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Inside Fontana Dam: Rare tour inspires awe and reflection on a complicated history

The turbine room features stark words above its massive windows — “Built for the people the United States of America.”  Kyle Perrotti photo The turbine room features stark words above its massive windows — “Built for the people the United States of America.” Kyle Perrotti photo

It was one of the best opportunities I’d been given since I became a journalist and moved to Western North Carolina about seven years ago.

For the first time since 9/11, the Tennessee Valley Authority opened up Fontana Dam to a tour by members of the public and I was lucky enough to go along and write this story. 

Being an outsider, a northerner even, I’d heard how a lot of folks in the area have never trusted the TVA, a feeling I’d never experience firsthand. While the dams built by the TVA did reduce flooding and erosion problems in the area, doing so required inundating large swaths of land and forced thousands of families to relocate. And yet, even though that fact was never far from my mind as I walked through the massive structure, I still often found myself standing and looking around speechless, taking it all in and pondering just how much work must have gone into its planning and construction. 

Fontana is the largest dam east of the Rocky Mountains and stands 480 feet tall, about the same height as the Great Pyramid in Giza. It’s also 376 feet thick and 2,365 feet long. It features two spill pipes that are 34 feet in diameter and pass water from Fontana Lake into the Little Tennessee River on the other side. The combined capacity of its three generators is 293.6 megawatts. In other words, it’s a beast.

I usually pride myself on staying objective when I’m reporting a story, intentionally avoiding any outward expression of excitement, fear or bias — act like you’ve been there before, as some wise person once said. But, in this case, there was no way. There was a personal nostalgic excitement I couldn’t ignore going into it. I got out of the Navy just over a decade ago, where I’d worked as a nuclear reactor operator on a submarine and I figured that getting to be around the familiar sounds, smells and equipment would deliver a strong shot of nostalgia.

I was not wrong.

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As folks passed through a security checkpoint and trickled in for the tour, the large marble waiting room came alive with eager conversation. Some visitors who’d studied ahead of the tour rattled off specifications and stats to others. From the waiting room, people peered through large windows into the control room. At one point, some workers came in, and the crowd gathered round to marvel at their presence as if it were some blue-collar zoo exhibit. The gruff workers didn’t seem to mind, although a time or two they had trouble keeping a straight face.

Once everyone was in the door and ready to go, a curly-haired woman with bright eyes and a broad smile worked her way around the crowd to the back to the waiting room. The roar died to a murmur and she spoke.

“OK, it’s our birthday,” she said, “and so we thought we’d invite you in for a little party.” 

Indeed, this year marks the 90th anniversary of the TVA and was the impetus for the tour. After she gave a rundown of the history of the TVA and Fontana, she introduced a plant manager, who spoke briefly, really just long enough to introduce a regional manager who addressed the crowd with gusto.  

“My name is Willy Wonka,” he said before informing the visitors that they’d found the proverbial “golden tickets.”

He earnestly warned people to watch out for trip hazards or anything they may possibly bang their heads on, keep their hands on their pockets and to not walk while staring at their phones, but he quickly took on a more playful tone.

“If you’re with me, and I’m just walking carefully, you’ll be alright,” he said. “But, if I’m running, then maybe you oughtta.”

The tour

People broke into three groups. Mine included reporters from the Cherokee Scout and the Graham Star, as well as five other people. As we donned our hard hats and safety glasses, people took the chance to snap some selfies in their new gear and excitement mounted.  

We left the marble room and went back out into the intense sunlight, which reflected hot off the bare concrete. We walked between the bottom of the structure and the humming transformer yard toward a modest door in the side of the structure.

En route, our guide introduced himself as Keith Sparks, a technician who operates the plant. Despite his immense knowledge and friendly nature, I got the feeling that he’d probably rather be calibrating a detector or chasing a ground than leading a tour. Sparks had been at the plant for four years. Prior to that, he’d worked at conventional plants, and it was clear he preferred the hydroelectric plant. 

