The Effort to Turn Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains Into a Lake

a cabin on a lake

In the 1930s, plans were drawn up to turn the Cove into a body of water (AI generated image)

In the 1930s, official plans were drawn up to turn the Cove into a reservoir

Driving along the edges of East Tennessee’s lakes, there are signs that things are not always as they have been. Decaying grain silos rise inexplicably from the water and ancient roads and trails lead down to lakebeds without turning. In the days before the Tennessee Valley Authority, Tennessee’s rivers ran wild and free. They were dangerous, frequently jumping the banks and damaging crops, farms and livestock. The TVA came along and in the words of Ulysses Everett McGill, “Hydroelectric up the whole dern state”, or at least the valley. Today, Tennessee’s river system is essentially a meticulously maintained series of lakes and dams that control the flow of water to the South into Alabama. But East Tennessee almost had one more lake. A fisherman’s paradise located way up in the mountains of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Cades Cove Lake.

Editor’s Note: Photos found throughout this article were originally taken by a staff photographer but altered with generative AI for this article.

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a church in cades cove beside a boat dock
They thought a lake would attract tourists and provide a habitat for waterfowl (AI-generated image)

How Cades Cove nearly became a lake

There was an effort afoot in the 1930s as plans were being made to dam up most of East Tennessee to turn the Cove into a reservoir. The National Parks Service once proposed building a massive dam near where the Abrams Fall Trailhead is today. This dam would have turned Abrams Creek into a reservoir “three miles long and two miles wide,” national park expert Steve Kemp told the Knoxville News Sentinel’s, Sam Venable. It wasn’t a crazy scheme, but rather an official plan. Kemp says it came close to happening. Tennessee Gov. Gordon Browning, Knoxville Mayor George Dempster and National Park Service Director Arno Cammerer also supported the idea.

a horse drinks from the lake
Some argued that the area was mostly impoverished farmland, barren of any attractions. Not thinking that historic buildings, and the animals, would one day become an attraction (AI-generated image)

Plans included watersports and a lodge

The idea was that a reservoir up in the mountains would draw in more tourists, like some of the lakes in the American West. And the 50-foot reservoir would be perfect for sporting, according to various versions of the plan that kept surfacing between 1926 and 1937. Those for the lakes argued that the area was mostly impoverished farmland, barren of any attraction. Lakes could also provide a habitat for waterfowl that did not naturally live in the mountains. Among the pro-arguments included the point that you could also build a major lodge to generate revenue. Additionally, it would attract generations of the Northeast elites who would spend their money.

a man looks at a lake in cades cove
In the end, preservation won out. Today, we can only imagine what a lake would have looked like in the Cove (AI-generated image)

How preservation won out

With this in mind, the arguments against were somewhat more rational. It was a bad idea to build fake lakes and lodges to turn the nascent national park into a revenue producer for businesses and tax purposes. Certainly, national parks should be about preserving what exists, not creating what doesn’t. It seems kind of insane to imagine a reality where Cades Cove, with its rich history and biodiversity, gets lost under a lake.

But as someone who has seen manmade lakes up in the mountains, they can be extremely beautiful. I can imagine dark blue water ringed by the mountain tops against a lighter blue sky. I can picture a long, rustic lodge in the distance above the lake. It surely could have been beautiful. But the thing is, Cades Cove is beautiful now. It’s perplexing to me that some folks thought people wouldn’t want to visit a place of such natural beauty. To quote James Earl Jones, “People will come. People will most definitely come.” Today, we have the best of both worlds.

We have the Cove and its pristine beauty. We can visit the historic cabins and churches and other remnants of the time before the national park. And we can enjoy the amazing biodiversity up in the mountains. We can view wildlife like black bears and their cubs, white-tailed deer and turkey. We can hike to Abrams Falls or simply take a drive on the iconic 11-mile loop and enjoy what is now one of the most popular destinations in the Smokies.

Would you have preferred the Cove as a lake? Let us know in the comments.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at editor@thesmokies.com.

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80 thoughts on “The Effort to Turn Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains Into a Lake”

    • Leave Cades Cove as it is. I have been there several times when my children and grandchildren visit me. I have seen wildlife like black bears and deer roaming in the fields.

