Tellico Dam Revisited
TVA’s promises for its most controversial project were supposed to be realized by now; are they?
Twenty five years ago last month, with former TVA chief Aubrey “Red” Wagner and a delegation of dignitaries present to witness it, TVA closed the locks on a new dam on the Little Tennessee River near Lenoir City. Behind it, the waters of the river crested their old banks, covering thickets and grassy cow pastures. The water rose for several weeks; the overflow became known as Tellico Lake.
TVA’s last big dam project, the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River, was also the agency’s most controversial. Its many costs were enormous, but, TVA countered, its benefits were even greater. Unlike most of TVA’s dams, which were deemed necessary for flood control or hydroelectric production, Tellico’s benefits were to be chiefly economic. It was supposed to attract industry to a depressed area. As TVA won over politicians, they promised the dam’s benefits would come to fruition within a 25-year time frame.
What has become of the Tellico Reservoir in the last quarter century may be more than its most cynical detractors suspected; neither is it exactly what TVA once promised.
The story of Tellico Dam is longer and more complicated than a James Michener novel, involving farm families forced from their homes, Cherokee village sites sent underwater, and an elusive endangered fish called the snail darter. You could write a book about it, and in fact some have; UT Press published history professors Bruce Wheeler and Michael McDonald’s book, TVA and the Tellico Dam in 1986.
Even before anyone had ever heard of the snail darter, the dam was controversial. Posited decades ago as a maybe-someday project called the Fort Loudoun Extension, it would impound the Little Tennessee and shift its drainage behind the Fort Loudoun Dam to Fort Loudoun Lake, rather than Watts Bar Lake. Brought to the fore via the offices of Chairman Wagner, it would be costly, more than $60 million in 1960s dollars, a price tag that would balloon with the years to more than $140 million by 1979. It would displace 300 rural families. It would uproot agriculture, an estimated $28 million a year of it, mostly dairy and beef. It would swamp a favorite swift-flowing trout-fishing and rafting stream. It would also inundate most of the known Cherokee sites in East Tennessee, the settlements of the Overhill Cherokees, as well as earlier native-American remnants, including burial sites and a well-known platform mound.
The dam project enjoyed enthusiastic bipartisan support from Tennessee’s congressional delegation. Democratic Sen. Albert Gore, Sr., was an early booster of the project; Republican Sen. Howard Baker’s support became crucial later. With such strong political backing, the Tellico project passed Congress in October, 1966.
The controversy generated some national press, first when Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a sport fisherman himself, protested alongside the Cherokee. The discovery of the snail darter by UT ecology professor David Etnier made Tellico a household word. For several years it was believed that the Little Tennessee was the rare fish’s only habitat, and that if the river was flooded, it would become extinct.
Defiant farmers, trout fishermen, biologists, Cherokee Indians, economic conservatives, and environmentalists formed an unlikely alliance against Tellico Dam. In a remarkable break with tradition, Republican Gov. Winfield Dunn formally opposed the TVA project in 1971.
With each new reason not to build the dam, TVA seemed to come up with more reasons to build it. Tellico Dam promised extravagant gains for a region that needed them, improvements to the Tennessee Valley, especially for the working man and woman.
They claimed the lake would spawn industrial parks which would draw $265 million in investment (in 1960s dollars), and 6,600 new jobs. They would later raise that prospective job-gain figure to 9,000, then to 10,000, then to 25,000. As objections mounted, TVA seemed to keep raising the ante. The Tellico Reservoir of the future just kept getting more and more wonderful.
At the center of it would be a “model city” with skyscrapers by the shore. In descriptions, it sounds like a combination of TVA’s 1930s utopianism and 1960s American futurism. It would be “so built that a breadwinner could travel by hydroplane or his own boat to his job across the lake.” TVA insisted that the model city would incorporate a mixture of modest, middle-class, and higher-end homes. Originally planned to be home to 25,000, it got bigger.
In the early ‘70s, TVA gave the prospective city some demographics. It would be a bustling community of 50,000, mixed income. Every city needs a name, even fantasy ones, and as it happens, the first surveyor to accurately map this valley in 1761 had a last name that could have been chosen by a residential developer: British Lt. Henry Timberlake.
According to TVA promotional material, “Timberlake will be a new and different kind of a city. It will be a city where children will roam and play in the outdoors without danger from traffic, where individuality rather than conformity will be encouraged, where modest income and affluent families of all races will live in the same neighborhood, and where man’s presence will blend easily with nature’s splendor.”
TVA planner Jim Gober said in 1971, “All of our studies, which we think are conservative, indicate that it can be achieved during a 25-year development period.”
With credible claims like that, especially when combined with five-figure job-gain projections, it’s not surprising that popular Republican Congressman (and former Knoxville mayor) John Duncan, Sr., declared it “another giant step toward creating an industrial potential which will furnish a new and improved economic base for the entire region.”
