Beautiful, venerable Wilbur Dam, one of the oldest in the TVA system, encapsulates much history and serves the Tennessee Valley in many ways even today.
It’s not often that a century’s worth of history can be seen all in one place, but it exists at Wilbur Dam. Completed in 1912, Wilbur was one of the first major hydroelectric projects in Tennessee, and it is the second oldest dam in the TVA system.
The dam impounds the Watauga River, which enters Carter County in East Tennessee from North Carolina. It creates a small, 72-acre reservoir, which is in some of the most beautiful country in the Tennessee River watershed. The reservoir is surrounded by the Cherokee National Forest and flanked by the Appalachian Mountains.
The idea for putting up a dam at this location is credited to John L. Curtis, who at the time was a line rider for the Holston Telephone Company. His influence and promotion led to the formation of the Doe River Light and Power Company.
Land purchases for the dam, initially nicknamed Horseshoe Dam, began in 1907 after an engineering assessment had been undertaken. The entire plan was presented and accepted by the Bristol Gas and Electric Company, which was to be the primary purchaser of the electric power that would be produced. During this same timeframe the Doe River Light and Power Company became the Watauga Power Company, setting up shop with total capital of $300,000.
Work on the dam commenced on July 1, 1909, and on Christmas Day of 1911, generated its first electric power. It was reported that John L. Curtis himself threw the switch.
In February a celebration was held with the pomp and circumstance customary for the day. Visitors were given a tour of the village, the gorge, a site for a proposed second dam, and the dam and powerhouse itself. Upon returning they were treated to a fish bake at the Lynwood Hotel.
Wilbur Dam is definitely one of the first, but there is evidence that it may hold claim to being the first major hydro generation facility in Tennessee, according to documents from the time.
“The first hydro-electric plant established in Tennessee was put in operation in Carter County this morning [Dec. 25, 1911], when the new power was transmitted in electric current to the town of Elizabethton as a test,” wrote John Albert Switzer, professor of hydraulic engineering at the University of Tennessee.
“The completion of this plant is looked upon as the beginning of a new era in power development in Tennessee.”
Two hydroelectric generating units were installed when Wilbur was originally constructed, but there were accommodations for a future third unit. This was installed in 1926, using a James Leffel and Company 45-inch, Francis F-type turbine and a 1,200-kW Westinghouse generator.
The original switching equipment was inside the powerhouse, which was a common construction technique of the time, but when the third unit was installed a new switchyard was constructed outside the powerhouse, adjacent to it. The switchyard was later moved up the hill where it is still located today.
Floods that nearly demolished the powerhouse occurred on August 13 and 14 of 1940. At that point, a new powerhouse was designed and built, one better able to withstand a similar storm. TVA redid the powerhouse a third time when it acquired the dam in 1945 and added a fourth generating unit, giving the facility a total capacity of 11 megawatts. All four units are fully operational today, displaying the progression of hydro generation across the decades.
Furthermore, in 1947, TVA outfitted the dam with a new gate-controlled spillway and raised it five feet to accommodate the tailwaters of nearby Watauga Dam.
Today, Wilbur is a popular spot for fishing enthusiasts. Although boat navigation is limited to smaller craft, fishing fans can catch plenty around Wilbur. The primary game fish are trout, largemouth and smallmouth bass, black crappie and rock bass. Rainbow trout are stocked on an annual basis and thrive in the cold, clear water, which has good dissolved oxygen levels.
Birdwatchers can see hundreds of wintering ducks, especially bufflehead. Occasionally one or two American bald eagles can be seen in the winter. Wild turkeys, grouse, loons, grebes and gulls are also winter visitors. In spring, birdwatchers can spot warblers, whippoorwills and other songbirds.