Fontana Dam: Powering a Nation to Victory

As the highest dam east of the Rockies, the Fontana Dam on the Little Tennessee in Western North Carolina commands not only a significant role in the generation of electricity, but an important role in the history of the area.  The Appalachian Trail, which extends from Georgia to Maine, crosses the Fontana Dam (TVA.com, Fontana Reservoir).

lake Fontana is a man-made lake, constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority.  At 10,230 acres, Fontana Lake is bordered by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is named for the town of Fontana, a lumber and copper-mining town that was inundated by the lake waters after the construction of the dam (Fontana Dam, Swain County Chamber of Commerce brochure).

The dam was built 1942-1944 to generate additional power for aluminum production for airplanes for use in World War II.  TVA had long sought an agreement with the Aluminum Company of America to construct the dam, but Alcoa nor the congressional approval was forthcoming (The Miracle in the Wilderness: TVA Heritage).

The brewing storm of war changed all that, though.  Defense strategists, seeing the Tennessee Valley as a secure spot to concentrate the war industry, put the huge aluminum plants in Alcoa, Tennessee to military use and established a top-secret weapons laboratory at a place called Oak Ridge.  Both enterprises required enormous amounts of electricity, and building the new TVA dams became a priority.

Due to the extreme height (480 feet) of the dam, rather than a conventional spillway, the design drained water from the reservoir into two spill pipes 34 feet in diameter, and pass around the dam and flow into the streambed of the the Little Tennessee River (Miracle).

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In order to construct the dam, workers first had to build a road to enable workers to access the site.  Fontana Village was constructed nearby to house the workers, as it was over an hour travel time from the nearest town, in a time when cars were rare and gasoline to power them a luxury no longer available due to gas rationing.  By 1943 however, Fontana Village had the necessary amenities of any town, including a school, post office, grocery, health services, and movie theatre (The Miracle in the Wilderness).  Laborers put in 7-day weeks, working 3 shifts around the clock.  The little town that had grown to 5,000 shrank to only about 50 families when the dam was finished.  In 1946, it was converted to a public resort, and continues in operation today as a resort facility for tourists.  Two million people a year visit “the most remote, and in many ways most lovely” of the TVA dams.

 

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4 Responses to Fontana Dam: Powering a Nation to Victory

  1. Susan Lentz says:

    I admit that I am always suspicious when things “come together” for TVA, but that aside, Fontana is a beautiful place. I try to swing by every time I go to NC. Thanks for posting!

    • Suzassippi says:

      I know what you mean. But, one can hardly view Fontana without considering the political reasons for its presence, although “powering a nation to victory” is not my personal persuasion. I am more in the camp of powering a nation to create livable communities that create opportunities for citizens to meet their needs.

  2. Beth says:

    I’m in the livable community camp, too. But what a fascinating story and the dam is quite powerful in its presence.

    • Suzassippi says:

      Yes, it is pretty amazing. I did not know it while there, but Fontana Village still retains some of the original buildings constructed by New Deal Administration, so on my next trip, it is on the list to visit!

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