In the face of such promises, the farmers left their homes and fields with only token civic disobedience, looking forward to the promised jobs.
Timberlake suffered some setbacks, most notably the withdrawal of Boeing, which was for a couple of years flirting with the idea of being Tellico Lake’s anchor tenant. Autocratic TVA Chairman Wagner and other Tellico Dam boosters said it didn’t matter, they were going to build Timberlake anyway.
Today, there’s no such thing as Timberlake. There are many new jobs on the lake’s shores, if not as many as TVA once forecast. Says one longtime Monroe County resident, “Most people here don’t even know about Timberlake.”
Tellico Dam is barely a mile from Fort Loudoun Dam, and Tellico Lake forms a sort of north-south appendix hanging from the western end of Fort Loudoun Lake. Though it has locks and can open them if necessary during unusual flooding conditions, the complex directs almost all of the flow of the old Little Tennessee via a canal into Fort Loudoun Lake.
As with all TVA reservoirs, the word lake requires a little poetic license. From the beginning, the word was an informal thing, as applied to TVA lakes. The agency has tolerated the usage, but in official documents the agency favors the more precise word, reservoir.
What people call it depends mainly on what they use it for. When discussing industry here, or flood control, or hydroelectric production, people tend to call it the Tellico Reservoir. Morgan Goranflo, TVA manager of river scheduling, says the Tellico Reservoir is working well by adding to Fort Loudoun’s flood-control and hydroelectric capacity. The biggest problem spot in the river has always been far downstream in Chattanooga, and even though it’s a couple of reservoirs away, Tellico’s effect on Chattanooga is sometimes noticeable. Goranflo says two spring floods in particular, in 1984 and 2003, were ameliorated by Tellico. TVA uses computer models to estimate various dams’ effects, and they’ve concluded that Tellico Dam has reduced flood damage in the Chattanooga area by a total of $24 million over its life, or almost $1 million a year.
Goranflo also says the Tellico Dam, which does not have power-generating capacity of its own, adds significantly to Fort Loudoun’s. That older dam typically generates an average of 600,000 megawatt hours per year; Tellico adds another third of that, giving Fort Loudoun a total capacity of 800,000. Goranflo estimates Tellico saves TVA about $6 million a year in power-production costs.
But a lake, as opposed to a reservoir, is supposed to be a pretty thing, something to look at and play in. Tellico Village calls it Tellico Lake. Rarity Bay tranposes the term in a swankier order: they call it Lake Tellico.
On a map, Tellico Lake bears little resemblance to a natural lake. Tellico Lake is still shaped more like a river than a lake, over 20 circuitous miles long and variable in width, but usually not more than half a mile wide.
You can’t drive around Tellico Lake. If, via one-lane roads, you can find its southern end, you’ll see uncrossable Chilhowee Dam, and behind it another lake.
But from several points, these slow waters do look like a lake. And whatever else you say about it, it can be lovely. When the sun hits it right, Tellico Lake is even blue.
There are no cities on Tellico Lake, but the old rural farming community of Vonore, which with chain stores in strip malls has been looking more suburban lately, binds the reservoir near the middle, like the knot of a bow tie. It is, today, a growing town of a little more than 1,000. When people on the rural southeast side of the lake refer to the encroachment of “the city,” they’re referring to Vonore.
Of the reservoir’s modern settlements, Tellico Village, on the lake’s northwestern shore, about where plans once pictured the mythical kingdom of Timberlake, is the largest by far. It’s not TVA’s economically diverse dream city of 50,000, but with a population variably estimated at 5,000 or 6,500, it’s several times the size of Vonore.
Arranged cleanly around three golf courses and a marina, Tellico Village looks like a vacation resort in Hilton Head. Most houses are fairly large, and generally built in variations of the same style. Though you’ll occasionally encounter a walker or jogger, there are no sidewalks. In the neighborhoods, most of which are cul-de-sacs, locals wave at every visitor, even strangers with Knox County tags.
The yacht club, sometimes described as a “community center,” might seem a likely place to get to know some people.
The day we went was a sunny, breezy weekend day that seemed as if it might be good for sailing. There were more than 100 boats at the marina, albeit few yachts. Maybe some of them are hydroplanes; it’s hard to tell. But on this sunny morning at 10, there didn’t appear to be anybody around. The only human was a shaven-headed teenager sitting in an idling sportscar, sipping a soft drink. The sign on the door says “Members and Guests Only.”
There were a few more people a couple of miles away at the Welcome Center, which also doubles as a pro shop and restaurant. But there’s no village square in Tellico Village, no downtown. Tellico Village does support a couple of business centers, small strip malls, really. One, in a brick-and-aluminum strip, hosts the Tellico Village Public Library. The magazine rack displays Cat Fancy, Gourmet, Money, Gardening, Better Investing, the AARP magazine. Sharing the same address at the strip mall is the New Apostolic Church.
