History of Hydroelectric Power and Graham County Dams
Living in Graham County I feel surrounded by dams. The first dam that came to my attention was the Cheoah Dam, because Harrison Ford jumped off of it in the movie, “The Fugitive”. After being chased to the top edge of the dam by the U.S. Marshals, Ford’s character, Dr. Richard Kimble, leapt from the dam into the roiling water below. I thought that was pretty cool and I have looked at the Cheoah Dam with a little bit of awe ever since.
The Cheoah Dam was completed in 1919. A bit of trivia is that the old school that existed in the community of Tapoco later became the Bethel Baptist Church. Mr. Marshall McClung, local historian and Mountain Rescue expert extraordinaire, informed me that later on the church was literally moved to Hares Creek on U.S. Highway 129 South of Robbinsville.
I soon was made aware of a second dam in the community called the Fontana Dam. Located on U.S. 28 in the town of Fontana, construction began on this dam in 1942. The story of how the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II brought about the construction of this hydroelectric dam on the Little Tennessee River is fascinating enough to wait for another day. It took a legislative act to authorize the construction and the work schedule was 24-7. Over 6,000 people were employed and the dam was in operation by 1945. Fontana Dam is certainly worth a visit while you are in town.
I discovered the third dam, Santeetlah Dam, years after I moved here. Its construction began in January 1926. The dam is 212 feet high and 1,054 feet long. Santeetlah Lake began filling up on April 10, 1928 and the power house at Rhymer’s Ferry began producing electricity on June 7 of that year.
The Tapoco Lodge and the Cheoah River that flows by it is connected to dams, lakes, rivers and streams that network all over Graham County. This gave me the opportunity to learn all about fishing! Particularly fly fishing. The three species of trout; Brook, Brown and Rainbow love the streams in these mountains and the Bass in the lakes are numerous. In fact, you can toss a line into the Cheoah River directly across from the Slickrock Grill at Tapoco Lodge and catch fish to your hearts delight.
I often find myself thinking about the history of these dams as I wait for the next tug on my line. The lives of thousands of people were affected by the dams built in Graham County.