Cades Cove Lake: The effort to turn the Cove into a body of water

Sunrise at Cove Lake State Park in Caryville, TN

Lake proponents argued that turning Cades Cove into a body of water would promote tourism (photo by Patrick Jennings/stock.adobe.com)

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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 up inexplicably from the water. In other places, 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 and 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.

Read Also: Douglas Lake: Fish, swim, boat only a few miles from Gatlinburg TN

man stands on cades cove loop road looking toward mountains
They thought a lake would attract tourists and provide a habitat for waterfowl (photo by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

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.

In fact, Kemp says it came dang close to happening.

Tennessee Gov. Gordon Browning, Knoxville Mayor George Dempster and National Park Service Director Arno Cammerer supported the idea.

Read Also: Cades Cove secrets: Top 5 hidden gems in the Smoky Mountains

The Cades Cove Mill
Some argued that the area was mostly impoverished farmland, barren of any attractions. Not thinking that historic buildings, like this authentic gristmill, would one day become an attraction. Pictured: The John P. Cable Grist Mill (photo by Alaina O’Neal/TheSmokies.com)

They said it would enhance tourism

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. And lakes could provide a habitat for waterfowl that did not naturally live in the mountains.

Among the pro-arguments included the point that you could build a major lodge to generate revenue.

This would also attract generations of the Northeast elites who would spend their money, participate in strange rituals and eventually abandon the place altogether when a winter caretaker driven mad by dark spirits run amuck.

Actually, some of that last paragraph may have been the plot for Stephen King’s “The Shining.” Perhaps not the actual reasons to dam Abrams Creek. 

Also, it would be good for science.

Editor’s note: I imagine Gov. Browning pronouncing like the old guy in the Thomas Dolby video “She Blinded me with Science”. SCIENCE!

The arguments against were somewhat more rational.

Read Also: Cades Cove cabins, churches and barns: 5 sites for your must-see list

Carter Shields Cabin in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with fall foliage
In the end, preservation won. Pictured: Carter Shields Cabin in Cades Cove (photo by chocphoto/stock.adobe.com)

At the end of the day, preservation won out

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, with a wild man clinging to an ax at the entrance to a giant hedge maze … oh sorry, that was “The Shining” again.

It 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.

If we want to boat or fish or kayak or enjoy lake life near the mountains, from Douglas to Cherokee to Fontana Lake, we can do that, too. 

Just while you’re skiing … watch out for the silos. 

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

View the web story version of this article here.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at [email protected] for questions or comments.

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51 thoughts on “Cades Cove Lake: The effort to turn the Cove into a body of water”

  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.

  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.

  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

  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.

  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.

  6. There’s too many beautiful lakes around, to jeopardize cades cove to become another one.

  7. 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!!

  8. 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

  9. 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!!!!!

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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….

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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!

  21. 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.

  22. 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!

  23. The Oliver cabin in Cades Cove was home to my ancestors. Wouldn’t appreciate it being under water.

  24. 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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

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

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

  30. 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!

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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

  36. 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.

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