At the Chota commercial Center is the welcome center of the organization behind all this, Cooper Homes. There’s a poster out front depicting a pair of young women in a black-and-white photo from a long time ago, and a larger picture of a pair of older women wearing scarves in a convertible. “Remember when life felt carefree?” It asks. “Welcome back.”
The fellow at the desk says about 70 percent of Tellico Village residents are retired. In estimating the number of people who live there, he takes the number of homes, 2,900, and multiplies it by two: 5,800 is his guess. It may seem a simplistic way to take a census, but there’s some science behind that formula. The Tellico Village Directory is crawling with ampersands: Al & Patsy, Bud & Dottie, Jim & Betty, Jack & Ethel, Frank & Lois, Roy & Debbie, each duo sharing a last name. The overwhelming majority of people who live at Tellico Village are married couples; it’s epidemic here. There are few singles, and fewer children.
Asked how many residents hail from the area, the representative is quick to claim that 95 percent of Tellico Villagers aren’t from East Tennessee at all. Moreover, they’re overwhelmingly from one region: “Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin,” he says. “The cold Midwest, the Great Lakes States.” He says that’s where Tellico Village does most of its marketing.
Most of the residents of Tellico Village, and most of the residents of Tellico Lake today, didn’t witness the controversy that led to creating it.
Farther down the two-lane road called Tellico Parkway, it’s a similar story at another development called Rarity Bay. Built on one peninsula into the reservoir, it’s even more private than most of Tellico Village. Not far past the equestrian statue, there’s a gate, and just to look around the place you need a pass.
One of the paradoxes of these exclusive, members-only communities is that they each have one friendly feature rare in other neighborhoods: a Welcome Center.
In the Rarity Bay Welcome Center, a corporate-style receptionist greets you as you walk in; behind her is a model of the community, and behind that, a big lounge that, today, has a roaring fire.
Sales consultant Robert Young is a heavyset, type-A guy, his thinning hair slicked down. He’s proud of the place.
“We’re the only community where the houses do look alike.” He says Rarity Bay houses look much more alike than the architecture of Tellico Village, of which he seems not to think much.
“We’re country French,” he says firmly, leaving no room for fudging, and adding that that term implies a certain pitch to the roof lines. He says they don’t allow construction in either wood or aluminum; it’s all stone or brick. Without strict rules, he says, “they lose the integrity. The values will decrease.”
There are only about 400 residences in Rarity Bay today, but they expect someday to host about 1,600. “We’re the Mercedes of all of them,” he says. “It’s a luxury community,” he says. “It’s what these people are used to. It’s the emotional value.”
He says Rarity Bay’s residents are about 60 percent retirees. Of those who aren’t, he says, few work locally. They’re consultants, he says, who mainly drive back and forth to McGhee Tyson Airport, about a 30-minute drive from here.
There’s an equestrian club, which explains the horses loping around outside. Near the live horses is a bigger-than-life Remington bronze of a horse descending a slope with a rough-looking mountain man on his back. He’s not the sort of fellow the gateman would wave through.
Of the statue, Young advises, “Don’t even ask how much it cost.” If you do ask, anyway, he’ll admit that he doesn’t know.
He thinks more than half of the people who live at Rarity Bay come from outside of the region, some from as far as California, others from the Deep South. However, he says, another large development farther north on the lake seems to be attracting more locals. Different from anything else on Tellico Lake, it’s called Tellico Pointe. Extraneous e’s are a specialty out this way, even when they render spellings so archaic they’d be unfamiliar to the colonial garrison at Ft. Loudoun. It’s another golf community, of course, anchored by a six-story chateau with 102 units. “It’s like an English manor, real similar to the Biltmore’s design,” he says, calling it “phenomenal.” It’s slightly closer to Knoxville than is Rarity Bay, and he says there has indeed been a lot of local interest in that one.
Whether Tellico Lake is in “the Knoxville area” is an interesting question. Promotional material boasts of Tellico Village’s proximity to UT and downtown Knoxville, and from their perspective, Knoxville sounds pretty good: “And residents are less than 30 miles from Knoxville, where world-class culture, top-flight health care, and 24-hour excitement is always available.”
Likewise, Rarity Bay touts “the cultural and city conveniences of Knoxville.” Maybe the place is closer than it seems. Cedar Bluff Wines & Spirits in West Knoxville runs a big ad in the Tellico Village Directory. Maybe Tellico Village and Rarity Bay are, more or less, Far West Knoxville.
In promotional literature, Rarity Bay parades its exclusivity: “This private waterfront haven is home to few, but desired by many.”
