Building a Better Life for the Tennessee Valley

In 1936, the Unified Development of the Tennessee River System plan laid out the tactics by which TVA would build dams to transform the poverty-stricken, often-flooded Valley into a modern, electrified and developed slice of America. It also provided TVA with an identity and a vision and that drives the company today.

“It was a dark and stormy night….” That classic line has opened a thousand cornball novels. In the early 1930s, here in the Tennessee Valley, it was always the prelude to a real horror story. The Tennessee River ran wild in those days, flooding regularly, causing loss of homes and businesses, topsoil and crops, livestock and lives.

On the fairest of days, the river was more or less non-navigable—making it hard for people to get their goods to market—and filled with hazards, the most famous of which are the Muscle Shoals in Alabama. Moreover, it was frequently fetid: three out of five people in North Alabama (near the Shoals) would suffer in their lifetime from malaria.

Then, only three in 100 people had electricity to light their lives and labors; far fewer had running water. It was a hard life in the Tennessee Valley then. The wild and raging river only made it harder.

A Better Way

But President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Senator George Norris had a vision for a better life for the people of the region, which they outlined in the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, passed in 1933. The act provided for flood control, electrification, navigation and the overall improvement of the quality of life.

That was the mission. The tactics would come later—specifically in the form of the Unified Development of the Tennessee River System, which outlined a plan for the building of hydroelectric dams that would allow TVA to:

  • Control flooding
  • Allow for navigation throughout the Tennessee Valley watershed, including tributary rivers, such as the Clinch, Hiwassee and Little Tennessee
  • Provide electricity
  • Control insect populations
  • Create reservoirs for recreation
  • Help with soil conservation and resource management

The plan was approved in March of 1936. When the TVA Act was passed, TVA had acquired Wilson Dam in North Alabama, and work began almost immediately on Norris Dam in East Tennessee. But when the plan passed, a roadmap was in place for nine more dams that would transform the entire region into one that could enjoy a more stable, modern American lifestyle and at last be attractive for economic development. Those dams included Wheeler, Pickwick, Guntersville, Chickamauga, Hiwassee, Watts Bar, Fort Loudoun, Fontana and Kentucky.

Expanding the Vision

World War II would again transform the Valley—as aluminum production increased throughout the region and work on nuclear weapons intensified at Oak Ridge National Laboratories in East Tennessee—prompting more dam building and the addition of other means of electricity generation, including coal plants. Dams added to the plan during the war included Cherokee, Douglas, Ocoee No. 3 and Apalachia. At wartime peak in 1942, TVA had twelve hydroelectric projects under construction, as well as a large steam plant.

As America converted back to peacetime in the 1950s, TVA’s unifying vision continued to expand, and it built several additional dams devoted to power production and flood control, including Watauga, South Holston, Boone and Fort Patrick Henry in upper East Tennessee, as well as Nottely Dam in North Georgia and Chatuge Dam in North Carolina. (Some of these—such as Watauga and South Holston—had actually been started before WWII, but their power generation could not supply the massive energy needed for wartime, so construction was deferred until after the war so that much-needed manpower could be used elsewhere.)

In the 1960s, TVA built Melton Hill Dam, the only tributary dam in the TVA system with a navigational lock. It also built Nickajack Dam below Chattanooga to replace the leaking Hales Bar Dam built by the Tennessee Electric Power Company in 1913. The 1970s saw the completion of Tims Ford, Normandy and Tellico—the last of TVA’s dam-building efforts.

A Unified Identity

By 1955, coal had surpassed hydroelectric as TVA’s primary source of power. However, while TVA moved into other forms of energy production, the river system continued to form its identity and even today marks the company as unique.

As it was planned in 1933 and implemented in 1936, TVA’s hydro system is both the backbone of the company and the linchpin that links the three areas of endeavor laid out in its mission—serving the people of the valley by providing energy, environmental stewardship and economic development.

In every essential way, the unified plan created TVA as it is today—and secured a safe, healthy and economically viable region for the 9 million residents of the Tennessee Valley. And today all our, “Once upon a times,” are more likely lead to happy memories and success stories because of it.

The Unified Development of the Tennessee River plan stressed TVA was to provide flood control, navigation and electricity for the region. TVAs dams are tangible evidence of its primary mission: improving life in the Tennessee Valley. We’re celebrating the 80th anniversary of the plan with an in-depth look at 32 dams it comprises.