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speaker at Douglas dam

What Democracy Can Do

At the outset of World War II, Congress approved the Douglas Dam Bill to provide power for the war effort—in particular, to produce the aluminum needed to build aircraft. TVA workers toiled day and night, and the dam was finished in just over a year.

Patrick Marshall was one of 18 brown-helmeted workers who sat on the flag-decked speakers’ platform on March 1, 1943, the day Douglas Dam was dedicated to winning World War II. As the ranking man in a group that had not missed a single day of work since the project started, Marshall had the honor of flipping the switch that set the first generator humming on a trial run.

“I realized that any day I was absent was a day given to the enemy,” the steamfitter explained afterwards. “We are all united in the hope that this power will speed utter defeat to our enemies.”

Thousands of construction workers listened as dignitaries praised their remarkable achievement. With crews working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, Douglas Dam was finished in just 12 months and 17 days—still a world record for projects of comparable size.

Needs Must

In a 1936 report to Congress, TVA had pointed out that a dam on the French Broad River should be constructed to provide for complete and effective navigation and flood control on the Tennessee and Mississippi Rivers “when justified.” But construction of Douglas Dam was deferred because it would flood some of the best agricultural land in the area and impact a sizeable canning industry.

World War II provided the needed justification. The nation required vast amounts of electricity to fuel the war effort—particularly to produce the aluminum needed for aircraft construction—and it needed it fast.

Opponents of Douglas Dam, led by Tennessee Senator Kenneth McKellar, argued that the necessary power could be found elsewhere. Proponents, led by TVA chairman David Lilienthal, contended that Douglas Dam was the only source in the country that could possibly produce power in time to avert a threatened aluminum shortage in 1943.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, effectively ended the argument. Congress approved the Douglas Dam bill, and President Franklin Roosevelt signed it into law on January 30, 1942.

That afternoon, TVA received a teletype from its Washington representative that said, “DOUGLAS DAM BILL JUST SIGNED. START DIGGING.” Within four days, an estimated 1,800 employees were working on the project. By June 30, 1942, more than 6,000 employees were on the payroll. A little more than a year later, despite a four-week delay due to flooding, Douglas Dam was finished.

A Dam with a Plan

Several fortuitous circumstances contributed to the speed with which Douglas Dam was built. TVA completed nearby Cherokee Dam just a few weeks earlier and so was able to take advantage of the immediate availability of drawings, heavy equipment and seasoned engineers and construction workers on the Douglas project. Also, a 30,000-kilowatt generating unit already ordered for Cherokee and scheduled for delivery in March 1942 could be installed in the Douglas powerhouse, making power available a year earlier than would otherwise be possible.

But for President Franklin Roosevelt it was “the free men and free institutions who … worked together” that made the engineering and construction feat possible. In a letter read at the dedication ceremony, he credited: “the Congress of the United States which determined that the structure should be built; the engineers and workmen who … labored day and night through storm and heat and flood to carry out that mandate; the farmers who, in a few short months, … moved from their land and … surrendered cherished homes to let this river mobilize for war.”

“Let our enemies take note,” Roosevelt declared. “Douglas Dam shows what a democracy can do.”