TVA's Ocoee Dam #1 historic structures eyed for preservation in proposed consolidation of operations

Ben Benton, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·5 min read

Mar. 6—A proposed consolidation of operations at TVA's 110-year-old Ocoee Dam No. 1 in Polk County, Tennessee, could lead to the preservation of some of its aging historic buildings, according to a 126-page environmental report issued in February.

The two alternatives to finding occupants for the buildings to keep them maintained are to do nothing with them or to demolish them, according to federal officials.

One local historian wrote the Tennessee Valley Authority asking officials to slow down the process so all possibilities can be explored, but the comment period for an environmental review officially ended Friday.

"I think rushing a TVA decision is not in the best interest of the region," said Linda Caldwell, former director of the Tennessee Overhill Heritage Association and longtime local historian.

"While the TVA study has been underway a year, the general public is just now becoming aware of it," she said. Caldwell urged a discussion with the chamber of commerce in Polk County because she's worried good ideas will get shortchanged because the 30-day comment period was so brief.

According to TVA, current staff and operations at the Ocoee Dam No. 1 on the Ocoee River are inefficiently divided between the three aging buildings. A proposal stemming from a 2013 TVA plan to improve efficiency aims to consolidate people and functions into one new building. That means, if the proposal for consolidation and the new building goes forward, the old buildings will be left behind with no immediate plans for them.

TVA spokesperson Scott Fiedler said that even though the official public comment would end, people can continue to send in comments — although they won't become part of the final official document to be released sometime this summer, he said.

Fiedler said people can also submit comments through TVA's "Get Involved, Stay Involved" page, which allows the public "to provide input to TVA and guide their actions."

TVA has already heard one promising idea "loud and clear."

"We've heard the Polk County chamber would like to explore those buildings and have those transitioned over to them," Fiedler said.

That tops the wish list for local chamber of commerce officials eyeing the dam for a new home site.

"We would love to see the chamber have a permanent home with visibility to the community and tourists to the area," said Lynn McClary, with the Polk County Chamber of Commerce. McClary said the chamber sought support from local and state officials for the chamber to find a new home at the dam.

An educational center and visitor center "would be a fantastic use for one of the buildings," she said.

Because of its location at the lower end of Parksville Lake on the edge of the Appalachians, McClary said the site could become a "gateway to the Cherokee National Forest and the Ocoee River."

Polk County historian Marian Presswood said she was concerned more about any work that would disturb graves numbering as many as a dozen said to be in close proximity to the buildings.

"And if they do turn up some graves, I insist they properly reinter to another local burial place," Presswood said, suggesting the Zion Cemetery just down the road.

Construction of "Ocoee 1 Hydro Dam" — TVA's official name for it while others call it "Parksville Dam" — began in 1910 and was completed about 18 months later in 1911 as a property of East Tennessee Power Company, later known as the Tennessee Electric Power Company.

The dam is 135 feet high, stretches 845 feet across the Ocoee River and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990, according to TVA's draft environmental assessment document. The powerhouse is a 165-foot-long, three-story building made of brick and steel that was also listed on the register in 1990.

During the construction of the dam more than a century ago, a small town of 1,500 workers, their families, police station, hospital, stores, waterworks and a railroad.

In 1939, TVA acquired the dam, making it the first of the three hydropower projects on the Ocoee River delivering electric power to Chattanooga, Cleveland, Knoxville and Nashville in Tennessee, and Rome and Dalton in Georgia for nearly two decades prior to the creation of TVA. Today, the dam serves about 9 million customers.

Currently, the three houses serve as TVA administration buildings and are known as the White House or Ocoee Assembly Building, the Rock House or Ocoee Main Office and Plant House or Ocoee Regional Office, according to documents. The administration houses — which are those of interest for a new life — were constructed following the 1929 purchase of the property by the Tennessee Electric Power Company.

Caldwell said the site is a significant historic resource for the region.

"We've heard one structure might be an old house from the Caney Creek Village that was moved there," she said of a community that sprouted up near the dam about the time it was built.

Because the Ocoee system predates TVA, "it would be nice to see interpretation of that history at the site. It's a compelling story and tied to the nation's history," Caldwell said. "When the vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation visited our area, he wanted to see the Ocoee Flume Line."

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.