Water Fences and Check Dams

Caraway Creek Dam

Caraway Creek Dam

Warren Dixon provided the photo above, which is of a dam on Caraway Creek he was called on to investigate by the property owner.

He was interested by the fact that it is virtually identical to another dam he’d recently seen on nearby Taylor’s Creek, and by the facts that, though both dams are intact, neither impounds a pond or lake due to the carefully-designed and engineered drain in the center of the stream bed, and that neither dam has an associated foundations of structures or a mill.

I told him they looked like what old timers used to describe to me as “water fences.”

A “Water Fence” as I understood the term is a stone structure that was built across a waterway to decrease the speed of stream flow and to allow sediments to drop from the water.

Caraway Creek Dam- view 2

I think the correct technical engineering term is a “check dam” or silt-retention dam.   Temporary ones are called “silt fences;” they are the ones built of logs or rocks or hay bales staked across ditches to trap soil particles in run-off water during construction.

I’ve always thought of them like sediment ponds that impound water so the silt drops out, but large permanent ones like this would also have a flood-control function to eliminate destructive floods that would scour out the stream channel. Everything but the center hole is exactly the same as a permanent dam.  The carefully engineered spillway doesn’t strike me as necessary for a check dam, but unless there is a head races coming off the dam somewhere, and a way to open and close the center hole, I don’t see how these dams could have functioned to power any kind of mill.

Unlike a regular dam, a check dam isn’t mean to impound water permanently.   I think the large hole in the center base of the dam is to insure that the stream channel remains open and doesn’t clog with silt behind the dam.    Even during floods, water would continue to come out the center hole, and even at times pour over the spillway on top.

At least, this is how it was explained it to me. But soil conservation and erosion prevention are legacies from the Great Depression, and I’m not sure how worried people were about it 100, 150, 200 years ago.

When it comes to the time, effort and expense of building a stone dam like these, did property owners really do all that just to fertilize the fields with the silt? The trapped silt would act like annual fertilizer, and the dam would allow it to spread across the bottom land instead of building up behind the dam.  Today we’d also recognize that it allows the water to stay long enough to recharge ground water. Maybe that would have made it worthwhile.

Caraway Creek Dam panorama

Caraway Creek Dam panorama

I know there are more dams like these around Randolph County. What did you all out there think?


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6 Responses to “Water Fences and Check Dams”

  1. Brent Says:


    Great site! Keep up the good work. This type of history collecting is very important

  2. Carrie Coleman Says:

    We have a dam like this on our property on Lassiter Mill Rd. Ours is not quite as large & only has one hole for the water to pass, but it is in perfect condition. We have been trying to find historical information on ours & wondered if you could help or knew someone that would be interested in taking a look at it??

  3. Mike Grant Says:

    have been to this paticular one, very impressed with the engineering and effort that was put into this dam, glad to find out more info about these dams.i am trying to find more information on the trading post that was located on or around ridges mountain. i was told from an “old timer” at the unvailing of the john ridges marker the other day that part of the structure still exist. would appreciate any information anyone might have

  4. Mac Laton Says:

    Saw one of these as a kid when I was at summer camp at Camp Caraway, one of the counselors took us to see it. It had one large tunnel which we were able to wade into from the creek bed.

    So glad this pic is here to show someone what I am talking about when I recount that adventure.

  5. handy man Says:

    You think it was for irrigation or water supply? It does have 2 holes in the “dam”.


  6. eddie bumgarner Says:

    as a kid my friends and my self would hike caraway creek in the summer time from hillsville ,sophia area all the way up to caraway mtn. i can tell you that there are somewhere between 4or5 dams in that section of caraway creek and also one off of millers mill rd. all look like they were built by the same people . would love to know who ,when and why they were built . i can tell you they made great swinning holes for us as kids!

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