little tennessee river

We captured many moments that had previously been frozen in time, trapped for years in a watery stasis beneath the waters of Chilhowee Lake. Out of many, it was this moment captured in this shot that was perhaps the most powerful and even emotional.

I had walked almost a mile on the ruined railroad bed that started at Tabcat Creek and wound around the mountain aimlessly, now free to go to a place where no one had been for years. Perhaps if I walked further, I’d eventually end up in Calderwood, a ghost town that was also owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Nature had already decided its new purpose. Weeds and flowers had already started their campaign for dominance in this new world, covering the broken asphalt in a brilliant green. I could hear animals stirring in the woods. Birds were chirping. A warm breeze was blowing, carrying with it the sound of running water. From where I was standing, I could not tell what I was looking at. I could see water up ahead, but I assumed that it was part of the lake that hadn’t been drained yet. The more I walked, the louder it become. I could detect movement in the water, a strong current flowing through the valley. Growing up, I had heard stories of the Little T, a beautiful river that once ran wild and free so very long ago. I never got to see the Little T in my neck of the woods. Tellico Dam had seen to that in 1978, over a decade before I was born. All I had ever known about it was through the stories my parents and grandparents told me and the pictures I had seen in local history books and museums.

When the revelation hit me, my walk quickly turned into a run. This was not Chilhowee Lake that I was looking at. I could see the water whitecapping over exposed rocks sticking out of it. By its banks were the skeletal remains of once mighty trees that stood alongside it. I stopped at an area that overlooked the river. I was overcome with emotion at the sight, a specter of the past that I never thought I would ever see. Before me was the Little Tennessee River and the valley that had been drowned by the Chilhowee reservoir. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. The river we thought we could tame and harness for its power…it was now running on its own accord, free to go as it saw fit.

Here’s the reason I’ve been offline for the past 4 days. This is the Little Tennessee River in Bryson City, NC. Yes, the entire area is that beautiful. It was a spectacular Memorial Day weekend filled with swimming, eating, tubing, eating, river rafting, eating, gambling, eating and a bit of sleeping. Many thanks to Lynn Campbell and Guy Priester III and IV for making the weekend possible!

With the lawsuit over, the Tennessee Valley Authority had completed the dam in 1979. As a direct result, more than 300 families were displaced from their homes in the Little Tennessee River Valley. Acres upon acres of farmland, of ancestral properties, of historic Overhill towns, of entire ecosystems, of roads, of farm equipment, of islands, of hills, of fences, of memories, of neighborhoods….all were quickly consumed by the growing lake that had began to form as the dam shut off its gates. All of those precious things that took generations to build were quickly snuffed out in a matter of months. Somewhere beneath the dark and murky depths of the lake lies another world that will never emerge again, a world that is virtually unknown to this generation and to those that will soon follow.

What makes this especially tragic is how the dam really wasn’t necessary. The fact that so many people had believed that the act of forcing people to leave their homes so that a lake could drown their properties was the right thing to do is quite bothersome. First of all, it is not right. It is unjust. That concrete beast has destroyed the very ecosystem and the plants that have been built around the lake have only added to that destruction. I can’t grasp it. I don’t understand at all. I can’t see how the supporters of the dam could live with themselves. Do they feel guilty, I wonder? I suppose that someday, they will have to answer for it.