It’s hard to avoid adding it’s a private haven that federal taxpayers helped arrange for. And, of course, that the federal government maintains the lake that makes these houses so valuable. There wasn’t much about exclusive gated communities in the literature that got the Tellico Lake project through Congress.
TVA promised 30 years ago a new lakeside development “where individuality rather than conformity will be encouraged, where modest income and affluent families of all races will live in the same neighborhood....”
Rarity Bay aside, TVA’s Woody Farrell points out that “one of the concepts the Cooper Communities had from the start is to make housing or development available on several different levels. There are high-dollar homes, especially on the lakefront, but you’ll also see some fairly modest homes, 1,000 square feet.” He also mentions that TRDA is planning a middle-class residential development in the Vonore area; it’ll feature craftsman-style homes in the low $100,000 range.
Wasn’t the whole idea, as touted in the ‘60s and ‘70s and sold to Congress, to attract industry?
Near Rarity Bay is an immodestly denominated street called Excellence Way. The first you’ll notice of it is an enormous metal building owned by Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. It’s a distribution center that is said to service 75 percent of the United States. Nearby, in the lakeside park known as Tellico West, are several other factories and warehouses.
Ron Hammontree is in charge of the Tellico Reservoir Development Agency, a group formed by the state of Tennessee in 1982 to promote development of the reservoir. He says the TRDA is not directly affiliated with TVA. The Agency is governed by a board made up of officials from Monroe, Blount, and Loudon Counties and their appointees. It’s funded not by TVA but by land sales and leasing and some recreation fees. But when we called TVA headquarters asking for comment about the status of development of the reservoir, the operator transferred the call directly to Mr. Hammontree. And according to Wheeler and McDonald’s book, TRDA was once heavily subsidized by TVA.
Including Wyeth, Tellico West Industrial Park, a little over 2,000 acres, is home to 13 industries, including Yamaha and Sea Ray watercraft plants, a ConAgra food facility, Carlex glass, a major automotive-glass manufacturer, and a Koyo steering parts facility.
Hammontree says the park currently employs 4,000 people. (Some online sources suggest it’s about 3,700. In either case, it’s not the 9,000 manufacturing jobs TVA was touting in 1971.) TVA says the reservoir as a whole, including the industrial park, has created about 6,000 jobs, with a total annual payroll of $128 million.
According to TVA’s figures, the total reservoir development, industrial and residential together, has attracted almost $1.5 billion in investment since 1984. If accurate, most of those estimates are in the ballpark of TVA’s pre-Timberlake projections.
“We market ourselves as the premier industrial site for the greater Knoxville community,” Hammontree says. “We’re in Vonore, but we call it Knoxville.” One advantage, he says, is that the site is 25 minutes from the Knoxville airport—hardly farther than the Knoxville airport is from Knoxville.
Most of the advantages Hammontree cites—the usual “day’s drive from 75 percent of the U.S. population” and a “good work force,” are, of course, also true of several other industrial parks in the area. Much of it gets back to a question many critics asked in the ‘70s: why would a reservoir necessarily attract industry?
Even Wagner’s successor, TVA chairman David Freeman, couldn’t quite figure that one out. Though he sometimes felt obliged to mute his personal objections to Tellico, Freeman made one statement in 1978 that was as controversial as it was obvious: “Industrialization can take place without another lake.” (It was perhaps an unprecedented situation: a TVA chairman who opposed a TVA project. Noting the dam was already built, opponents called him “Dry-Dam Freeman.”)
Some TVA representatives today say that Tellico Lake’s chief attraction to industry is its transportation potential. “They do use the waterways to get in raw materials and to ship out finished products,” says one TVA rep in Knoxville.
However, others note there’s not much barge traffic on Tellico Lake. Barge traffic via the lake is possible, Hammontree says, and has been used to deliver heavy machinery when the factories were constructed, but he says it’s minimal on a routine basis. Tellico West’s industries may be on a waterway, but they do most of their trafficking by highway and railroad. “You associate barge traffic with the bigger, dirtier, heavier kinds of industries, and that’s not what we have here,” Hammontree says.
Woody Farrell, manager of the TVA Little Tennessee Watershed Team, notes that several of the industries at Tellico West are associated with watercraft, and it’s handy to have a recreational lake nearby to help design and test it all. He also says that, counterintuitively, the “scenic quality” of the area is also appealing to corporations looking to build factories. Even though the factories seem to have few windows, and are not particularly attractive themselves, Farrell says an attractive setting is a selling point.
But Hammontree suggests that Tellico’s ace in the hole is its amenties. The industrial park hosts its own hotel, the 51-room Grand Vista, its own firehall, a restaurant, and now a conference center. The hotel and conference center were funded by the profits from the industries that located there.
He says they’re eyeing 3,000 more acres’ worth of industrial development on the reservoir. They’ve just laid 13.5 miles of sewer on the east shore, for further industrial and residential development there.
