May 16, 2023

Iconic Locations: Fontana Dam

Today, we’re hiking on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, to the site of Fontana Dam. It’s the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Constructed in the 1940s, the dam and its resulting reservoir flooded four towns and affected the...

Today, we’re hiking on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, to the site of Fontana Dam. It’s the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Constructed in the 1940s, the dam and its resulting reservoir flooded four towns and affected the daily lives and memories of many people. So, why was the dam built and what lies beneath the cool blue waters of Fontana Lake?

Further Reading:

“Fontana Dam, N.C.,” Appalachian Trail Conservancy

“The History of Fontana Village,” Fontana Village Resort and Marina.

“Interview with Commodore A. Casada, 11 November 2009,” interview by Rhydon T. Atzenhoffer, Oral Histories of Western North Carolina, Southern Appalachian Digital Collections.

Archival Photographs of Fontana Village and Fontana Lake, Southern Appalachian Digital Collections.

“Fontana,” Tennessee Valley Authority.

“Tennessee Valley Authority Act (1933),” National Archives and Records Administration.

Pete Seeger, "The TVA Song," Gazette, Vol. 1 (1958) Smithsonian Folkways Recordings 


RACHEL WHYTE: At R2 Studios we’re on a mission to democratize history through podcasting, but making our shows for you requires a lot of investment. 

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[river sounds, water rushing]

MILLS KELLY: Have you ever been hiking on the Appalachian Trail, stopped for a moment to look around and wondered, what was on the land before the trail passed through it? 

KELLY: The AT passes through many iconic locations that have changed over the years. Sometimes, those changes are small, other times they are very…very big. For the small town of Fontana, North Carolina, one change meant taking on something every hiker needs out on the trail. Water. A lot of water. 

[Intro Music]

KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly and I’m your host.

KELLY: In previous episodes, we’ve explored what happens along the trail when people living in the mountains were forced to move from their homes to make way for national parks, national forests, or reservoirs. Hikers aren’t always aware of the history of those communities especially when little remains of these lost landscapes. 

KELLY: But what about those times when you can’t even see the land at all?

KELLY: Today, we’re hiking on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, to the site of Fontana Dam. It’s the tallest dam east of the Rocky Mountains. Constructed in the 1940s by the Tennessee Valley Authority, or TVA, the dam and its resulting 10,000-acre reservoir flooded four towns and displaced around one hundred people. And it affected the daily lives and memories of many more. 

KELLY: If you know where to look, you might spot the ghostly remains of the communities drowned by Fontana Lake. Perhaps you’ll see the ruins of a house or the roads where residents once lived and walked. But if you’re like most hikers who walk the section of the AT that passes over the top of Fontana Dam, you’ll probably only notice the mountain views, gray concrete, and the cool blue waters of the lake below. 

[Pete Seeger "TVA Song]

KELLY: The TVA was created by an Act of Congress in 1933 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The TVA was just one of a whole alphabet soup of federal agencies designed to combat the Great Depression. It created jobs and helped transform the Tennessee River Valley through various projects including the electrification of rural communities, flood control measures, and agricultural land preservation. 

KELLY: TVA engineers proposed constructing a new hydroelectric dam on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, just outside of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The dam was named for the small lumber and copper-mining town of Fontana, that was located where Eagle Creek met the Little Tennessee River in Graham County, North Carolina. 

KELLY: Work on Fontana Dam began in January 1942, just weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The project provided many badly needed jobs in the area and helped meet the growing electrical needs of the local aluminum industry. The production of aluminum requires an enormous amount of power and during World War II, the need for reliable supplies of electricity became even more important. Aluminum was a critical component of the airplanes and other materials needed for the war effort. It’s no wonder then, that Fontana Dam was built with record speed. It was finished in November 1944, just shy of three years after construction started.

KELLY: Fontana Dam contains over 2.8 million cubic yards of concrete. On an average summer day, it produces about 304 megawatts of electricity. Think of it this way. The standard lightbulb found in a American home is a 60-watt bulb. One megawatt is equivalent to over 16 thousand of those light bulbs. If you want to think a little bit bigger, 304 megawatts is enough to power about 10,500 modern houses every day. 

