Jerry Summers: Lost Towns Of Alabama

Monday, October 18, 2021 - by Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers
Jerry Summers

The control of the often-raging Tennessee, Ohio and other rivers by the erection of hydroelectric dams in the Tennessee Valley brought many benefits to the communities and residents of several states.

            However, with all government projects there are always negative aspects that have to be weighed against the ultimate good results.

            There is no doubt that the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) multiple hydroelectric dams transformed the Tennessee Valley and has made life easier for its residents.  For some several thousand homeowners and tenant farmers, though, the unified plan meant sacrificing home and community for the public good.

            Two small towns, Waterloo and Riverton in Alabama, would pay the highest price of the creation of the dam system and particularly the vast reservoir and Pickwick Landing Dam.  Hamilton County also lost a couple of islands when the spillways of the Chickamauga Dam were closed on January 15, 1940.  Chickamauga Island was located just upstream of the dam and was quickly submerged.  The waters of the lake did not cover Dallas Island until nearly three months later.

            When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the original Tennessee Valley Act on May 18, 1933 as part of his New Deal legislation designed to attempt to bring the country out of the Depression several positive and negative consequences for the citizens of the two Alabama towns took place.

            The communities of Waterloo and Riverton existed prior to the construction of Pickwick Dam and were dependent on agricultural income derived from lands that would be included in the vast reservoir. 

            The dam system that began at the junction of the Holston and French Broad Rivers in Tennessee would eventually cover approximately 886 miles of navigable water ways in a U-shaped course and 29 hydroelectric dams with the first 16 dams being completed and put in service in 11 years.

            The goals of the system were to (1) reduce flooding; (2) provide a navigable waterway; (3) generate electric power; and (4) provide clean and save waterways such as to eliminate hazardous areas such as “the Suck” below Chattanooga, and a portion of treacherous Muscle Shoals in Alabama.

            The vast reservoir created by the Pickwick Landing Dam would affect parts of counties in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama that would be submerged.

            The initial euphoria was to transform the vast multi-state region to provide good paying jobs when TVA recruited many workers from the agricultural population to clear the land and to work on the construction of the dam.

            Due to the dam being built eventually 506 families were relocated and cemeteries, highways, bridges and utility lines were either moved or protected.  Because of the economic benefit of the available good paying jobs, the crisis of community readjustment was deferred.

            It was erroneously believed that the dislocated persons would move out of the area but the personal attachment to their former homeland would result in many of them staying close to their family roots.

            After the dam was finished, employment opportunities in the area became scarce because the communities of Waterloo and Riverton and its residents were primarily farmers who were dependent on agricultural income from land that would be included in the reservoir area to be flooded.

            Initially some Riverton residents would continue to find jobs on the Colbert Shoals Canal Lock which was first named Riverton Lock.  Colbert and Bee Tree Shoals were upriver from Riverton and prevented major river traffic between Riverton and Florence, Alabama for six months of the dry season.  After Muscle Shoals Canal Lock was started, the task of overseeing the completion of the lock was assigned to a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, George Washington Goethals, who later would be promoted to general and was given the responsibility of designing and constructing the Panama Canal.  With the completion of the Muscle Shoals Canal Lock, the displaced Riverton residents once again faced unemployment.

            The former inhabitants of Waterloo did not fare much better as they initially received some support from the lumber business, but it was estimated that all marketable lumber from the area of the submerged twin towns and the reservoirs would be cut within two or three years.

            The debate on the benefits of providing flood control, navigation and electricity to the region verses the loss of property and the sacrifice of the towns of Waterloo and Riverton extended even to the naming of Pickwick Dam.

            The designation of the area using the name Pickwick Landing Dam came from the location of the dam near Pickwick Landing which had derived its name from the local post office.  The area’s first postmaster was fond of the Charles Dickens novel “The Pickwick Papers” and honored the author by naming his post office after him.

            As expected, controversy arose when some political supporters wanted to name the dam after either Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar, Mississippi Congressman John Elliott Rankin and Civil War historians advocated for the facility to be renamed to honor the Battle of Shiloh. 

            Eventually all proposals failed, and the name Pickwick Landing Dam remained.

            Today it would have to be recognized that the sacrifice of the Alabama towns of Waterloo and Riverton were for the greater good and was a beneficial price for progress.

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)

           

           

           


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