The history of the Hales Bar Dam on the Tennessee River in Marion County, Tennessee
The Tennessee River Gorge was once one of the major impediments to year round navigation on the Tennessee River. There were not only unpredictable water levels but the gorge was also filled with many water hazards that were called names such as “The Suck”, “The Skillet”, and “The Pan”. The most notorious whirlpool was “The Suck” and it is said that Native Americans who lived on the land could see the souls of their ancestors being sucked into the massive pool. It was said that anyone who got close enough to the whirlpool would get sucked in by their ancestors.
In 1898, several Chattanooga business interests formed the Tennessee River Improvement Association to lobby for efforts to extend year round navigation to Chattanooga. Around 1900, Major Dan C. Kingman of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that a dam near the southwestern end of the gorge would eliminate the water hazards and rapid downstream currents. An engineer from Chattanooga by the name of Josephus Conn Guild offered to raise funds and build the dam in exchange for the rights to the dam’s electrical output. He received authorization from Congress in 1904 and in 1905 he organized the Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power Company, later known as TEPCO.
The construction of the dam started in 1905 by the initial contractor, William J. Oliver & Company. Two self contained communities, Guild (now known as Haletown) and Ladds were built nearby to house the thousands of workers that were needed to build the dam. The Dam was being built on what was once Cherokee territory. During the illegal Treaty of Sycamore Shoals on March 17, 1775 War Chief Dragging Canoe cursed the land, vowing that is was “dark and bloody” land and would be unproductive and uninhabitable for anyone that attempted to settle there. The Cherokees also believed the water where the dam was built was sacred.
The dam was originally scheduled to be completed in 1909 however they faced numerous difficulties including a weak limestone foundation which plagued the damn for the next 40 years. By 1910 only the lock and powerhouse had been completed. After engineers began using pressure grouting and concrete caisson they started making more progress. On November 1, 1913 the dam was complete and went into operation. It was 113 feet high, 2,315 feet long and its spillway had a combined discharge capacity of 224,000 cubic feet per second. At that time it was one of the first major multipurpose dams and one of the first major dams to be built across a navigable channel in the United States. The dam was estimated to cost only $2 million but by the end it was nearly $10 million, which equals $237 million in today’s value.
Soon after the dam’s completion, leaks began to appear almost immediately. They had chosen the location of the dam because the river was narrow but unknown to them at the time the ground beneath the river is limestone. Portions of the limestone continually collapsed and resettled causing cracks to form in the dam walls. Over the years engineers attempted to minimize the leakage by pumping in whatever they could to stop the leaks. They created the “rag gang”, which was a group of men tasked with stopping the leaks. Supposedly, they used whatever they could find to fill the cracks including asphalt, hay bales, mattresses, blankets and even a truckload of corsets. Their fixes were only temporary because by 1931 a study showed the damn continued to leak at a rate of 1,000 cubic foot per second.
The passing of the TVA Act in 1933 created the Tennessee Valley Authority and gave it control of flood control and improvement initiatives in the Tennessee Valley. By this time, Chattanooga and Tennessee River Power had merged with several other companies to form the Tennessee Electric Power Company, or TEPCO. The new company was a fierce opponent of the TVA and was headed by Guild's son, Jo Conn Guild. TEPCO challenged the constitutionality of the TVA Act in federal court and in 1939 the U.S. Supreme Court handed down their decision in favor of the TVA. A few months later TEPCO was forced to sell most of their assets including Hales Bar Dam to the TVA for $78 million.
TVA immediately began foundation improvements on the dam to stop the leaks and by 1943 they had succeeded. In the late 1950s boils began to appear in the water below the dam and an investigation showed the dam was once again leaking over 2,000 cubic feet per second. Dye traces in 1960 suggested that many of the leaks were interconnected and there was an increasing chance that the entire dam could fail. In 1963, it was determined that continuing to expand the Hales Bar lock would be too expensive and rather than continuing to spend money to fix leaks a decision was made to build a new dam six miles downstream.
The new dam was authorized in 1963 and construction began on April 1, 1964. The new construction required the purchase of 8,300 acres of land and the relocation of 82 families along with 8 miles of roads. The new dam was complete in 1967 and opened on December 14, 1967. The cost to build the new dam was $73 million and it was named The Nickajack Dam for a Cherokee Indian village that was once located just upstream from the dam. The new reservoir flooded the old village and Nickajack Cave for which the village was named for.
Operations at Hales Bar were halted the very next day on December 15, 1967. Two of the Hales Bar’s generators and parts of the switchyard were installed at Nickajack and by September 1968, Hales Bar Dam had been dismantled enough that it no longer threatened navigation on the new Nickajack Lake.
The new Nickajack Reservoir extends 46 miles upstream from the dam to the Chickamauga Dam offering spectacular scenery through the Tennessee River Gorge which is also known as the Grand Canyon of Tennessee. It has 179 miles of shoreline and 10,370 acres of water surface. There are numerous boat launching ramps along the reservoir and the TVA offers camping and picnicking facilities as well. During the summer months you can also paddle out to Nickajack Cave, which is on the south side of the dam and at dusk watch thousands of bats emerge from the cave.
During the construction of the Hales Bar Dam there were several hundred workers who died. There were even deaths after its completion that included children. There was a dimly lit tunnel that ran underneath the dam that the kids had to pass thru each day to get to school. It is said that at least two children perished during one of the leaks in the tunnel. The narrow tunnel served as a common passage for not only the children but workers as well on a daily basis. Also when the dam was finished the decision was made to flood the area below the dam covering an entire city including the town cemetery known as Long Cemetery. No bodies were removed from the cemetery prior to the flooding and up until the late 90’s you could see three headstones peering out of the water 70 yards from the bank where Dry Creek empties into the Lake. They are the marked graves of Henry, Moses and Sarah Long. Henry died in 1875 and Sarah in 1860. Moses birth is noted as November 25, 1880 but the date of death is illegible. Some say the souls from the workers, the children, and the graves flooded under the river are among some of the spirits that continue to haunt the site. It has become a very popular Ghost Hunters site.
Today there is very little left inside the structure at Hales Bar Dam. The first two floors are under water and the Hales Bar Dam & Marina uses the turbine level as a dry boat storage area. One of the original turbines is still in place, and a whirlpool is constantly created by it and the moving water. There are a few big motors and fans, some storage lockers and various original equipment still in the place, although most of the turbines, generators and other equipment were sent to Nickajack Dam or scrapped at some point. The Hales Bar Dam & Marina offers haunted tours, boat rentals and even floating cabins on the lake!