Watts Bar Getaway
In 1950, after construction on Watts Bar Dam was complete, an enterprising Michigander bought up the construction workers’ housing and launched a wildly successful resort.
Every TVA dam built came along with puzzles—those of engineering, construction, logistics and…housing. Because TVA’s dams tended to be built in remote locations, the company often constructed housing—even creating small communities—for the workers who toiled to construct its dams swiftly and well.
Such a place was Watts Bar. It was, to be blunt, located in an East Tennessee backwater…beautiful, yet remote and largely inaccessible. Still, during the construction years—1939 to 1942—as many as 1,800 worked on Watts Bar dam, and these workers needed a place to stay.
The local housing market was all but nonexistent, so TVA responded quickly to the need for housing, creating a village that included a cafeteria, a hospital, a community building, eight dormitories and 50 single-family cottages. What’s more, the village was serviced by almost two miles of streets and public paths, telephone service, a gas station, a baseball field, tennis courts, playgrounds for the children and—yes—electricity.
It was a thriving community—right up to the moment the dam gates were closed on January 1, 1942. Workers were reduced, continuing to trickle away as generators came online—Unit 3 in February of 1942; Unit 2 in April of 1942; Unit 1 in July of 1942; and units 4 and 5 in March and April of 1944 respectively.
By the late 40s, the village was all but emptied (a few stalwart TVA families stayed on), and TVA looked to sell the property. It found a buyer in one enterprising Michigander named Pete Smith, who—along with his wife Sally and sister-in-law Katie Marshall—renovated 41 of the cabins, opened a restaurant, then installed a swimming pool, riding stables, shuffleboard and a boat dock. With all that done, and some gorgeous landscaping in place, too, in 1950 they opened Watts Bar Resort. It was a smash.
There was never an agenda at Watts Bar Resort—no special programs, no organized recreation or fishing expeditions. “I just let our guests do what they want to do,” Smith told the New York Times in a 1964 feature story, when the resort was at its height.
That proved a recipe for success, and people came from all over the U.S. to spend time at what eventually became known as Pete Smith’s Watts Bar Resort. Pete himself once noted a good 80 percent of the car tags in the resort came from states above the Mason Dixon line, filled with northerners who'd come down to soak up the Tennessee sun and play on the lake.
Love from the Locals
But local support was good, too. Residents of the surrounding area often patronized the restaurant. “The dining room was the place to be for a ‘special’ meal, and usually required reservations if you wanted to be assured of a table,” remembers Pat Guffey in a story in the Rhea County Herald News. “The clientele for meals not only included the cabin guests, but was also composed of people from Rhea County, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Athens, Knoxville and other areas.”
On the menu? Fried onions served on the plate as a “bale of hay.” Refreshing cucumber salad. Jell-O confections. Lush coconut cream pie. And the kitchen would happily fry up whatever fish you’d caught that day.
And many remember the adjacent gift shop for it’s unique offerings—one-of-a-kind gewgaws. “The gift shop was full of little keepsakes from around the world,” writes Jim Lemmon in his blog JWL’s Views of the World and Other Places. “I’m sure there are a few items purchased there that are still around the house someplace.”
The End of an Era
When he’d grown tired of running the business in the 1970s, Pete Smith sold out to a pair of brothers from Illinois—David and Edward Probst, and their wives Bonnie and Joyce respectively. The Probst family carried on running the resort throughout 1990s, when enthusiasm for the local charm waned
Today, the resort is closed and the buildings have been bulldozed. The whole area is gated and locked, so that no one can get in. “It has the aura of a ghost town surrounding it,” says Guffey.
But recreation on Watts Bar Reservoir continues apace—as every weekend in spring, summer, and fall can attest. Those who enjoyed time at Pete Smith’s Watts Bar Resort—and those who didn’t—can swim, sun, fish, boat, hike, picnic and have just as much fun at Watts Bar.
Photos of Pete Smith's Watts Bar Resort courtesy of the Tennessee State Library and Archive.