Portrait of America: Survey Graphic in the ThirtiesHomeIntroductionEditor's NotesArticlesFurther Reading
Bench-Marks in the Tennessee Valley

I. Strength in the Hills

by Arthur E. Morgan

Chairman, Tennessee Valley Authority

January 1934

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

MID-DECEMBER rounded out the first six months of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The first step of the three of us appointed to the responsible management was to get acquainted with each other, for my two associates had never met each other, and I had met each of them only once or twice. Our second step was to divide the field functionally.

Dr. H. A. Morgan, president of the State University of Tennessee, is charged with those developments with respect to fertilizers which I have described; and with the problem of the balance of agriculture and industry which is close to his heart. To David E. Lilienthal fell the transmission and selling of power; the purchase of all right of way, and the study of railroads and other transportation.

Apart from my duties as chairman, with the assembling and management of the staff, the construction of the dams has come to me, along with the fields of social and economic planning, education, and the development of a unified plan for the control and use of the waters of the region. We spent July, August and September in getting our new functions going; and before the end of September construction was under way. With vast unemployment in the Valley, impatience to see the dirt fly was natural. Laymen could not know, for example, that it took a twenty-seven days' test of the rock at the Norris damsite to discover how strong concrete it would make, before deciding on whether we should have to build a railroad to bring in sand and gravel from a distance. But such studies, of course, were only small items in bringing down to earth a great change in national policy in a given series of operations.

Let me go back to the time the Wilson Dam or Muscle Shoals, as it was then called, was undertaken as a war measure. Its completion after the War was opposed by those who insisted that the generation and distribution of power should be solely a private industry. Finally the Dam was finished, and then it lay all but idle for six years while a contest was fought out in Congress between the advocates of public and those of private generation and distribution of power. Twice Congress under Senator Norris' lead passed bills for the public operation of the Wilson Dam power plant, but each time the bill was vetoed by the president in office. Finally President Roosevelt proposed and Congress passed a general program of public generation and transmission of power as part of the Tennessee Valley Authority program.

One of his aims was to prepare a "yardstick" of public ownership with which to compare the costs of private ownership. The law provides that power from Muscle Shoals or from other developments must be sold primarily for domestic use in cities and rural areas. Sales can be made to private power companies or for manufacturing purposes, but household and farm use shall come first.

The Wilson Dam power plant is what is called a "run of the river" plant. That is, there is very little storage of water in the lake above the dam. When the Tennessee River is high during the winter there is water enough to develop 300,000 horsepower or more. During the driest summer seasons, the flow is small and there is water enough for only 50,000. To correct this wide variation of flow, the new act provided for the construction of the Cove Creek Dam and power plant on the Clinch River more than two hundred miles upstream from Muscle Shoals. This dam, which since has been given the name of Senator Norris, the champion of public power development, will create a storage reservoir, great enough to store almost a year's rainfall.

During the winter, when the river is high and power is abundant at Muscle Shoals, this Norris Dam plant will be shut down and the water will be stored in the reservoir. During the summer when the river is low and power is scarce, the Norris Dam power plant will be operated. The water used for generating power at the Norris Dam will, however, then flow down to the Wilson Dam at Muscle Shoals where it will be used again to develop more power. The two dams operated as a single system will generate five or six times as much dependable power as either one alone.

Certain plans for the new dam were inherited by the TVA, but they had been developed with great haste. We presented them to the ablest designers in the country, who advised us that they ought to be thoroughly remade. The most effective organization for such work is the ganization for such work is the United States Bureau of Reclamation, with its designing office at Denver, where plans are made for more dams than in any other office in the United States, if not in the world. They have recently finished designing the Boulder Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, which is the biggest dam ever built, the Madden Dam at Panama, and are engaged on the Columbia Basin dams in the Far West. This organization set aside some of its ablest designers to take up the Norris Dam problem. About forty of their engineers have been working at it and we have added a number of men to that staffămen who are experienced in certain fields where we needed help.

PEAKING before the Kiwanis Club of Knoxville, I endeavored to give its members a picture of some of the factors entering into such a project and I will pass it along to you. A completed dam looks like a piece of concrete anyone could make, but it is much more than that. The Norris Dam will have a wall of water behind it more than 200 feet high. When one begins to deal with the great pressures that such walls of water exert, he must be very careful. I have been in this class of work for a good many years and seldom get on a job before people say, "Why don't you speed up?" We want to build the Norris Dam in such a way that as the years pass, no responsible engineer will say that safety was overlooked. Any kind of preparation but the most thorough would be treason on the part of engineers who build structures on which the lives of people depend.

Every new engineering job brings up new variations of old problems. There is the question of how much water will come over the top of the dam when the greatest floods occur in the future. We must know whether we are preparing for 250,000 cubic feet of water a second or 350,000 over the spillway. If we provide for too much, it means waste. If we provide for too little, there might be lack of safety. No two regions are exactly alike. We have ransacked this country for records and there is not a stream in the eastern United States with flood records which we have not compared with flood possibilities in the Tennessee Valley.

A record of flow in the Tennessee River has been kept for half a century, but we need to know as nearly as possible what the relationship is between the greatest flow in that period and the greatest flood that might ever occur. On such judgment safety depends. Two weeks after the contractors started work on a flood-control project in the Middle West, a flood occurred, not of 90,000 cubic feet per second, like the one planned for on the basis of seventy-five years' experience, but of 250,000 cubic feet per second. This flood drowned two hundred people and destroyed $100,000,000 of property. Such mistakes must be avoided.

In building the Norris Dam, we have secured all available material regarding the Clinch River, on which it is located. The region is between two sets of hills, and it seems to be true that the rainfall is less than on either side of them. Storms coming from the east produce greater floods to the east of us. Storms that come up the Mississippi Valley seem to produce heavier rainfall than do storms on the Clinch River drainage area. If these things are true without exception, it means that we might save one or two million dollars in the design of our dam. But are we sure of it?

The public isn't thinking of such problems, but hydraulic engineers must exhaust every last scrap of evidence before they reach their decisions. In our efforts in the past to work through these problems, we have gone back to Europe to study floods wherever records existed. For example, on the Danube River, near Vienna, there are marks on a castle wall which show where high water has reached. The highest mark was recorded in the year 1055 and that flood was 50 percent larger than any flood that has occurred since. There are interesting records in Ceylon, on the Tiber in Italy, and on the Seine in Paris, though in few cases are there dependable records with conditions comparable to those of today.

We have searched everywhere for records to get a long-range view in our Tennessee Valley planning. Work like this has to be done. It isn't spectacular, but it is important

Meanwhile, in the four or five months during which plans for the Norris Dam have been taking shape, we could go ahead with our coffer dams, strip the base of the dam, excavate the sides of the hill, open up quarries and start building our town which will house the larger construction crews when the main work gets under way. And we could send to the reclamation laboratory at Denver a carload of local stone, sand and other materials to be tested for use in building. If these could be obtained at the damsite, and the stone could be crushed economically, then we would have everything handy except the cement, which we could truck about five miles from the nearby railroad station of Coal Creek. It was not until August that we got a contract for an option to purchase the land at the dam, and our men were allowed to go in to get some of these materials for testing; and once we had them, the testing took a month. But the tests panned out right and saved building a railroad which would cost three or four hundred thousand dollars.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003