The mystery of the broken dishes: how a half-empty West Virginia lake reveals some local history

I didn’t know much about Tygart Lake State Park near Grafton, W.Va. when I made reservations to take our family there for a February weekend. Truth is, I had it confused with Prickett’s Fort State Park (20+ miles away), where an 18th century firearms show was being held. I grabbed a lodge room at Tygart Lake, looked at a map of the area, and realized my mistake. It turned out not to be a mistake at all, and the park was the perfect base for visiting Prickett’s Fort and Valley Falls State Park all in a single day.

Tygart Lake State Park is built around the 10-mile long lake created by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control dam. That dam, completed in 1938, regulates the level of the Tygart Valley River. It also created a very popular recreational lake that is now home to both public and private marinas. The depth of the lake makes it attractive for fishing of all sorts, and for motor boat sports in certain sections of the lake.

What we found when we arrived late in the day, however, was a half-drained lake. Another part of the trip I hadn’t researched well — the federal dam keeps the water level at Tygart much lower in winter. Frankly, it wasn’t that pretty. Dozens of feet of shoreline were exposed, revealing quite an array of items…from cinderblocks to tires to soda bottles, bricks and assorted stuff that fell out of boats last summer.

Tygart Lake, February.

Determined to get a walk in before darkness fell, I left the husband and kids to settle into the lodge room and followed a trail down to the lake. Some sections of the shore were mucky, while others were rocky or sandy. Picking my way around wet spots, staying halfway between the waterline and the trees, I got a good look at what lies underwater much of the year — broken glass bottles, pieces of terra cotta drain pipe, plastic toys and soda containers. Following the curve of the lake, I took my time to study the far side (Pleasant Creek Wildlife Management Area) and the contours of the increasingly rocky sides. A few steps later, the dam came into view, half a mile away.

Tygart Dam, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, opened 1938.

As I got closer to the dam, I noticed the debris on the shore had changed. More and more white bits and pieces were underfoot…it took a few glances to realize they were broken shards of dishes. Hundreds of them settled in between rocks. Thousands of them.

There were half bowls, sections of mugs, broken platter bits and rims of plates. A few had a green stripe or blue floral pattern. Most were white, with parts browned or orange from sitting underwater. I had walked into a dishware graveyard.

Back at the lodge room, with a few pieces of broken crockery spread out in front of me, I did an online search for pottery companies near Grafton or Tygart.

Carr China made restaurant and institutional dishware in Grafton from 1913 to 1953, on a spot that is now below the Tygart Dam. It was a major employer, and produced commercial dishware and items for restaurants, hotels, hospitals and institutions around the country. Known for the quality of its finishes, company historians say Carr used local clays, but shipped in quartz flints from New England and sand flints from my area — Berkeley Springs — to make their famous dishware.

Pieces of Carr China have been searched out along the banks of the Tygart Valley River below the dam, as the closure of the plant turned some areas nearby into a dump. No sources said Carr China debris was purposely put into the basin of Tygart Lake. Construction of the dam between 1935 and 1938 would have been going on while the pottery plant was in operation. Carr China produced several vivid versions of a commemorative plate for the dam’s official opening.


The mystery of the broken china on the shores of Tygart Lake wasn’t really solved. I’m no historian or detective, but the Carr China story was an unexpected addition to our visit to Tygart Lake State Park.

Surely, the February trip on a rainy weekend wasn’t the usual kind of visit. It didn’t give us the sunny lakeside experiences that brings thousands of people back to the park from near and far each year. My boys got muddy roaming the shores — so much so that we had to leave their shoes outside the door — and even lost a shoe in the muck. They found plenty of rocks to throw into the lake, branches and bricks to build with, and some free fishing lures. I’m eager for us to go back and see the bright, summertime version of Tygart Lake, knowing a little bit now about what lies beneath the surface.

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