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A look back: Closing the Tellico Dam gates

Published: 8:32 AM, 11/30/2009 Last updated: 8:40 AM, 11/30/2009
 

Author: Tommy Millsaps

A history of the Tellico Project

After years of bitter controversy, the gates finally closed on the Tellico Dam on Nov. 29, 1979, flooding thousands of acres of land and forming Tellico Lake.
Thirty years later, there is little doubt the Tennessee Valley Authority's Tellico Dam changed the area forever, however the debate rages on whether it was for better or for worse.

Proponents of the project point to the thousands of jobs that settled along the lake in Vonore as proof the dam succeeded in improving the area's economy and keeping the community's young people from having to leave to find work.

Others still see the Tellico Project as a needless land grab that failed to produce all that was promised in the way of economic growth and instead only served to benefit land developers at the expense of family farms.
The Tellico Dam saga had it all. A Hollywood script writer would be hard pressed to come up with a better plot: court battles, Congressional maneuvering, the spectacle of landowners forcibly removed from family farms, opposition from the Cherokee and for many years, a three-inch fish played the starring role.
                                                      The Beginning
The U.S. Congress created the Tennessee Valley Authority during the Great Depression in 1933. TVA was created to control the flooding that plagued the Tennessee Valley and to harness waterpower to bring inexpensive electricity to the impoverished region.
In the early years, TVA built dozens of dams along the Big Tennessee River and its tributaries. The Tellico Dam was first listed as a potential dam site in the 1930s, but it would be years before a strong push was made to build the dam.

Most of the public first learned of the efforts to get the proposed Tellico Dam project moving around 1960. The early days of the project seemed relatively benign.
"There was little reason to suspect that TVA's latest endeavor would be met with anything more than token opposition," Jim Thompson and Cynthia Brooks wrote in their 1991 book "Tellico Dam and the Snail Darter."
The book centered on former Tellico Plains Mayor Charles Hall, the late TVA Chairman Aubrey J. "Red" Wagner and the efforts of many others to see the Tellico Dam through in the face of mounting opposition.

Five years ago for the 25th anniversary of the closing of dam's gates, Hall spoke about the need for the dam to help stop the flood of young people leaving the county to find jobs.
"We were educating them in the county, but they were going elsewhere to make a living," he remembered.

The Tellico Dam project called for a 600-foot long, 129-foot high concrete dam, a 2,500-foot long earthen dam and an 850-foot long, 500-foot canal connecting the new reservoir with the existing Fort Loudoun Reservoir.
                                                Work begins
on the dam
In addition to opposition from landowners, some early stumbling blocks for the dam was concern from the Tennessee Fish and Game Commission that the dam would kill the trout fishing industry.
The Tellico Dam project also had to compete against another proposed TVA dam, the Tims Ford project, which called for a dam on the Elk River in Middle Tennessee.
The Tellico Dam finally got Congressional approval and construction started in 1967.

                                                 Opposition mounts
Actual construction of the dam, which was relatively small by some TVA dam standards, failed to quash opposition. Instead, opposition grew more intense and involved more players.
Environmentalists and other opponents of the dam won a court injunction against the project in 1972 stopping it for a year. A federal judge in 1973 lifted the injunction, concluding TVA had completed a proper environmental impact study for the dam.

                                                        The snail darter
Just when it seemed all hope for stopping the dam was lost, University of Tennessee professor Dr. David Etnier and his students found a tiny little fish in the river, proving the project had more twists and turns than the river it would eventually dam.
Zyg Plater, an attorney representing the families holding out against giving up their land for the dam, recounted the story of the tiny fish against the dam at the recent gathering of dam resisters 30 years later.
"It could be the one legal thing that could stop the project," he recalled.

It was during a meeting in October 1974 after the discovery of the snail darter, that holdout Asa McCall took off his hat and passed it around to collect money to start the legal battle that would gain nationwide media attention and eventually end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Completion of the dam was stalled five more years.

The snail darter was on the endangered species list and in 1978 the Supreme Court ruled work on the dam must stop even though it was nearly complete.
In 1979, Tennessee congressmen added money for the project into an appropriations bill. President Jimmy Carter did not veto it and the bill exempted the Tellico Dam from the Endangered Species Act.

                                                The final holdouts
In the final weeks after the dam completion was approved in the appropriations bills, the Cherokee and others still fought. But a last-ditch lawsuit to protect Cherokee sacred lands failed.
Snail darters had been transplanted into other habitats and survived.

The final drama would be the evictions of the last families holding out against giving up their land for the dam project that would take 38,000 acres while flooding less than half of that amount.
Nov. 13, 1979, dawned cold and gray. Hordes of television and newspaper reporters from all over the country were on the scene for the most perhaps the most poignant moments of the dam controversy.
U.S. marshals arrived at the Greenback home of Nellie McCall, the 75-year-old widow of Asa McCall. She begrudgingly left her 90-acre farm.

Marshals met with Thomas B. Moser to tell him he had to leave his home in Vonore. Tom Miller left his left his home and Ben and Jean Ritchey left their home before marshals arrived.

                                        The final act
With the last of the holdouts gone, the only scene left to play out was the actual closing of the gates that would back up the Little T.
The closing of the gates may have been anti-climatic for some on Nov. 29. 1979. An article from the Dec. 3, 1979, Monroe County Advocate said only two photographers, one from the Knoxville News-Sentinel and Craig Jones from the Monroe County Advocate, were present for most of the work closing the gates.

With the gates closed, the waters began backing up, forming the new lake over a period of weeks.
The Little Tennessee had given birth to Tellico Lake.
The lake waters have never been able to wash away the intense feelings on both sides of one of the most polarizing issues in the history of Monroe County and perhaps East Tennessee.

tommy.millsaps@advocateanddemocrat.com | 337-7101

The last holdouts shared their memories at a reunion on Nov. 14. See the Nov. 17 edition of The Advocate & Democrat for their stories.


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