He says the Tellico project has, on its own, decreased unemployment in Monroe County dramatically, citing the fact that unemployment was 18 percent in the early ‘80s. Today, it’s around 9 percent, according to the Monroe County website—or just 5 percent, according to the county director of economic development, Shane Burris, who says the Tellico project has “significantly helped the employment in this area, which was sort of in a recession” before the dam.
The national unemployment rate has fallen significantly in the last 20 years, but probably not enough to account for that steep local decline.
Those 4,000 industrial jobs make up less than half the amount of industrial employment TVA promised in the early ‘70s that the Tellico Reservoir would have generated by now, but it’s obviously significant. It’s a little more than a third of all the industrial jobs in Monroe County.
“There was some local resentment to development because of the acquiring of the land by TVA,” Hammontree acknowledges. “But as the locals see their children employed in the area, that’s mellowed greatly.”
Rhonda Rice helps locate industrial sites at the Knoxville Area Chamber Partnership. Tellico is a little outside of their jurisdiction, she says, but she and Hammontree often work together, as they did on a Sea Ray proposal that benefited both Knoxville and Tellico.
She says Tellico does offer some advantages for industry. She says one big advantage is that land there is less expensive than industrial land in Knox County because of its remote location. Moreover, a lot of it’s flat. In Knox County, she says, “We have to make flat land. They already have it.”
She adds that TRDA is an organization that would be unlikely in Knoxville, or in most cities; in combining a hotel, residences, golf courses, and industry under the aegis of one organization, it’s a rare and unusually resourceful entity. At Knoxville’s Superchamber, Rice says, “We’re not going to go into the hotel business, because that would put us in competition with the private sector.”
While she calls Tellico West a “great park,” Rice doubts many would consider it the Knoxville area’s premiere site. “It’s a little far off the beaten path,” she says. “But some industries may not need I-40-I-75,” she says. “It may be fine for some companies to be 12 miles off I-75.”
The amount of industry at Tellico West is probably more than most Knoxvillians know about. Contrary to assumptions that there would be no significant industrial development at all in such a remote place, it’s there, with significant impact on the local economy. In terms of employment, though, it’s short of what TVA was telling us to expect when they were trying to sell it.
Farrell, based in Lenoir City, serves as a liaison between TVA and TRDA. He came to work for TVA in 1976, and has held his current position for about five years; he doesn’t remember some of the more grandiose projections for what would happen on Tellico Lake.
According to the documents he has seen, “the projected economic impact in terms of jobs is very close to where they are now.”
TVA media-relations specialist Gil Francis says there have been too many changes in the economy over the last 25 years to make accurate predictions.
Farrell has at least heard of Timberlake. He points out, “many components of that are evident today. There’s an industrial park, a buffer zone, and we’ve got residential development near it.”
The shores of Tellico Lake are not entirely redeveloped as industrial parks and high-end retirement villages. Most of the luxury development is clustered on the reservoir’s northwestern side. On its south, the reservoir touches Cherokee National Forest. On the southern reaches of the lake on both sides are country homes, some of them new and grandiose, some older than the reservoir and modest. Here stray cats prowl and an automotive carcass might add accent to a drab front yard. Mailbox posts double as mounts for displays of the Ten Commandments.
Highway 72 is, in part, the old highway that used to run up and down the eastern side of the river. The Tellico Marina is over there, a large public marina where hundreds of pleasure crafts are docked, many of them in crane-accessed stacks. On one sunny November afternoon, there’s only one boat in motion, an overlarge craft making some unpleasant grinding noises as the pilot, who seems to be new to this business, tries to negotiate the rectangular waterways.
On a rise of the highway is Hoot’s, a roadside snack and bait shop. It’s been here, in one form or another, since the ‘40s, when Zeke Amburn ran the joint. It seems a long, long way from Rarity Bay. It’s a classic country convenience store crowded with multiple homages to Dale Earnhardt, camouflage hunters’ caps, and Ride the Dragon T-shirts. They get more motorcyclists heading toward that famous twisty highway than golfers. They occasionally get a customer who needs somebody to come out and look at a big dead ruminant mammal in the back of a truck. During deer season, Hoot’s is a deer-checking station.
“We got eight or 10 last year,” says Teresa Bowers. She and her husband Troy, a sometime contractor, run the place. “I think we’ve only had four this year.” Deer are all over the place now, and don’t even seem particularly spooky about humans anymore.
Teresa Bowers is making the Hootburgers (a quarter pound, with barbecue sauce added while it’s still on the grill) and Hoot Dogs (they’re especially fat sausages on a bun with kraut and cheese) today.
