The History of Tellico Lake and its Dam

by | Apr 28, 2023

Tellico Lake, a scenic 16,000-acre reservoir in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains foothills, is famous for boating, fishing, and recreation. But did you know that the construction of a massive dam created the lake?

In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the history of Tellico Lake and its dam. We’ll also explore the fascinating story behind the creation of this beloved Tennessee landmark.

The History of Tellico Lake and its Dam

The Beginning of TVA

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was created during the Great Depression in 1933. It was to control flooding in the Tennessee Valley and provide electricity to the region. TVA built numerous dams along the Big Tennessee River and its tributaries to achieve this goal.

Although the Tellico Dam was first listed as a potential dam site in the 1930s, it would take years before construction began. In the early 1960s, the public learned of the efforts to get the Tellico Dam project moving. The project called for an earthen canal connecting the new reservoir with the Fort Loudoun Reservoir.

The Tellico Dam Project

However, before it began, the Tellico Dam project faced much opposition, including landowners and concerns from the Tennessee Fish and Game Commission about its impact on the trout fishing industry. Additionally, it had to compete against the Tims Ford project, another proposed TVA dam.

Construction Begins

Finally, the Tellico Dam received congressional approval, and the construction began in 1967. However, instead of reducing opposition, the actual construction of the dam escalated the resistance and involved more parties.

In 1972, a court injunction stopped the project for a year. A federal judge lifted the injunction in 1973, finding that TVA had completed a proper environmental impact study.

The Snail Darter Controversy

In 1974, a University of Tennessee professor and his students discovered a snail darter in the river. This discovery led to a legal battle that gained national attention and went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court ordered the dam’s construction halted in 1978 despite its near completion. In 1979, Congress added funding for the project in an appropriations bill and exempted the Tellico Dam from the Endangered Species Act.

The Final Holdouts

Some Cherokee and others opposed the dam’s approval and fought against it in the final weeks. Despite a last-ditch lawsuit to protect Cherokee sacred lands, it failed.

On November 13, 1979, authorities evicted the last families who held out against giving up their land for the dam project. The project ultimately took 38,000 acres of land but flooded less than half.

The Birth of Tellico Lake

With the last holdouts gone, the gates to the dam were closed on November 29, 1979. The lake waters began backing up, forming the new Tellico Lake over several weeks.

The Bottom Line

The story of Tellico Lake and its dam is one of growth, controversy, and, ultimately, compromise. While the project faced numerous obstacles and opposition, it has become a beloved Tennessee landmark and a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.

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