‘GHost Boat’ Rides The Waters Of A Troubled Former Lake

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Drivers on the Beltline in West Raleigh may catch a glimpse of two people fishing from a boat, mouths agape, seemingly celebrating the catch one of them is pulling in.

It’s a peaceful scene, except that the two people, and the fish, are skeletons, and the boat has a pirate flag on the back and is resting on the bed of a former lake.

Some nearby residents call it the ghost boat, a symbolic lament for White Oak Lake, a body of water they enjoyed for decades but that is now likely gone forever. The N.C. Department of Transportation had it drained last year as part of the effort to widen the Beltline between Wade Avenue and Interstate 40.

White Oak Lake has a complicated history. It took a lengthy court battle by area residents to preserve the lake in the early 1990s. In recent years, the city drew up extensive plans to replace the crumbling dam and spillway, only to abandon them as NCDOT said it needed to take down parts of the dam that were in the Beltline right of way.

Over several weeks last summer, water was pumped over the dam into Simmons Branch, a stream that leads into Walnut Creek. Gradually, the lake disappeared, replaced this spring by grass and weeds where the ghost boat now sits.

“It was very heartbreaking,” said Kyle Eckenrode, who lived on the lake shore for four years. “We had beavers out there. We had otters. You know, this whole ecosystem was totally destroyed. And my favorite part about the lake, hands down, was the migratory birds. We had these wood ducks that had been coming there for years, according to the previous owner, and they never came back.”

The ghost boat belongs to Eckenrode, who used to take it out onto the lake. He and a friend were sitting around a bonfire one evening when the friend suggested moving his jon boat onto the lake bed and putting a couple of mannequins in it. Eckenrode thought skeletons would work better and ordered two online.

Eckenrode said the gesture was more of a lark than a protest. It was the same instinct that had him put his pet potbellied pig Hamilton in a wagon and take him to Carolina Hurricanes games during the 2019 playoffs, where he became a good luck charm and national phenomenon.

He says everyone in the neighborhood seems to love the boat.

“A lot of kids have gone down there and taken selfies with it and things like that,” he said. “I actually stuck a solar light on it so now it’s illuminated in the evening. It’s really creepy and cool.”

A LAKE FOR ‘USE AND ENJOYMENT’ OF RESIDENTS

The lake and surrounding shoreline belong to White Oak Lake Inc., a company owned by William Stevens of Wrightsville Beach. Stevens’ father, Allen, developed Cardinal Hills, the neighborhood around the lake, starting in the late 1950s, and Steven says the lake was there when his father bought the land.

“He built his house on the lake and moved there after he started the project,” Stevens said. “My mother had a garden, and she enjoyed fishing, so they just retained the lake and then developed around it.”

The Stevens Corporation featured the lake when it marketed and sold homes in Cardinal Hills and told new residents that it would remain for their “use and enjoyment.” That was the finding of a Wake County judge who ruled in 1991 that residents had an easement to the lake and surrounding property and that Allen Stevens’ heirs were not free to drain the lake and build houses on it.

The decision was upheld by the State Court of Appeals two years later.

The Court of Appeals also concluded that the cost of maintaining the lake fell to Cardinal Hills residents, a notion that divided the community just as the Beltline had in the early 1960s. Some residents on the other side of the highway didn’t even know the lake existed and were loath to pay for upkeep.

After more legal wrangling, another judge ruled in 1993 that residents were not obligated to do anything with the lake if they didn’t want to.

As the years passed, trees and bushes grew atop the earthen dam, while the corrugated spillway pipes rusted through and the concrete emergency spillway fell apart. After an inspection in early 2020, the state Department of Environmental Quality classified it a “high hazard” dam and warned that it could fail, damaging the Beltline and several houses downstream on Pineview and Swift drives.

By then, the city had suspended its plans to replace the dam and spillway, according to a city manager’s report, mostly because of “underlying legal questions” stemming from the lawsuits between residents and White Oak Lake Inc.

“The legal situation warrants a closer examination of existing property rights and maintenance obligations tied to both the lake and the dam,” the March 2020 report said.

The city has since abandoned its plans to rebuild White Oak Lake. The main goal of restoring the lake was to help control flooding, said Wayne Miles, the city’s stormwater program manager.

“We were able to address those same flood control issues by making some changes on another project that we did on Simmons Branch,” Miles said. “So when we were able to make design changes downstream, we no longer needed the White Oak Lake improvements.”

IT’S JUST GOING TO REMAIN ‘NOT A LAKE ANYMORE’

Meanwhile, NCDOT moved to breach the dam, both because repairs seemed unlikely and because much of the dam was in the way of the Beltline widening. The department paid White Oak Lake Inc. $110,000 for an easement to expand the highway’s footprint, and then spent another $4 million taking down the dam and channeling the stream so it flows to the culvert under the Beltline, according to spokesman Marty Homan.

Stevens said draining the lake was the best outcome.

“It was getting to be kind of an eyesore anyway, and the dam was in bad condition,” he said. “The dam either had to be replaced or the lake drained. So the highway department, their decision was to eliminate the lake, which solved a lot of problems.”

Stevens said he has no plans to rebuild the dam or develop the property.

“I don’t know of any reason why it would change really,” he said. “I think it’s just going to remain not a lake anymore.”

Ted Shear, one of the residents who brought the lawsuit to preserve the lake more than 30 years ago, said he’s sorry with how things have turned out.

“I’m disappointed that it’s gone,” Shear said. “We put a lot of time and energy and money into preserving that lake.”

Simmons Branch still flows through the White Oak Lake property, cutting a channel several feet deep in the silt that accumulated on the lake bottom over the years. Turtles that lived in the lake are still hanging on in the creek, and some Canada geese returned this spring to nest, as they’ve done in the past. A former beaver lodge is high and dry.

For now the ghost boat is visible to traffic on westbound I-440, but that will change in the coming year. NCDOT contractors will build a sound wall between the highway and the Cardinal Hills neighborhood, and the boat and former White Oak Lake will disappear from view.