She was born in Maryville but grew up near Orlando, Fla. She recently visited her childhood home, and was shocked that the two-lanes were now six-lanes. “I’m hoping that doesn’t happen here for 20 or 30 years,” she says. “Really, I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. Pretty soon, there’s not going to be any farmland left.”
“Greenback doesn’t want to grow,” she says. “But Vonore’s coming down this way. The next thing you know, we’ll be in city limits.”
She doesn’t mind the newcomers herself. Few entrepreneurs do. “So many of our neighbors are from the North,” she says. “More are moving up from Florida because of all the hurricanes.”
Some members of her husband’s family were displaced by the Tellico project, but they’ve made peace with it. “I’d say it’s helped, a little bit,” she says. “A lot of folks wish they hadn’t taken the land they did. Especially what they didn’t need.” On this side, at least, TVA cleared some land adjacent to the lake that was never flooded.
There’s still a good deal of resentment of how TVA took the property in the ‘60s and ‘70s, even if, as Hammontree says, it’s mellowing. On the extreme end is the story of a terrorist named the Scarecrow; never apprehended, he took credit for a firebombing of TRDA offices in the 1980s. Few seem to feel quite that bitter about it, and most attitudes seem to be mixed at worse. But nearly everybody has a story about being forced to sell riverfront land to TVA for $450 an acre, and observing that lakefront land is now selling, unimproved, to affluent people from the Midwest for 1,000 times that much.
John Carson once raised cattle and corn on his 150-acre farm near old Fort Loudoun. He misses the place almost tangibly. When TVA moved him out, he lost several buildings, including “my new milking parlor.” He’s especially bitter about the loss of his buildings, some of which had been recently improved. “All that fertile land down there, it got covered. We had the best soil,” partly due to seasonal flooding. “The river used to flow, filled up that lower valley with good topsoil.” He’s quick to insist that he liked Red Wagner personally, and doesn’t blame the dam’s biggest booster for any of his problems.
“But that’s terrible, what they did,” he says. “We just didn’t get anything out of it.”
Mary Hendershot of Madisonville is a lifelong Monroe County resident, daughter of an old county judge. She’s director of the Monroe Area Council for the Arts, and is also president of the association that maintains Fort Loudoun. She grew up with the Tellico project always in the background, and few have more complicated feelings about the whole thing than she does.
“I was always against it. I hate the loss of the farmland; the Little Tennessee valley was always the best farmland in the area. There were some beautiful antebellum homes there. And the Cherokee sites, at the Indian mound at Toqua.”
Most people didn’t want to see the dam built, she says, “especially around Vonore, the people who were supposed to benefit from it. But there was no way you could fight TVA at that time.”
“Most were opposed to it in the beginning,” she says. “People around here don’t like paying taxes, don’t like the federal government, don’t like people messing with their property.”
But by the time the snail-darter controversy popped up, they thought, “It’s too late; TVA’s already destroyed everything. By then, there was a lot of self-interest. They were thinking of new jobs. And some were bass fishermen.”
She was talking the other day to a bass fisherman from Maryville who had earlier supported the project, but now dislikes it.
“They don’t like some of the changes,” she says. “All of the development, all of the influx of people from other parts of the country.”
She doesn’t use the term Yankees, but you know what she means. She doesn’t mind them so much herself. She has befriended the newcomers of the new retirement communities and says they have been big supporters of her arts projects, as people with money from urban areas tend to be. She estimates that 80 percent of the people who attend her group’s performing-arts shows are newcomers from the new developments, though she says that ratio is not only attributable to rising newcomer interest, but atrophy in attendance from formerly supportive locals who tell her they’re overwhelmed by the unfamiliar faces.
She says there seems to be a cultural cold war on the shores of Tellico Lake. “I don’t like what I see of parallel communities developing.” She recalls that in 1992, she attended a Tellico Village property-owners meeting, then their equivalent of city council, in the role of soliciting hosts for an exchange-student program. “A fellow got up, talking about the voter-registration drive,” she recalls. He said, in a Midwestern accent, “This year, we’re the new kids on the block. But 10 years from now, we’re gonna be the bullies on the block.” It may have been careless Yankee bravado, but it bothered Hendershot.
She says the other day she saw a bulletin board at a strip mall in Vonore soliciting members for a new chapter of the Rotary Club. It specifically invited residents of Tellico Village, Kahite, and Rarity Bay. “I thought, What about Vonore?” Locals need not apply.
The pronunciation of that mysterious old name has become an indicator of personal allegiance. Most locals say VON-ore. Northern newcomers—and some TVA officials we spoke to—say von-ORE. Locals are used to mispronunciations—after all, nearby Lenoir City’s correctly pronounced that way—but they’re not used to being overwhelmed with it.
“There’s been this outcry,” says Hendershot. “At meetings, local people shout, ‘It’s VON-ore!’” She likes the old pronunciation, but she thinks it’s changing. It may be that a majority of the people who live on Tellico Lake now pronounce it von-ORE.