      Reply
      • No please my uncle PA Myers grew up there his family founded cave cove please leave it alone it is the most beautiful place

        Reply
        • Cades Cove definitely needs to stay the way it is. Originally the thought was to bring tourist but that part is a NO. They have more tourist now than they can handle.

          Reply
          • Jeff, the tourists are so overwhelming there, that it has nearly ruined the area. People are inconsiderate, stop their cars in the MIDDLE of the road and get out, knowing traffic cannot move at all.

    • No !! Absolutely Not !!
      We live in NE Ga and spent the last 4 days in Pigeon Forge And drove through a area Cove on our way home …
      You don’t realize what you’ve lost until there’s no turning back ..
      The house my daddy was born in is under Lake Lanier ..
      The life style of being a row cropper and WW 1!survivor was selfishly taken away..
      Don’t fix what’s not broken ..!!

      Reply
  1. No I would not. I’m not totally against the ideal of making lakes in parks though. I grew up going to pounds hollow in the Shawnee forest that had a small lake built there along with picnic and a camping areas. It was built by the conservation corps I believe, can’t remember name but Roosevelt set it up and they did similar work projects all over. But they didn’t build a dam or any of that nonsense. Cades is perfect just the way it is.

    Reply
    • Could not agree more. We don’t need more traffic in the area, as well as more hordes of eastern elites polluting the local politics.

      Reply
    • Leave it Alone if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. If it was meant to be a lake it would’ve been a lake to begin with that’s what’s wrong with the world man’s trying to change everything from his natural habitat leave it be you gonna F up the Smokies we’re from Florida and we come to the Smokies all the time a beautiful place so leave it be

      Reply
  2. I am so happy that the cove did not become a lake. I visit with my sister in October cans February each year we wouldn’t miss our drive thru the cove. I am 77 and we will continue our visits as long as God permits .I live in Alabama she in GA.

    Reply
  3. Can’t imagine the cove being a lake, I am 77 and visit with my sister in October cans February each year . We drive thru the cove every trip it is so peaceful. We use to bring our mother with us until she was 94 . Love the cove

    Reply
    • I’m so glad that you and your sister enjoy making the trip into The Smokies. I used to enjoy visiting the park with my sister, but she passed away, and I don’t have a sister to go anywhere with anymore. Enjoy all your time with your sister.

      Reply
    • Yes the folage is so beautiful during the last weeks in October in the Appalachian Mountains . The trips made there with your family will always be remembered and treasured while we are hear and even after we pass into the heavens above.

      Reply
  4. Why change the natural beauty of cades cove with a giant lake.and inhance beauty with lodging. between gatlinburg and pigeon forge there is plenty of lodging available.

    Reply
    • Evidently you never saw Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg in the 50s, 60s or early 70s. PF was nothing but little tourist trap gas stations with black bears in cages not big enough to turn around in. Plus the no tell motels were not somewhere you’d want to stay in with your family. Look at PF and imagine there not being any buildings over 1 story tall, they were only on the main drag. No streets,restaurants or outlets and you just headed to Gatlinburg which isn’t even a ghost of it’s former self. With my family being in Lafollette, Oak Ridge and Knoxville we’d all troop to the Smokies and the Chimneys for picnics. Many times we went to Cades Cove and boy am I glad we were able to drive around and dangle our feet in the creek that crossed the road. But still being able to see the houses and the old Grist Mill was always a delight for a kid in the 50s and 60s and as an adult later on.

      Reply
  5. No, not a lake. But something has to be better than the huge parking lot it has become. I pretty much avoid the cove and Trailhead accesses.

    Reply
  6. I am a tow truck driver and this past October had the privilege to drive through the park after closing to pick up an abandoned vehicle. That trip around the cove I got to see something that no one else in the entire world got to see. It was a beautiful and bright full rainbow that you could literally see both ends.Ome end stopped directly on the ground out in the field while the other penetrated the outer edge of the forest literally changing the trees into the beautiful colors. Thank you Jesus!!

    Reply
  7. I couldn’t imagine it being a lake. My wife and I come two or three times a year and spend all day exploring. We have been doing this for 26 years now

    Reply
  8. We drive to Tennessee from Florida every Christmas the past 5 Christmases and it wouldn’t be the Same without Cades Cove beauty and history. Beautiful the way it is,to much of History is being taken away from us all!!!!!

