The History Of Watauga Brought To You By General Realty Of Tennessee

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Watauga Lake

Photos by Jimmy Bonifacino

Watauga Lake is 16 miles long, and has a shoreline of 109 miles.
Watauga Lake has a lot to offer. Below you will find the history of the lake.

History of Watauga Lake

Butler was located on the Watauga River at the forks of Roan Creek in the western edge of Johnson County, and throughout its history it had experienced the river. On August 14th 1940 Watauga River flooded again, leaving 6 dead and many missing. Crop damage and property damage was estimated over more than a million dollars. This is but only one flood that the river had caused to the residents of Butler and Johnson County. But the 1940 flood was the final straw.

The Watauga Dam and Reservoir Project was approved by the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) in December 1941. In spite of all the TVA activity in the Butler area there was a reluctance to believe TVA would go through with their plans. Surely the government wouldn't flood an entire town and all the black fertile soil which yielded an abundant crop year after year? About two weeks later a crew began to tear out what railroad was left from the flood. Road graders, bulldozers and a steam shovel came in after the railroad had been removed, and trucks, which said TVA were everywhere. Dynamite boomed in Deer Pen Cut. Men suspended by ropes dangled from the vertical cliffs of the Cut near Wilbur Dam. Air compressors and jack hammers jarred the community.

On Valentines Day, 1942, young Nat Estep was fatally injured when struck by falling rocks, which had been loosened by construction activities. Ironically, the accident occurred just yards away from the spot where Henry Wilson had been killed in a dynamite blast as Wilbur Dam was under construction in 1910.

The new road followed the old railroad, except it bypassed the deep ravine where Headless Lady's trestle once stood. A few days later the railroad was completed. Butler residents finally became convinced that the dam was a reality. As of December 31st, 1942, 63 families had already sold out to TVA and left their homes on the Watauga.

A Dam is Built

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While Carderview and New Butler continued to grow with the addition of new housing and relocated houses, work on the Watauga Dam continued on schedule but not without problems. The post war housing shortage was the most serious problem. To alleviate that problem TVA built a construction camp in the Horseshoe community, about 2 miles from the dam site. The camp included 3 workmen's dormitories, accommodating 120, 104 and 52 persons, 2 staff dormitories, which provided housing for 53 persons and 11 tents, which accommodated 55 men. A cafeteria was built with a seating capacity of 96 persons. A recreation hall, post office, personnel building, medical building and a fire station turned the Horseshoe into a boom town. But the little community was used to building dams.

In 1910-1912 the Horseshoe Dam (now called Wilbur) had been constructed just 2 miles downstream from the Watauga site. In fact the meander of the Watauga River which forms a perfect horseshoe makes the two dams almost parallel. The Horseshoe Dam experience carried over to the Watauga Project. TVA workers were well received in the community. New Butler, Carderview, a construction camp, trailer camp-so much attention for the living. In the Watauga Project, TVA was faced with a gigantic grave relocation project dealing with 103 cemeteries with an investigation of 3452 graves. Of this number 1282 removal contracts were executed. Relocation of the living and paying proper respect to the dead were sidelights to major activity taking place in the Watauga River Valley between the Horseshoe and an area extending some 16 miles upstream.

All along the river crews were busy clearing out the reservoir site. Between elevations of 1875 and 1960 feet, 1663 acres were cleared. An additional 1280 acres were wired down. Stumps were cut as close as possible near higher elevations in order to eliminate hazards to boating. Some clearing was done in 1842, before WPB (War Production Board) ordered shutdown. When clearing resumed in 1946, there was a lumber shortage and TVA operated a sawmill at Fish Springs where 1,488,000 board was sawed.

Watauga Dam is a rock and earth filled dam, which at the time of its completion was the highest of its kind in the world. A total of 1,484,700 cubic yards of compacted clay is at the dams core. On the two sides of the core 2,000,000 cubic yards of rock are piled. Core and sides were built in a terrace-like design. Most fill material came from five borrowed pits near the dam site.

In July 1947, following completion of foundation grouting, an access road was built along the right abutment by rolling clay in place and covering it with gravel. This road was later removed, and the area it occupied was filled and rolled. Earth placing started July 21 in the crevices in the rock foundation, using pneumatic tampers to compact the material. When the crevices had been filled, compaction was started with sheeps-foot rollers. Rolling, in general, was along the axis of the dam. At such times as it was necessary for the haul roads to be at one end of the dam, the direction of rolling was across the axis. When these roads were no longer needed, the road material was excavated until no lamination showed and new fill material was rolled back in its place. The earth was placed in loose layers from 5 to 7 inches thick and compacted with sheeps-foot rollers giving a total pressure of about 300 pounds per square inch. Two double drum rollers hitched in tandem were used on the greater part of the fill area and one double drum roller along the edges and near the canyon walls.

