The memory endured for a lifetime: Juanita Shook, 5 years old, stood beside her grandfather on his farm on the north slope of the Little Tennessee River valley, some 30 miles west of Bryson City. It was just months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
A man from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) came walking toward them. He had been here before, had done his best to persuade her grandfather, Scott Anthony Shook, to give up his land. It was needed for the war effort, the man said.
By then, almost all the neighbors had left. The tenants who boarded free at the empty houses on the property had all left. The man held out a check and said, Now, Mister Anthony, you take this check and be out by Monday. “Finally, at last, Grandpa reached up and took the check, and his hand was trembling,” Juanita recalls. “And he folded it and put it in the bib of his overalls.”
The TVA man turned and walked back to his car. What happened next imprinted the memory painfully deeper: “And when he went into the house and told Grandmother about it, she cried,” Juanita says. “I was little, but, I mean, that broke my heart. I can remember it better than about anything, because my grandmother was my love, and I couldn’t stand to see her cry.”
Once families like the Shooks cleared out, the TVA knocked down and burned the houses and barns and outbuildings to keep people from returning. Those removed from the land were told that a new dam would flood the valley and supply power to the Alcoa aluminum plant across the mountains in Tennessee, vital for aircraft production. The real reason for the project remained a closely guarded secret, not shared with the evicted farmers: Fontana Dam would also provide power for the development of an atomic weapon in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.
But before the water could flow, the people and their settlements had to be gone.
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The town of Fontana was founded three different times, first in 1906 as an unnamed lumber camp on Eagle Creek, a spartan place of tents and sawmills. A few years later, it was established as a real community of wooden buildings at the confluence of Eagle Creek and the Little Tennessee — including a commissary, houses, and a hotel. The wife of the Montvale Lumber Company’s vice president, Mrs. George Leidy Wood, christened the settlement “Fontana.” She wrote, “I thought of the lovely flowering glens, the waterfalls that looked like fountains, leaping from ledge to ledge, and eventually worked out the word ‘Fontana,’ a short word, musical, easy to spell.”
The scattered settlements around Fontana were really one community, connected by common struggles, an ethic of sharing and sacrifice, and family ties that went back many generations. Nobody was rich, but everybody seemed to have enough. The farms weren’t lush, flat acreage like in the Piedmont, but, instead, rugged, hardscrabble acres carved into the hills. The farmers harvested vegetables for their families, fruit from small orchards. Each family had a hog, left to roam free and gorge on windfall chestnuts all summer — before intensive logging and blight wiped out the chestnut trees in the late 1930s. Come fall, each farmer rounded up a hog — not necessarily his own — and butchered it for the winter larder.
During the Depression, farmers found extra work on logging crews or in copper mines. Roads were mostly graded dirt or gravel — only the main highway to Bryson City was blacktopped. Families transported themselves and their goods on horseback or in wagons or sleds drawn by horses, mules, or oxen. Few had ever traveled far beyond their home county — Swain or Graham. Settlements were named for the dominant families that established them in the 1800s: Kirkland Branch, Welch Cove, Cable Cove, Murphy Branch.
In 1931, after the timber had been logged out, Montvale sold the town to The North Carolina Exploration Company, a copper-mining outfit. Finally, in 1942, the TVA created a new Fontana Village in Welch Cove, above the river — about two miles from the dam building site. The old Fontana was drowned by the lake behind the dam — along with the wooden hotel in Bushnell, where Juanita Shook was born.
Ten miles of new road and a steel bridge were constructed to access Fontana. Almost overnight, the TVA transformed the remote site into the second-largest city in western North Carolina, home to more than 5,000 workers.
To attract skilled labor, scarce in wartime, the government provided housing: trailers stacked on hillsides for most and bungalows for others; a dormitory for unmarried men; and separate housing, a cafeteria, and a school for black workers’ families — even here, in the midst of a massive and urgent war effort, segregation held fast.
All families had access to communal washhouses. A shopping center and commissary served the new residents, and for such a large population engaged in this dangerous work, a 50-bed hospital was built astride the road leading from Fontana to the work site. A school with 19 classrooms accommodated some 500 white children from 46 states. The school auditorium also served as a movie theater, church, and civic center.
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A large contingent of kids wound up sharing a vivid slice of their childhoods at Fontana, while their fathers labored on the dam and their mothers tended the family, many of them also working in the offices, stores, or hospital.
One of those children, John Barton, arrived at the age of 5 with his two older sisters and a brother. He stayed until he completed second grade. His father drove a bulldozer to clear the site for construction. “We just kind of ran wild,” John remembers. “Everybody played outside from dusk until dark. It was safe, and my dad worked nights — we didn’t see much of him at all. They worked ’round the clock building this thing.”
It was a rough-and-tumble childhood. “We’d get in rock fights — throw rocks at each other. That was part of our entertainment,” John says. Other kids swung on grapevines, dangling from the bluffs above the village.