    Reply
  9. Definitely appreciate the cove as it was and is. I’ve been going there since I was knee high to a grasshopper. I’m now almost 50 and still love going as much as possible, although like others who mentioned the parking lot, I only go when it’s closed to traffic in order to truly enjoy the natural beauty the way its inhabitants did; it is refreshing to the body and the spirit.

    Reply
  10. We love Cades Cove just the way it is now!! The churches, cabins, wildlife are beautiful! Tourists come far and wide to experience the Cades Cove history and beauty!

    Reply
  11. No, I think the cover is people look forward to come too with excitement of seeing the old cabins and animals mostly the bears it is so exciting. Please no lake….

    Reply
  12. Kind of surprised you didn’t mention Chilhowee or Caulerwood in your mention of lakes around the Great Smoky Mountains Natinal Park since they basically border the park and are great fishing and boating spots.

    Reply
  13. Cade’s Cove is full of history. People need to see firsthand how people lived during the past. It is a hands-on learning experience. When history is no longer seen or taught, it is lost forever. Cade’s Cove is beautiful the way it is therefore should always remain.

    Reply
  14. NO NO NO. It has too many tourist now. For gosh sake let the wildlife have something besides concrete and let people life have something more peaceful to visit where they don’t have boat motors, skiers etc. disturbing what water is b there. Too bad we can’t imprison such greedy people.

    Reply
  15. No way. The ability to rent a bike or bring my own bike to ride in such a beautiful place makes it all the better.

    Reply
  16. No to the lake it’s not people there it’s animals that will suffer for not leaving area in time to safety… it’s beautiful the way it is

    Reply
  17. Absolutely not a good idea to have turned Cades Cove into a lake. It is beautiful the way it is and should never be changed. Have been there many times and come away with a sense if peace. It was one of my Mother’s favorite places to visit and was the last place we were before she passed away. Would never want to see it changed.

    Reply
  18. No on the lake. There is a need for this place to be preserved, as well as the stories of those families who were displaced.

    Reply
  19. I have never been to cades cove and looking forward to going. No Lake! Dams are bad and I am so glad this place is a habitat for native wildlife. Protect our heritage!

    Reply
  20. Absolutely not. Why destroy what God created and i travel 744 miles twice a year just to enjoy the cave cove driving that loop and seeing the natural beauty with in and seeing all the wildlife.

    Reply
  21. No Way ! Leave the beautiful natural things alone. We don’t have much of it left.. I’m 67 yrs old and have been going there since I was a kid. Way too many people love this place. If you want a lake, go find one!

    Reply
  22. My wife and I have gone to Cades every year since 1995. GOT MARRIED that year and the leaves were beautiful in the Cove.Go back in the spring and fall every year.We went hiking this past fall, love it, I’m 69 Kathy 65,, we hope to go there at 90 and hike some more. Heaven on earth is my opinion of CadesCove,, please leave it alone. Thanks Jesus for such a beautiful place.

    Reply
  23. That would be a sin. That is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. The wild life and history of the people that settled there would have been lost forever. We need to protect places like that for future generations. When I come to the cove I don’t want to leave. When I tell people about the Cades Cove I tell them it’s Gods country. There’s enough places around there for people to fish.

    Reply
  24. I lived in knoxville for 13 years and went to caves code at least 3 times a year and loved. Leave it alone and do not spoil it by making it into a lake.
    I live in Massachusetts and will be going back in June next year to see it.

    Reply
  25. David
    I can’t imagine why anyone would consider this a logical plan to disrupt what has been going on for the years that wildlife has roamed across that valley. I am 67 been going there since a small child if it were meant to be a lake nature would have created it a long time ago. Please don’t destroy this eco system because of a brain fart.

    Reply
  26. Cades Cove is perfect the way it is. The traffic is a problem that could be corrected with electric buses instead of cars.

    Reply
  27. No. My family is one the families of the cove and visiting there makes me feel closer to past ancestors.