Along the canyon walls where rollers could not be used, the material was spread in 2-to-3- inch layers with hand shovels and compacted with pneumatic tampers. A triangular bar welded on the bottom of the tampers with the pointed edge down facilitated compaction. During hot weather the sidewalls were sprinkled with water to obtain a good bond. Since the side slope of the earth core was fairly steep, it was necessary to keep the rock filters and rock shoulders built up with the earth core so that its shoulders could be properly rolled. Rock fill for the Watauga was obtained from three quarries near the construction site. Three gigantic cyote tunnel blasts were fired to loosen the rock. The explosives (nitramon) used in each blast is as follows: blast 1: 314,522 lbs. blast 2: 520,326 lbs. blast 3: 418,082 lbs, for a total of 1,252,930 lbs. of nitramon.

To prepare the quarries for blasting required considerable time. For example, tunnel driving for the first blast began on July 14, 1947, and was completed on September 8, 1947. Loading tunnels for explosives required two weeks. The second blast required 51 days of drilling and the third blast required 67 days. Total yield of loose rock from the three-blast was 1,518,930 cubic yards. The second blast was, for its kind, history's largest in amount of explosives used and fill removed.

During construction it was necessary to divert the waters of the Watauga River away from the new dam. This was done by building a cofferdam. This dam was eight feet high and 200 feet wide. It diverted the water into a 600-foot diversion tunnel. The diversion tunnel was completed before actual dam construction could begin, with most of the tunneling done before the War Production Board put a halt to construction. Today the diversion tunnel serves as a safety feature in event of excess water.

The earth dam structure could not withstand the erosive force of water overrun common to concrete dams. To prevent such overrun a morning glory spillway was built on the right bank. This spillway opening is 30 feet below the top of the dam and excess water flows into the morning glory opening which connects to the spillway tunnel thus circumventing the earthen dam. Also located on the right bank is a sluiceway intake. This intake built near the level of the original river bed serves as a controlled means of releasing excess water. The intake connects to the spillway tunnel. Thus, the original diversion tunnel is correctly referred to as a sluiceway and a spillway tunnel.

Water coming through the sluiceway is a controlled discharge, major controls being (1) A closure plug about 70 feet long. This plug has twin sluice tunnels, each controlled by a hydraulically operated slide gate and a 96-inch Howell Bungar valves. (2) A closure gate which is 10 feet high by 22 feet 1 inch wide and weighs 20,800 pounds. The closure gate, sluiceway plug gates and valves are controlled from the tower located in the lake near the morning glory spillway. ( It was the closure of these devices that stopped the flow of the Watauga River and began formation of Watauga Lake, December 1st, 1948.)

The primary functions of the morning glory spillway and the sluiceway gate and plug is to assist in flood control and to save the dam from overrun erosion. On the left bank of the Watauga Project is another tunnel, the power tunnel. This tunnel, some 3700 feet long, carries water to the powerhouse. A fall of 100 feet pushes through the power tunnel. The intake gate for the power tunnel, like the sluiceway gate, lies at the level of the original river bed. Thus, pressure of the some 300 feet of water above the powerhouse discharge also force water through the power tunnel producing hydraulic energy and turns the turbines to provide generation of electrical power. It is water from this tunnel which we see when Watauga Dam is generating.

This water drawn from deep in Watauga Lake is the cause of Wilbur Lake's famous cold water. When generating Wilbur's waters are approximately 12 degrees Celsius, even on a hot summer day. Complex hydraulic gates control the water flow through the power tunnel determining when and how much water will be released and electrical power generated.

Without ceremony on December 1, 1948, gates on the Watauga Dam were closed. Nine families remained in the reservoir area. They were in no actual danger. All of these except two moved within a week. Nearly 12,000 acres of land had been acquired. 761 families had been relocated. After the gate closure these families began a lonely vigil beside the Watauga.

Coming from far and near they gathered to watch one final flood. This time the waters came upstream. One by one foundations disappeared. Some people wouldn't come back the day the foundation of their home was to be inundated. Often they went back to their new homes with heads bowed and tears in their eyes.

On Sept. 29, 1949, Watauga's unit one began operating, being preceded by unit two on Aug. 30th. The legend in the powerhouse at Watauga reads 1942- BUILT FOR THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES-1948. A project stopped by war was completed. The once uncontrollable Watauga River now transformed into a beautiful lake began producing power instead of floods.

Watauga Lake is 16 miles long, and has a shoreline of 109 miles. The total cost of the project was $32,335,243. Today powerful pleasure boats cut sway where Daniel Boone and Old Roan once traveled. The once turbulent Watauga River has been tamed.