[hiking sounds]

KELLY: So what about the Appalachian Trail? In 1946, two years after the dam was completed, the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club suggested relocating a nearby section of the AT so that it would pass over the dam. The new route brought the trail north along Fontana Lake, across the top of the dam, and then into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

KELLY: Of all the views along the AT, the almost half a mile that goes directly across the top of the Fontana Dam has been described by hikers as one of the most breathtaking. Below the dam are views of the Little Tennessee River and above, the Great Smoky Mountains.

KELLY: The dam has also become famous with long distance hikers for the overnight shelter located nearby. Built in the 1980s, this shelter is commonly referred to as the “Fontana Hilton.” At this luxury shelter, you’ll find many amenities, including ample sleeping space, recharging stations for electronics, flush toilets, and hot showers. But don’t expect turndown service. 

[hiking sounds end]

KELLY: Those staying at the Fontana Hilton are only a small portion of the more than 100,000 yearly visitors who come to hike and enjoy the amazing views. But what about the people of the original town of Fontana who were forced to relocate?  

COMMODORE CASADA: It started animosity. They were against almost anything that was going to tear up their way of living.

KELLY: That was Commodore Cassada, a lifelong resident of Bryson City, which is located upstream from Fontana Lake. In 2009, at the age of 100, he recorded an oral history with Western Carolina University. Commodore was 33 years old when work on the dam began. Nearly 70 years later, he still remembered how upset people were over relocation.  

CASADA: I guess the old way of saying it was their feelings were hurt. They just felt like they were not having much of a part in it, they were just being pushed, just had to go as somebody else directed. I don't know why I would have a feeling on it, but that's the way I felt about it. I guess I wouldn't like to be pushed around it, I’d rather be led.

KELLY: While many of the people who had to move were upset, not everyone saw it as a bad thing.

CASSADA: Like almost any other question, there were two sides to it. Some people looked forward to it because there would be good jobs for awhile and other people were against it because they wanted to keep things as they were and I’d say that it was maybe an even split on each side. Discussions you heard sometimes got a little off track and wouldn’t be important or anything, but all in all I think the general public here wanted the dam. They wanted it in a different way, they would rather it been built by North Carolina people, but there was no way to do that, so TVA is it and I think people very well agreed to it. 

KELLY: For Commodore and others, the construction of the Fontana Dam took some getting used to. 

CASADA: There's a certain feeling that it's just kind of a settled thing now, it’s done and it’s done, and nothing could be done about it, it’s just a moot subject. My feelings are that in some ways, I liked it the way it was, I think if something stays just exactly like it is, eventually it will rot.

CASADA: And I think all in all it was probably good for North Carolina.

CASADA: But oh, you’d find some, fuss up a storm about the lake and everything. But people I think just accepted it and started using it. Fishing and boating and everything.

[sounds of a boats and waves]

KELLY: Today, the portion of the AT that crosses Fontana Dam is known for its beauty and recreation. Along this section of the AT there is something for everyone: scenic views, small-town charm, and, of course, plenty of trails to hike. 

KELLY: And then, there is the water. Fontana Lake is one of the deepest man-made lakes in the United States, with a maximum depth of 440 feet. And with a surface area of just over 10,000 acres, the lake also features about 240 miles of shoreline. Tourists flock to the area for its natural beauty, and it’s popular for fishing and water sports. 

KELLY: Fontana Dam and its lake are a great place to make new memories and stories to tell future generations. But it’s important to remember the stories that remain hidden below. At Fontana Lake, physical remnants of the past are 400 feet below the surface. So next time you’re walking across the dam or spending time on the lake, take a moment to peer into the depths of those cool blue waters, and wonder…what lies beneath? 

[Outro Music]

RACHEL WHYTE: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

WHYTE: Today’s dam episode was produced by me, Rachel Whyte, and Hayley Madl. Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske are the executive producers.

WHYTE: Thank you to Western Carolina University’s Hunter Library for allowing us to use their recording of Commodore Casada. 

WHYTE: The archival music you heard was “The TVA Song” performed by Pete Seeger. Thanks to the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Recording Collection for allowing us to feature this song, which appeared on Gazette, Vol. 1 in 1958. You’ll find a link to the full album in our show notes for this episode. 

WHYTE: That’s it for today. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you again soon!

[End Outro Music]