Raystown Lake sits in the Allegheny Mountains- the distinctive “ridge and valley” portion of the Appalachian Mountains. The Alleghenies are a product of shifting continental plates and millions of years of erosion. This topography naturally encourages the channeling of runoff from rain. The watershed (or drainage area) for the Raystown Branch of the Juniata River and Raystown Lake is 963 square miles, or about 3 times the size of Huntingdon County.
The first people to call this area home were mobile bands of hunters-gathers who probably came up from the south as ice sheets in northern Pennsylvania retreated. Eventually the Susquehannock Indians settled into the region. One area of particular interest at Raystown is the Sheep Rock Shelter (between mile markers 7 and 8) where early inhabitants used the natural Rock Shelter to protect them from the elements. This area was heavily excavated just before inundation of the present-day lake.
One of the most popular questions rangers hear is where exactly was Raystown? The name Raystown originated from a trapper named Robert Ray who established a small camp near Bedford around 1750. His camp eventually became known as Raystown and subsequently that’s where the “Raystown Branch of the Juniata River” and Raystown Lake got their names.
“I was here when the first lake was around.” It seems like an odd saying, but Raystown Lake looked very different back in 1911. That’s when construction on the original dam was completed. The first Raystown Lake was a shallow lake that was only about a quarter the size of the 28 mile long
lake you see today. The old 45 foot tall dam is still in place at the bottom of the lake near mile marker 2, just upstream of the current 225 foot tall dam.
The original dam’s purpose was electric power generation. However, after a major flood in 1936 which devastated most of the Juniata & Susquehannock River valleys the public identified a need for the construction of a new and larger dam. The Raystown Dam and Lake you see today was authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1962. It would take nearly ten years before the Dam was completed. In 1974, then Vice-President Gerald R. Ford (who was the only president ever to work as a park ranger) dedicated the Dam.
“… may the Raystown Dam we dedicate here today challenge us to dedicate ourselves to building a better nation and a better world for us all.” – Gerald R. Ford, 1974
At a cost of 76 million dollars Raystown practically made up the difference before it was even completed. In 1972 Hurricane Agnes struck the construction site. With only 58% of the dam completed, taxpayers were still saved 60 million dollars in flood damage. In 1993 Raystown reached its highest elevation to date- 802.29 feet (15.5 feet above normal elevation). In the 30+ years since Raystown started operating, communities have been saved from hundreds of millions of dollars in potential flood damage costs.
The region also gained a new place to enjoy the great outdoors. Raystown draws over a million visitors annually and they generate an estimated 19 million dollars in related sales. The Seven Points Recreation Area alone is the top grossing park in all of the 4,000+ recreation areas operated by the Corps of Engineers.
Raystown Lake is a multi-use project, meaning it was built for several uses. The first and foremost being flood damage reduction. The Raystown Branch flows north, not south like most people expect, therefore the Dam and Outlet works are located on the northern end of the lake. The Dam stands 225 feet tall from base to top and is 1700 feet across making it one of the largest dams in the east. Raystown manages flows on the Juniata River and ultimately influences the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.
The second use for Raystown is general recreation and there’s plenty to choose from:
- five campgrounds managed or leased by the Corps with a total of 594 campsites
- 10 boat launches
- 2 full service marinas
- 68.5 miles of trails
- 10 picnic shelters and many, many, many other picnic areas and tables
- An amphitheater with sound, light, and video capabilities
- A resort complex with cabins, water park, miniature golf, and a brand new conference center- to name a few of the amenities
- And approximately 21,000 acres open to hunting and 8,300 surface acres open to fishing (except where posted as no hunting/fishing)
The third use for Raystown is Fisheries and Wildlife management. Part of fisheries management includes maintaining minimum flows downstream- which can have an effect on lake levels during drought conditions. Raystown also has an active natural resource program with a goal to maintain and enhance the quality of existing resources.
The fourth and final use for Raystown was added in 1988 when the William F. Matson generating plant was brought on line. The two generators at this plant can produce up to 21 mega-watts of power and release up to 1700 cubic feet of water per second, although it usually only operates at 500 cfs. Most of the releases are made through the hydro-plant with the spillway being used when the plant is not operating or when releases exceed the plant’s capabilities.
Make sure to drop by the Visitor's Center to learn more about Raystown Lake!