    Reply
  28. My wife and I have been going to cades cove every year for 35 years to see wildlife and how hard life must have been back in history. Traffic is bad and should be restricted maybe a couple of days. Lately the fields have been left to grow up. Those green fields were much prettier against the colorful trees in the fall. Quality deer management groups should come up with a plan for habitat quality. Wider areas of the road would be nice also ie more pulloffs. I hate to say this but I would like to see a entry fee just for the loop road. I think that would deter some of the obnoxious idiots that obviously don’t really appreciate the wildlife or the rules of the road. And stop and block traffick. We Love cades cove!

    Reply
  29. O NOT turn Cades Cove into a lake! You will lose all the natural and historical aspects in that part of the smokies. You will also lose alot of tourist who appreciate nature and visit throughout this great family destination.
    Cades Cove- sitting in a quiet meadow on a beautiful day.

    Reply
  30. Do not turn Cades Cove into a lake. It would disrupt the wildlife that live there
    The cove is beautiful as is. Leave it as is.

    Reply
  31. The Parks mostly were designed to handle much smaller numbers. The challenge is to find ways to let many times more people visit without letting the infrastructure, technology and crowds DESTROY the Experience of Unspoiled Nature that was the Whole Point of Visiting in the first place. It will take some Genius planning. I hope we have the patience.

    Reply
  32. We were just there yesterday. I’m grateful it didn’t turn into a lake. We loved the 11 mile drive that took us 3 hours because of a mama bear and her cubs playing in the road. It was so beautiful and prestine happy it is left as it is.

    Reply
  33. Now you can say, look at that great old cabin and those beautiful fields here. If they would have made it a lake, it would be like, thier used to be cool old cabins and great fields 50 feet below us!! I love it like it is, but it would have been beautiful.. Back then, it was the mind set, that you had to have a big lake and resort.. It was the way it had always been done.. We got lucky… Lov the Cove

    Reply
  34. I can’t imagine all of Cades Cove covered in water. Way too much beauty and history there to become a lake. I think it would be a good idea to maybe do a 10-15 acre pond somewhere along the loop road that would be fed by one of the creeks, as this would add beauty to the drive as well as another source of water for wildlife, and may increase the chance of visitors seeing them while watering. We love Cades Cove and visit annually in the fall to see the beautiful change of color. We normally drive the loop 2 or three times, and have a picnic at the picnic area.

    Reply
  35. Went with some friends back in late 70’s on a guided horse back overnight camping trip…. Slept out in the open in my sleeping bag under the stars and was the best sleep I’ve had before or ever since. Would love to experience that again…

    Reply
  36. I have been in there when there wasn’t any cars. At first we thought that we were the only ones there. Finally a couple of cars drove by. As for a lake being there, no. My ancestors lived in there. Way too much history for that. The government realized way too late as to what they had or should I say what they stole from the people who were lied to

    Reply
  37. We’ve driven 500 miles every year to visit the area for its natural beauty. I’m sooooo glad it’s NOT a lake!!

    Reply
  38. Leave Cades Cove as it is, the most peaceful place in the Smokies! I am 86 and hope to visit the cove yet several times in my lifetime. So beautiful as it is, please preserve that lovely place!

    Reply
  39. My husband’s uncle Bruce Leslie made the mountain pictures that helped to convince Congress to establish the GSMNP. He stayed with the Whitehead family in Cades Cove in 1925 while he photographed this natural beauty. The effort involved buyouts, funding, personal sacrifice and finally a consensus of forward thinking people of the time. And what a remarkable result that became one of the greatest joys in our lives and a destination for so many.

    You just don’t mess with a natural treasure! If making money ever becomes the priority over the love for and preservation of one of God’s most precious gifts we will be headed down the road of no return.

    Reply
  40. Leave it as it is
    Don’t come here and try and make it look like were you
    came from we like the way it is

    Reply
  41. Please leave God’s grounds alone. It’s such a beautiful place. I visit every year. Now me and my fiance are taking his grandchildren there next year. I met him there and the scenery is breathe taken. Lot of deers and bears. Love it.

    Reply
  42. No!no no. Leave it be,it’s absolutely beautiful,why waste all that you can do. The scenery is breathtaking. That’s where I fell in love with Tennessee..

    Reply
  43. Leave it alone, the scenery is beautiful with all the wildlife and flowers. So many memories have been made there.

    Reply

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