Hendershot likes one thing about Tellico Lake. Some of her Monroe County neighbors are frustrated with TVA and TRDA’s restrictions on development on the lakeshore. “Tellico Lake is a beautiful lake,” she says, “because TVA did purchase all this property that has controlled the development of the shorelines.” She worries that under its current fiscal pressures, TVA may release more and more shoreline for development.
Some of the lakeshore is nearly natural. On the southwestern shore, there’s a one-lane road posted with warnings about Indian relics; collecting them here is strictly against federal law. Not far along the road is a modest stone monument inscribed, “TANASI, CAPITAL OF THE CHEROKEE NATION, 1721-1730 / ORIGIN OF THE NAME FOR THE STATE OF TENNESSEE.”
It goes on to explain that the site, where the first Emperor of the Cherokee Nation took the throne in 1721, is “now underwater...about 300 yards west of this marker.”
You can stand here and be the closest person in the world to a site that gave a big river and a big state their names. For a long spell on a sunny weekend afternoon, there’s no competition for that status. There is only the sound of birds chirping and fish flopping. No cars, no boats, not one other person. And in the very far distance, a low rumble that may be civilization, or something like it.
The Little Tennessee River valley, the area now covered by Tellico Lake, was East Tennessee’s Mesopotamia. This was the Cherokees’ northernmost confederation, the Overhill country, “the land across the 24 mountains.”
Besides Tanasi, there were several others villages: Chota, or Chote, the sacred city capital; Tuskegee, the birthplace of Sequoyah, the first to devise a native American written language. Tomotley, Toqua, and Great Tellico, at one time a breeding ground for anti-white sentiment.
In the 1750s, before there was a rumor of any English-speaking town in what’s now East Tennessee, when the founders of Knoxville were small children, the British built their only fort in the region along the Little Tennessee, near Tuskegee. The motives for building Fort Loudoun were ostensibly to check French ambitions for the area, but nothing was ever clear. The short story of Fort Loudoun, which existed for barely four years, is a dark, confusing, melancholic tale of mendacity and murder. Both the British and the Cherokee would likely be surprised to learn there’d ever be anything named for it.
By the 1790’s, a U.S. fort, the Tellico Blockhouse, stood near the site of the already vanished Fort Loudoun. It remained there until 1807; today, you can walk on its ruins, the rectangular stone foundation preserved on the banks of the lake.
Whites were moving in by then, and the Cherokee Overhill towns lasted until their forceful removal by federal policy in the 1830s.
Fort Loudoun was nearly forgotten, unknown to most Knoxvillians, anyway, until the early 1940s, when TVA was casting around for the name of another dam, a wartime project to be built near Lenoir City. It struck a lot of folks as an odd thing to name that big new dam for that old fort, no longer intact; even its first attempt at a historic reconstruction was overgrown by then.
It seems appropriate that Fort Loudoun’s tortured history stretches into the present day. Near the reconstruction of Fort Loudoun is a plaque declaring it a National Landmark. That rarely granted distinction prevents sites from being destroyed. The only site in Knoxville regarded a National Landmark is Blount Mansion. What remained of Fort Loudoun got the distinction in 1965.
However, the Cherokee sites, like Tanasi and Chota and Tuskegee, Sequoyah’s birthplace, never gained National Landmark status.
Even though few would argue the short-lived fort, which had negligible impact on the outcome of the French and Indian War, was a more significant site than Chota, the sacred capital of the Overhill Cherokee. But it was Fort Loudoun that got Landmark designation. Forced by other federal agencies, TVA had to come up with a plan to save it.
In answering a question about whether the actual site of the original Fort Loudoun is under water, the state ranger has a memorized spiel it’s hard to get him off of. He doesn’t like simple answers, but as best we could tell, it’s not under water so much as it’s under dirt. The government “preserved” the site by covering it with 17 feet of fill, contoured in the same unusual slope layout as the original fort. The site of the original Fort Loudoun is 17 feet below the surface of the reconstructed Fort Loudoun, to which foundation stones and other features were raised as if they were found there.
The remains of the later Tellico Blockhouse, visible just across the inlet, seem comparatively authentic.
Mentioning the Indian sites now flooded, the ranger departs from his script. “I strongly believe that this site would have been flooded if not for that plaque back there,” he says.
Tellico Village sports dozens of native-American names on its clubs and roads and golf courses,
With a Tecumseh Lane, Court, Way, Point, Place, etc., that famous Shawnee chief gets more attention here than you might expect him to, considering he wasn’t a Cherokee and never lived near here, and considering he was an avowed enemy of the United States, dedicated to the violent resistance to all white settlement west of the Appalachians.
