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.
IN THIS ARTICLE
Subscribe to our newsletter for area news, coupons and discounts
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.
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.
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.