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Stories from the Smokies

A Massive War Effort

Just nine days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Congress authorized the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to construct Fontana Dam in a rugged and remote mountain area on the Little Tennessee River in Western North Carolina. The dam was needed to support the war effort by providing electricity for the production of aluminum, and more significantly to aid in nuclear power research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Construction began in 1942.

At the same time, Oak Ridge was becoming a major participant in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project. General Leslie Groves was creating a new town to accommodate 30,000 workers and construct the complex machinery that supplied the uranium-235 used in the first atomic bomb. It was a massive project highly dependent on electrical power.

Blasting for a dam

Workers watching blasting at the start of construction.

Construction on Fontana Dam never stopped. For three years, crews worked around the clock in three 8-hour shifts.

TVA’s Fontana Dam construction schedule imposed a challenging 36-month deadline with thousands of men working around the clock. The construction required more than 2.8 million cubic yards of concrete, all manufactured from rock blasted at a newly built quarry one mile away.

Due to the remote location, workers – some with families – were housed in a village built on site with dormitories, houses, and basic amenities. Some buildings remain today as part of Fontana Village Resort. With most men working construction, women took on jobs normally done by men, including map making, drafting and public safety. Women made up 10% of Fontana’s workforce.

Fontana Dam was completed in November 1944 right on schedule. Of the 29 hydroelectric dams built by the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s and ’40s, Fontana is by far the largest — 480 feet high and a half-mile long at its widest part. It’s the tallest dam east of the Rockies.

You can drive or walk across the top of Fontana Dam, which is a portion of the Appalachian Trail.

flood gates

TVA regulates the lake’s water level by regulating the flood gates at the top of the dam. Spillwater flows through two 34′-diameter pipes to be released below the dam.

flood gates

Normally, the lake’s water spill is little more than a trickle. But when heavy rains raise the lake level above normal, the sluice gates are opened creating a spectacular ‘rooster tail’ release below the dam.

Build a dam and you get a lake. Stretching from the outskirts of Bryson City west to Fontana Dam, the 29-mile long, 10,230-acre Fontana Lake has more than 240 miles of shoreline. It features panoramic views of untouched natural landscape, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Ironically, the thousands of Western North Carolina residents who helped build the dam and relinquished their homesteads for the lake, do not benefit from TVA power. Duke Energy is Western North Carolina’ primary provider.

The 32 mile drive from Bryson City to Fontana Dam is about 45 minutes, or longer if you’re lured by the overlooks along the way… or by the Appalachian arts and crafts gallery at the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center.

The Fontana Dam Visitor Center is located off N.C. Highway 28 near the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. It is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily from May through October, except for major holidays. Newly refurbished and staffed by TVA retirees, the visitor center has updated maps, videos and displays about TVA and the construction of the dam.

To fully appreciate the height of Fontana Dam, view it from below. Drive further west on Highway 28 for three miles and turn right at the TVA sign immediately after crossing the river.

flood gates

The Fontana Dam visitors center includes informational exhibits, a gift and souvenir shop, and two-level overlook

flood gates

The visitors center overlook provides views of the dam, the power station and Little Tennessee river downstream. 

Bryson City - Swain County
Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 509
Bryson City, NC 28713

Karen Proctor
Executive Director


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