And there’s the Tanasi Lagoon, and Tanasi Golf Course. Tanasi Place, Tanasi Way, Tanasi Lane, Tanasi Court, Tanasi Circle, Tanasi Point, Tanasi Trail, Tanasi Drive. All this development would have been unlikely, of course, if the real Tanasi were not underwater.
Sequoyah Road leads to the Yacht and Country Club, alongside Sequoyah Point Villas; some under construction, they’re brick, of identical gable design.
Tuskegee, Sequoyah’s underwater home, is several miles upriver from Sequoyah Point. And not far from it, on a near-island, is the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum.
Founded in 1986 by the eastern tribe of the Cherokee, and still supported by them, it’s a simple modern structure with pictures and artifacts and video monitors, most of them featuring Bill Landry’s “Heartland Series” takes on Tellico story. It looks as if maybe it’s seen a few busloads of kids, but explains the valley’s thousands of years of Indian history, and accounts of the Tellico Archaeological Project, a scholarly program to catalogue the Indian remains of the valley; it wasn’t complete until the waters started rising in 1979.
The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum isn’t actually on Sequoyah’s birthplace, which of course is underwater. Advertised on I-75, the museum reportedly draws 14,000 visitors a year, but on an afternoon of a long-holiday weekend, we saw it all alone.
It’s a fairly standard museum and gift shop, with one difference; behind the museum, across a field down the slope toward the water, there’s an unnatural mound, maybe six feet high. In an angular dissection of the mound is a stone inscription explaining that it contains the remains of 191 people, found in town sites that were flooded in 1979, presumably Cherokees who died here before their exodus in the Trail of Tears of the 1830s, which evacuated all the Cherokee town sites.
Not far from the Sequoyah Museum on 360 is a roadside diner that serves baked chicken, pinto beans, and cornbread. Its name is mournful: the Lost River Cafe.
Tellico has undeniable successes, but its shortfalls may make for a cautionary tale about the perils of long-range planning. Today it’s hard to find anyone in the agency who can be responsive to or accountable for the promises their predecessors at TVA were making for this place 30 years ago. Some question the figures their predecessors once touted. The people who made the promises about what Tellico Lake would be like in 2004 are all gone. Aubrey Wagner, the TVA chief who championed the Tellico project with relentless optimism, died long ago. Most of those who worked on its early planning have left the agency, as TVA has shrunk, shifting away from planning and concentrating more on power production and flood control.
The TVA representatives we talked to don’t even remember Jim Gober, the TVA planner who was prominent for making extravagant promises about Timberlake, the utopian city of 50,000 with egalitarian principles.
One of the few figures from the controversial era who is still around is ecology Professor David Etnier, who discovered the snail darter in the Little T in 1973. He still keeps an office at UT. About a year after the impoundment of Tellico Lake, which many believed would doom the snail darter, he and his class found more of them in Chickamauga Creek near Chattanooga. Since then, partly he thinks due to TVA’s help in aeration of some streams, the snail darter has been found to be thriving in the fast-water parts of the Holston, the French Broad, and Little River. No longer an endangered species, the snail darter is now only “threatened,” and Etnier is heartened that maybe before long the snail darter will graduate from that list, too.
In semi-retirement, he is still known among his colleagues as one of the region’s fish experts. Of Tellico Lake, he says, “It’s only an average fishing lake in an area of abundant fishing lakes that are as good or better. Of course, the promise of barge traffic on the lake was never fulfilled.”
He hasn’t yet seen anything that would change his mind. “We didn’t need it then,” says Etnier, “and we don’t need it now.”
Now-retired history professor and author Bruce Wheeler’s book TVA and the Tellico Dam is largely critical, but the 1986 book leaves open the prospect that the dam might have accomplished something worthwhile, at whatever cost. He still thinks TVA oversold the project in the face of daunting opposition. Wheeler has visited the reservoir recently, but hasn’t studied its progress. Today he says, “To be honest, I think the project probably did have some benefits”—but he wonders whether much of the development of the area might have happened anyway, following the development patterns of greater Knoxville and Maryville, without a dam and lake.
Some historians have suggested that there was a credo at TVA that it would never be enough to run the largest utility in America. The agency was created in a heroic era to move mountains; if TVA wasn’t building new dams, it was dying. Perhaps TVA built Tellico Dam to survive. In the 25 years since the agency’s last big dam project, TVA has shriveled to a fraction of its former size.
Tellico Lake is, today, most famously a setting for retirement resorts and exclusive golf courses, but it also hosts significant industry and public recreational opportunities. It also offers at least nominal benefits in flood control and hydroelectric production.
Whether this result was worth the enormous expense of federal money, the permanent loss of rich farmland, Cherokee cultural sites, and a legendary river, remains an open question, met with perhaps as many plausible answers as it was in 1979.
December 9, 2004 • Vol. 14, No. 50
© 2004 Metro Pulse