Before Chickamauga Dam, Chattanooga—the Valley's most flood-prone city—suffered from massive economic damage and moquito-borne health crises because of the untamed river.
Just two or three generations ago, life in the Tennessee Valley was precarious at best. This was partly due to raging floods that regularly destroyed crops, livestock, homes, property and human lives. Flooding—still the most common natural disaster worldwide and the leading cause of natural disaster fatalities—was a grim reality of life for people struggling to make a living in Tennessee.
This was especially true for Chattanooga, which had one of the most serious flooding problems in the nation, suffering serious damage in 1867, 1875, 1886 and 1917. When the Tennessee Valley Authority was formed in 1933, annual flood damage to the Chattanooga area was estimated at $1.7 million (well over $31 million in today’s dollars). This did not include indirect damage such as losses due to interrupted business and traffic, unsanitary conditions and the spread of disease.
Because of this, flood control was the primary consideration in planning and constructing Chickamauga Dam. Without the TVA reservoir system that is in place today, much of Chattanooga would be underwater much of the time. At least $4.9 billion in flood damage has been averted at Chattanooga over the decades, allowing the city to thrive and grow.
It wasn’t just flooding that necessitated intervention in Chattanooga. When TVA was incorporated in 1933, malaria affected a third of the population in the region. Looking through the death records kept by Tennessee Valley counties at that time makes it clear that mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and yellow fever took an enormous toll in human life before TVA launched its comprehensive mosquito-control programs.
Malaria, which was described in ancient Chinese texts thousands of years ago, still seemed insurmountable in the early 20th century. From the Italian for “bad air”—mal’aria—the disease has influenced human populations and human history to a great extent.
Yellow fever, also carried by mosquitoes, regularly swept through the South. Yellow fever was a particularly nasty way to die; it was referred to as “black vomit disease”, and it could kill victims so quickly that mass graves had to be dug for them.
Judge William Cummings—Chattanooga’s first city court judge—said at the time, “Not only do we need this dam for flood control, but we need it from a health standpoint; floods are a menace to the health of the people.”
TVA responded. As part of its mission in flood control and economic development, TVA quickly began to fight these diseases by controlling water levels and applying insecticides, reducing mosquito breeding sites.
The construction of Chickamauga Dam and its reservoir would require the purchase of over 61,000 acres of land, 6,000 acres of which were wooded and needed to be cleared. Over 900 families, 24 cemeteries and 81 miles of roads were relocated.
After extensive surveying, the tip of Chickamauga Island was chosen for the dam, which was authorized December 31, 1935. Construction began just two weeks later, and four years later almost to the day, the project was completed.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Chickamauga Dam on Sept. 2, 1940. In his speech that day, he said, “This Chickamauga Dam…built by the Tennessee Valley Authority for the people of the United States, is helping to give to all of us human control of the watershed of the Tennessee River in order that it may serve in full the purposes of men.
“The chain of man-made inland seas may well be named ‘The Great Lakes of the South’. Through them we are celebrating the opening of a new artery of commerce, new opportunities for recreation, relief from the desolation of floods, and new low cost energy which has begun to flow to the homes and farms and industries in seven American states.”