by Shane Hayman
This year’s family vacation ended up in the Smoky Mountains, and we checked out the Fontana Dam in North Carolina, which was my favorite spot. Dad said that this dam makes Racine’s look like a Beaver dam. Here’s what I learned about Fontana Dam.
Fontana Dam is a hydroelectric dam on the Little Tennessee River. The dam is operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which built the dam in the early 1940’s to accommodate the skyrocketing electricity demands in the Tennessee Valley at the height of World War II. The dam impounds the 10,230 acre Fontana Lake, which spreads across a scenic stretch of the Little Tennessee along the southwestern boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Appalachian Trail crosses the top of the dam. Fontana is named for the now-inundated town of Fontana, a lumber and copper-mining hub once located at the mouth of Eagle Creek. The town’s name was derived from the Italian word for “fountain”.
The Little Tennessee River flows for 135 miles from its source in the mountains of northern Georgia to its mouth along the Tennessee River opposite Lenoir City, TN. Fontana is located 61 miles above the mouth of the Little Tennessee, in a remote area where the westward-flowing river bends briefly to the south.
Fontana Dam is 2,365 feet long and 480 feet high, making it the tallest dam in the Eastern United States. The dam has a flood storage capacity of 513,965 acre feet and the combined capacity of its three generators is 293.6 megawatts. Fontana Lake has 238 miles of shoreline and 10,230 acres of water surface, and its surface elevation varies by 57 feet annually. It is the 4th biggest dam in the world.
The Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA) began investigating the Little Tennessee Valley around 1910 in hopes of finding a power source for the massive amounts of electricity needed at its aluminum production operations at nearby Alcoa, Tennessee. In 1913, ALCOA purchased the Tallassee Power Company (now Tapoco), and by 1930 the two entities had completed Cheoah and Calderwood dams, as well as Santeetlah Dam on the Cheoah River. By the mid-1930s, ALCOA had assessed the Fontana site and had purchased the initial 15,000 acres for the dam’s construction. In 1935, the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was concerned with the Little Tennessee’s effect on flood control in the greater Tennessee Valley, began negotiating with ALCOA to assume control of the Fontana project. Although ALCOA preferred TVA build the dam, TVA was unable to get necessary funding for the project until the outbreak of World War II in 1941, when emergency wartime initiatives called for a drastic increase in aluminum production. On August 14, 1941, TVA and ALCOA signed the “Fontana Agreement,” which gave TVA possession of Fontana and control over the releases and output of Tapoco’s Little Tennessee Valley dams, and in return guaranteed that ALCOA would be the primary benefactor of the dam’s electrical output for at least twenty years. Congress authorized funding on December 17, 1941, and construction of Fontana Dam began on January 1, 1942.
The building of Fontana Dam and its reservoir required the purchase of 68,292 acres of land, 5,125 acres of which were forested and had to be cleared. 1,311 families, 1,047 graves, and over 60 miles of roads had to be relocated. The towns of Fontana, Bushnell, Forney, and Judson were completely inundated. The village of Welch Cove (later renamed Fontana Village) was constructed just south of the dam to house the project's workers, whose numbers had reached 5,000 by 1943 in spite of nationwide manpower shortages.
The design of the dam was unusual for TVA at the time. It was feared that the 2,818,000 yd³ of concrete required for the dam would create a structure so massive, that heat released during its setting would be trapped for years, and would eventually cause cracks to form. To aide the release of this heat, engineers divided the dam into contraction joints and outfitted them with grout pipes and cooling coils. The dam's spillway presented another problem, as engineers were worried that the water's 400-foot drop would eventually cause erosion issues at the dam's foundation. A special spillway was thus designed that drains water out through two 34-foot diameter spill pipes into a diversion tunnel equipped with a deflection system. The dam's design is largely the work of TVA Chief Architect Roland Wank.
Fontana Dam was completed at a cost of $70,420,688.48 and the gates closed on November 11, 1944. Two generating units were placed in operation on January 20, 1945, in time to provide crucial energy for aluminum production in the closing months of World War II. Over 40,000 acres along Fontana Lake's north shore were eventually transferred to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and several thousand acres along the south shore were transferred to the U.S. Forest Service.