The reporter from the Cherokee Scout turned to me and said Sparks would be the perfect man to star in a movie about his own life — if I hadn’t met Sparks, I’d probably picture someone his spitting image working at that site. A good observation, I thought.

We got to the door.

“Now I will warn you, sometimes we get those lizards that don’t have legs in there, so watch your step,” Sparks said.

We went through the door and stepped deep in the bowels of the dam. As we walked, I became more aware of the fact that we were surrounded by a hundred feet of concrete on every side. It was cooler down there since the water flowing all around us is brought in from 150 feet below the lake’s surface and cold, and condensation dripped from overhead pipes onto my notebook and blotted the fresh ink.

news Fontana Fan room

Massive fans are required to ventilate the spaces inside the dam. Kyle Perrotti photo

I could hear water rushing through the pipes. I looked for specific instrumentation that I might recognize, and I was thrilled to see a flow detector mounted to a wall. I felt ridiculous getting so excited over something so simple, something that could be found in just about any industrial facility in the region, but I honestly couldn’t help it — I was reaching a state of nerdy nirvana.

“We have over 1,000 instruments in this dam,” Sparks said. 

Some instruments — ones I’d never encountered or even heard of — are placed on each end of any crack that forms in the concrete to monitor propagation. Sparks noted that the dam is still expanding into the surrounding ravine, which inevitably leads to cracks. In fact, every six to seven years, a crew comes in with a diamond blade and cuts a gash across the dam to relieve the stress. Over time, that cut fills back in due to the natural expansion.

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The dam towered far above the eager visitors. Kyle Perotti photo

With the concern of cracks in mind, Sparks mentioned that there are seismographs onsite to monitor for earthquakes. Above a certain magnitude, the whole dam must be inspected.

Another specification that is constantly monitored is the lake’s surface level. At some point, when water comes up high enough, the gates need to be raised, which creates a giant rooster tail on the river-end of the dam. This is to ensure the water doesn’t go over the top of the dam, a situation that would compromise its very structural integrity.

“If this dam were to structurally malfunction, that’s bad news for everybody downstream,” Sparks said.

Last year, a storm brought heavy rains that led to a quick 5-foot increase and the gates had to be opened.

“I was in Seattle at the time, and they called me and said the water level is going up, and I said, well, I’m not gonna get there in time,” Sparks recalled with a chuckle.

Fontana, along with the other downstream dams, work together during large storms to prevent flooding in Chattanooga. It’s a closely coordinated effort to make sure each dam does its part without putting too much stress on any one structure.

“We’ve been able to save billions of dollars of damage in Chattanooga by holding water back at each dam,” Sparks said.

A man asked what the shelf life of Fontana Dam is.

“I would say 1,000 years from now when the aliens land, it’s still gonna be here,” Sparks replied.

news Fontana Looking up

Our tour guide, Keith Sparks, points out something near the top of the dam. Kyle Perrotti photo

While Sparks, along with his visitors, marveled at the size of the dam, he said he also sometimes laments its enormity. He recalled that a few weeks back he had to track down a ground in an electrical system. The process for troubleshooting a ground requires half-splitting a system until you can pinpoint the problem. He chased the ground up and down the steep stairs deep in the concrete before he found it right near the middle of the system. He joked about the aches and pains climbing those steep stairs regularly leads to. 

“I keep Motrin, Advil and Tylenol all in business,” he said. 

We came back outside, let our eyes adjust to the sun and paused so Sparks could tell us about the emergency generator that could be used to operate vital systems in case something failed. The generator could even be used to put the dam back in operation to deliver power to people in the event of a widespread catastrophe.

“In case there was an emergency in the grid, like the Chinese decided to EMP us or something from the sun kills the grid, we can start up and start producing power again,” he said.

We went to the control room; we were now inside the zoo with the animals.

“How much of this is 1940s tech?” the Scout reporter asked while looking around at the multitude of digital meters and heavy-duty switchgear.

Not much, it turned out. There had been a fire in the control room about nine years back that required all the equipment to be replaced. Just about the only original equipment could be found in the generator room.