Jeanne Huggins’s father worked building frameworks to hold the poured concrete. For her, Fontana was not a childhood idyll but a trial. The family was housed in a cramped trailer: “It had propane in it that stunk like a skunk! I couldn’t stand the trailer,” she says.
One day, her mother warned her, Do not go to the washhouse.
“Of course, that made me absolutely want to go to the washhouse,” Jeanne says. “So I went to the washhouse and went around to the back from where the showers were built in at the back of the building, and there was a tub in there, and I looked at it, and it was full of blood and some clothes. I went back and told my mom.”
Told you not to go up there, her mother said.
Well, I went. I wanted to know what happened, Jeanne replied.
Her mother explained what she had seen: “The man working next to my dad — they were finishing, topping off the framework for the dam — she told me they worked with safety belts. That man’s broke, and he fell from the top of that dam and was crushed. They got him out and brought him up there. And she was so … distraught, I guess is the word,” Jeanne says. “She was washing his clothes out in that tub. And I thought, I want the hell out of this place!”
Wanda Presswood was 7 when she came from Ducktown, Tennessee. Her father relocated the family — including Wanda’s two sisters and a brother — to Fontana in two Ford woody station wagons.
He worked on one of the conveyor belts that carried six million tons of crushed rock across the river to the dam site. The equipment was being used hard and without pause, and during frequent breakdowns, he pulled a double shift. On those nights, his wife drove the kids down to the foot of the dam site to deliver his meal. To Wanda, the spectacle was amazing — the high concrete face lit by banks of floodlights created a magical effect. “And all you saw was these levels being built — and night was day all the time!” she says. “It was never dark over there — it was the most beautiful sight.”
For Wanda, the high point of any visit to the base of the dam was on days when the lake level was lowered for inspection of the dam and water was released through the spillway tunnels.
“When they sent that water through that tunnel, fish would fly up through that water, in the air,” Wanda says. “That was a sight to see!”
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Fontana Dam was designed to be the highest dam east of the Rockies, rising 480 feet above the riverbed, spanning the valley for 2,365 feet. The first challenge was to excavate 10 to 20 feet of overburden to reach bedrock on which the framework could be set.
Building the dam was dangerous work. Heavy machinery was moving night and day — bulldozers, whirly cranes, conveyor belts. Workers scrambled to high work sites as the structure rose. Gravity was the enemy — tools were dropped, men fell into concrete pours or were jostled off precarious scaffolds. On one occasion, a motorized shovel careened off the brink of the rock quarry and tumbled 300 feet down the mountainside. A worker who witnessed the accident, John Lee Patterson, described it: “It looked like a beer can mashed up when they started salvaging it.” Incredibly, the operator, who rode the machine all the way to the bottom, survived with only a broken arm.
The inherent risk of heavy construction was magnified by the sheer number of men and machines at work outdoors in all weather. And the speed with which the crews worked meant long hours, long weeks, and chronic fatigue.
During construction, 14 men were killed, 11 were permanently injured, and 447 suffered serious injuries.
The project manager, Fred C. Schlemmer, worked hard to maintain the morale of the workers and their families. Big-band music blared from loudspeakers at the work site. At the entrance to the cafeteria, a sign exhorted, “Work! Or Fight!” For Schlemmer, hearty food was a morale booster. By 1943, the cafeteria was turning out 6,000 meals a day, along with 2,000 more sack lunches. Schlemmer regularly posted progress reports — how many yards of concrete poured, what other milestones the workers had reached.
In the remarkable span of just three years — from January 1942 to January 1945 — Fontana Dam was constructed from a bare riverbed and began generating electricity at a rate of 228,500 kilowatts per day. As on all TVA projects, a large sign on the dam proclaims, “Built for the People of the United States of America — 1945.”
It backed up water in an artificial lake that’s 29 miles long, spilling over 10,670 acres — nearly 17 miles. Fontana Village was dismantled in 1945 almost as quickly as it was built — portable houses sold off, equipment moved to new sites, residents scattered back across the country. After the war, it enjoyed a revival as a tourist resort.
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But there was a cost to Fontana Dam, more than the $70 million spent and the workers’ lives lost. More than the isolated houses, barns, and stores that were inundated to make way for the dam. What was drowned was a greater community of hard-working, sharing neighbors and extended family. Their spirit was worked right into the land, generations deep.
Some people relocated to Bryson City and other mountain towns where they had kin. Others ranged far from their native ground, chasing jobs or trying to find new land.
Left behind were many of the graves of their pioneering forebears on the high ground on the north shore of the new lake. With old Route 288 underwater, the abandoned cemeteries are now inaccessible by land. The government promised a road to carry the evicted families back to those graves, but the road was never completed. It winds northwest out of Bryson City up a long series of steep switchbacks, through a tunnel blasted out of hard rock as old as the earth — and abruptly ends, arriving exactly nowhere.