Douglas International Airport and the river, most of which is still forested or farmland and looks like it’s from another decade (There were goats wandering one of the roads the last time I drove through there). Most of the land still doesn’t have sewer lines, another major roadblock to development.

That will change in the coming years as Crescent and Lincoln Harris start to build the River District. Planned on 1,400 acres stretching from the airport to the river, the River District is expected to accommodate 8 million square feet of office space (about double Ballantyne Corporate Park’s current footprint), 2,300 houses, 2,350 apartments, 200 assisted living units, 500,000 square feet of shops and restaurants, 550 acres of open space and 1,000 hotel rooms. 

Most of that won’t be on the water itself (though there will be a riverfront park with boat access). But the River District will still be the closest large development to the river, within Charlotte city limits. Will it be enough to make people start thinking of Charlotte as a city with a waterfront? It’s too soon to say. But if the past is any guide, the quirks of geography and the attitude with which we regard our natural resources will continue to play a big role in the kind of place we build.