I asked about the qualification process for workers. It takes about 18 months to become fully qualified to operate all systems at Fontana Dam, and there’s no requalification needed, unless, as one operator in denim overalls pointed out, you screw something up. The qualification process includes learning how to read electrical, mechanical and hydraulic system schematics for the purpose of troubleshooting, a skill that isn’t taught everywhere and Sparks said makes Fontana employees sought after by other companies.

I asked about their educations and backgrounds.

Sparks is an Air Force veteran and has a bachelor’s degree in management.

“My degree is in hard labor,” the man in the denim overalls said wryly as he pulled a Mountain Dew bottle out of his pocket and spit some brown tobacco juice into it.

After some more Q&A, we went into one of two fan rooms. Large fans are required to provide ventilation throughout the dam, ventilation that is especially necessary in the battery room, where hydrogen is constantly produced as a byproduct. Sparks said that when the fans are in operation, you can’t hear and the suction is so great that it’s all but impossible to keep the door open.

Eventually, we got to the big show — the vast room that houses the plant’s three massive turbine generators. Unlike conventional power plants with turbines that are operated by high-pressure steam and spin in the thousands of RPMs, the turbines at Fontana, like other dams, spin much slower since they’re just powered by water. In Fontana’s case, the turbines spin at just 150 RPM.

We talked about mechanical and electrical specifications for a while longer and then got up-close looks at the turbines themselves and even the battery room. By the time we got back to the marble room where everyone had initially gathered, we realized the other visitors had left. Our tour lasted a good deal longer than the others, something Sparks seemed to take pride in.

I was just happy to be there.

A complicated history

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The project to construct the dam was completed on an accelerated timeline. Tennessee Valley Authority photo

When I stepped outside, I looked out over the river and considered what I’d been told since I moved to the area — stories of how some local people still harbor bitterness toward the TVA. For some families, between the displacement of residents by the TVA and the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there’s a distrust of the federal government that spans all generations.

But there’s another lens through which to view Fontana and other TVA dams. If you look at the big picture, the TVA and Fontana Dam itself were born of necessity, planned with ambition and built with grit and determination.

After years of discussion among regional leaders and even Congress, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act on May 18, 1933, as part of the New Deal. The initial aim was to curb flooding that had plagued the area while providing electricity to homes and industry. In the heart of the Great Depression, the TVA’s planned infrastructure projects also offered job opportunities to thousands of men who’d been out of work.

There was talk of building the Fontana Dam for years before funding was finally approved in 1941 after Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. As the war effort ramped up, so too did the demand for electricity to run massive plants, including an Alcoa aluminum plant in Tennessee that fabricated parts for airplanes. In addition, power from Fontana would eventually be used at Oak Ridge, a facility that processed highly enriched uranium as part of the Manhattan Project.

The base camp that housed workers and their families began with about 500 men but grew to 5,000. While many of the workers were eager and patriotic Western North Carolina men looking to support their country and their families, others came from all over. The camp, which grew to a village, eventually featured modern amenities like a beauty parlor and movie theater.

Builders worked on an accelerated schedule — sometimes seven days a week — to meet the demand created by the war, and in November 1944, the gates were closed. Just a couple of months later, two generators were online producing electricity.

When the dam was built, the 10,230-acre Fontana Lake formed, with fingers branching off in every direction creating numerous coves and a 238-mile shoreline. Like with many other TVA projects, entire towns — Fontana, Bushnell, Forney and Judson in this case — were flooded.  According to a 2021 Smoky Mountain Living article , 2,311 families were displaced, and 2,043 gravesites were either left isolated or were relocated. In the end, 1,064 tracts were acquired at an average sum of only $37.76 an acre.  

“The material costs — highway and railway relocation, lost timber resources, burned buildings, drowned or condemned agricultural acreage — took not only an economic but an emotional toll,” the SML article notes.

“Locals of all stripes found some temporary relief in the much-needed economic boom that came with the dam, as almost 4,000 workers were hired for the multi-faceted construction of Fontana,” it later reads. “Many welcomed the opportunity to work for ‘cash money,’ as the local vernacular put it. Still, many realized that construction of Fontana meant that nothing would ever be the same.”

