Nov 10 2013

Hales Bar Dam celebrates 100 years

Hales Bar Dam

Hales Bar Dam powerhouse as seen today

It’s been a fixture of Marion County’s landscape for almost one hundred years now, and has been the subject of everything from controversy to ghost hunts, and has even had a once-popular country song written about it in its’ time. Of course, we’re talking about Hales Bar Dam, often referred to as simply “the old dam” by locals, in Guild, TN.

Truly a piece of 20th century American engineering at it’s best (or worst, some would argue)…Hales Bar Dam was the brainchild of two well-known Chattanooga businessmen and a very wealthy New Yorker.

The year was 1905, and hydroelectric energy production was a fairly new concept for America, but despite the many obstacles in the way; the aforementioned men went for it…but at one hefty price tag.


Hales Bar Dam pre-1940

The dam was scheduled to open in 1907 with a projected price tag of around $2 million, however didn’t open until five years later in 1913 — all the while racking up a total expense of around $10 million (that’s $237 million in today’s money)…and even though the dam was complete…it leaked. It leaked bad!

Engineers of the dam chose the location in Haletown near Jasper, TN because the river was narrower there, and the section of the river in the Tennessee River Gorge behind the dam was notorious for difficult navigation and turbulent waters. The intent was to widen the river in that area by “damming it” to create easier passage and make a profit through hydroelectric production.

What engineers didn’t realize was that the ground beneath Hales Bar Dam was porous rock, with many air pockets inside. As those air pockets collapsed, the dam would resettle causing cracks to form in the dam’s wall.

No matter how many times construction crews and engineers tried to fill those cracks — with everything from concrete to old rags, mattresses, hay bales, you name it….they kept coming back.


Hales Bar Dam powerhouse turbines

After years of hard work and much effort, even a town created out of the area near the dam…it will go down in history as not an engineering marvel, but instead a money pit.

The dam was taken into possession by the newly-formed Tennessee Valley Authority in 1939, and continued to leak under their critical care for the next 28 years, before TVA officials decided to abandon it and try with a new dam downstream.

TVA completed the new Nickajack Dam in 1967 and Hales Bar Dam’s water spillways and lock were eventually demolished, leaving only the former powerhouse, which still stands today.

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga filmmaker, Jeromie Gentry, has been working on a documentary about Hales Bar Dam, and has recently teamed-up with local historian Nonie Webb to help make celebrate the dam’s 100th anniversary with firsthand stories of those who were involved in the dam or whose lives were somehow affected by the dam.

Nickajack Dam -- replaced Hales Bar in 1967

Nickajack Dam — replaced Hales Bar in 1967

Webb has been collecting history and stories about Hales Bar Dam for over 30 years, in addition to many other local history projects, and in 1989 helped organize a reunion of Hales Bar Dam kids, who lived near the dam or had family members who worked at the dam during its’ time.

While the reunions have since gone away, Webb has kept many newspaper articles and other information on the dam and has provided a lot of historical information to those who are curious or might be interested in learning more.

For those interested in the documentary, there will be a pre-screening of “Wide River to Cross” at the Princess Theater in South Pittsburg, TN on Saturday, November 16th, 2013 at 2pm CST.

Tickets are $7 each and the proceeds will benefit the Marion County food bank. Fore tickets or more information call (423)939-9369.

You can also learn more on the historic dam and the 100th Anniversary celebration on Facebook by clicking HERE.

Pictures and information for story from Wikipedia.org, Tennessee Valley Authority historical websites, and other public sources.