When pride mattered

What do I, someone who loves this region yet has no roots here, make of this?

People displaced by the formation of Fontana Lake were the unfortunate victims of inevitable progress, not unlike those who were displaced by the formation of the park — a tragic byproduct of an ultimately successful effort to better the nation. By the time I finished the tour and reflected on what I’d seen, I felt sympathy and still understood people’s bitterness, but I also understand that at such a dire time in American history, this was necessary.

Either way, throughout the tour, right or wrong, my own curiosity and conflict regarding the TVA’s complicated history was often overcome by awe and amazement at the monolithic wonder in front of me, the product of superb engineering, attention to detail and — perhaps most importantly — pride. I felt like nothing that is built nowadays can rival that project — quick and under budget without too many regulatory delays is the goal now.

The marble room where we gathered alone was enough to drop a few jaws. That marble had been gathered locally, as were almost all other materials, including the tons of concrete. Workers had to make do with what was around them, even if it wasn’t ideal, considering so many metals were going straight toward the war effort. That took creativity and determination.

“If you notice the design of the ceiling, during the war there wasn’t a lot of steel to be had … so the way they designed the ceiling was to hold that weight (with concrete) without being flat and using steel to support,” Sparks said during the tour.

And the small touches were there, things that told me the structure was also about form and not just function — pride in even the smallest of details. For example, the generator room features nearly floor-to-ceiling windows that allow light to pour into the facility, and many vertical concrete surfaces are finished with wood grain that could be missed if someone wasn’t looking right at it.

“That’s actually right off of the trees,” Sparks said. “They left it that way on purpose. They were trying to show the bond between modern technology and nature.” 

He said it’s like a “fingerprint.” 

More tours possible … maybe

I’d met David Cline prior to the tour when I took a picture of him to show the immense height of the dam with some sort of scale. Cline is 67, a veteran and fully retired. He and his wife live in Maryville, Tennessee, and frequently hike around the region including the Appalachian Trail, which crosses the dam.

Cline had toured other dams, even some of the bigger ones out West, but said the tour of Fontana was unlike anything he’d experienced.

news Fontana David Cline

David Cline was thrilled with his tour of Fontana Dam. David Cline was thrilled with his tour of Fontana Dam. Kyle Perrotti photo

“The access to this place was pretty amazing,” he said. “The places we went, it must have been the Presidential tour or something. We saw things that I really wasn’t expecting, so I’m very grateful. I mean, we saw equipment and went back behind the scenes, and it was informative.” 

The spectacular engineering and attention to detail weren’t lost on Cline.

“Well, I knew a little bit about it, but it’s just very impressive to go inside and see it,” he said. “It is pretty spectacular. I recommend it if people have the chance.”

It seemed like our visit was a precursor to something larger, perhaps more public tours. 

During our journey into the dam, there were things Sparks said that hinted at that. For example, he said they’d considered bringing back into operation the rail car, which until 9/11 had hauled visitors up and down the dam. Was it a sign of things to come?

news Fontana Wood grain

Tour guide Keith Sparks points out the attention to detail in the construction. Kyle Perrotti photo

Scott Brooks, a public relations specialist for TVA, wouldn’t confirm whether that was true and wouldn’t say whether there are plans to go beyond the tour we enjoyed.  

“It takes a lot of time and effort,” he said in an interview a few days after the Fontana tour, adding that the dam operates with a relatively small staff who can’t accommodate regular tours on their own.

Brooks said the tour of Fontana was part of a larger effort by the TVA to celebrate its 90th birthday by allowing members of the public to visit a number of its facilities.  

“We’ll take a look (at more tours) after we finish this special anniversary,” he said.

When I commented that I’d thoroughly enjoyed the tour and knew many others who’d love to see the inside of the dam, he agreed.

“It was my first visit to Fontana,” he said. “To be able to not only go on top of and below but inside the dam is definitely an experience for sure.”

I hope more people get the opportunity.

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