The Lost Towns of Pickwick
There’s no doubt that TVA’s dams transformed the Valley and made life easier for its residents. For some, though, the unified plan meant sacrificing home and community to the greater good.
Pickwick Landing Dam, the second of the main river dams to be constructed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), is a multipurpose dam. It is a significant producer of hydroelectric power, generating 240,200 kilowatts of electricity and has a flood storage capacity of 417,700 acre-feet. The reservoir also covers a portion of the treacherous Muscle Shoals, which once limited navigation on the Tennessee River. However, the shoals are not the only feature hidden beneath the tamed waters of Pickwick Reservoir. Vestiges of past lives and once vibrant communities also lie below the surface.
As part of his New Deal, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the TVA Act on May 18, 1933. This new agency was charged with a broad mission, but most importantly it was to improve the quality of life by providing flood control, navigation, and inexpensive electricity to the people of the Tennessee Valley. Engineers and planners quickly went to work on implementing the agency’s unified development plan for building the dams that would transform the region. For most residents of the Tennessee Valley, that was only good news. For others, however, it was a mixed blessing.
Relocating Homes and Families
When approval of Pickwick Landing Dam was announced in February of 1934, the Tuscumbia Times proclaimed, “President Roosevelt gladdened the heart of every man.” And it is true that most local residents, eager for good-paying jobs, celebrated the coming construction of both dam and reservoir. However, their enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by another, less appealing consequence of the construction effort—the loss and relocation of hundreds of homes, farms and families.
The vast reservoir created by the Pickwick Landing Dam affected sections of Hardin County, Tennessee; Tishomingo County, Mississippi; and Colbert and Lauderdale counties in Alabama. Prior to construction, TVA surveyed and mapped approximately 100,000 acres of land. The agency then acquired more than 63,700 acres, clearing about 12,590 acres of this land of trees, buildings and fences.
TVA studied the effects of the dam and reservoir on the four affected counties and concluded that the building of Pickwick Landing Dam would result in the partial flooding of two towns, Waterloo and Riverton, both in Alabama. Eventually 506 families were relocated and cemeteries, highways, bridges and utility lines were either moved or protected. The price of progress was the dissolution of home and community.
While these families were forced to move, the relocation was no southern diaspora. It appears most families stayed close to their roots. Many of these families found it difficult to solve their own relocation problems, precisely because they preferred to remain in the immediate area, where opportunities were scarce. The communities of Waterloo and Riverton were, prior to the construction of Pickwick Landing Dam, dependent on agricultural income derived from lands that would be included in the reservoir area. Riverton was partially supported by employment on the Colbert Shoals Canal Lock. Waterloo derived some support from the lumber business, but it was estimated that all marketable timber would be cut within two or three years.
Readjusting the Population
Congress, in amending the TVA Act in 1935, gave the Authority power to advise and cooperate in the readjustment of the affected population. In this work, TVA gave careful consideration to the social and economic needs of the families and made every effort, through cooperation with other agencies, to help them make proper adjustments. For example, TVA partnered with Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) and the Agricultural Extension Services of Tennessee and Mississippi to offer assistance to farm families in seeking and acquiring new farmhouses.
During the construction of the dam, TVA recruited many workers from the farm population for land clearing and work on dam construction. Highway, bridge and road construction helped to support the town of Waterloo and much of the rural population in the worst affected areas so that the crisis of community readjustment had been deferred. It was expected that recreational and industrial development resulting from the project would improve the economy of the region and provide long-term opportunities. The land-grant college extension service and other agencies made every effort to effect permanent readjustment of the displaced families and population in adjacent areas.
Sacrificing for a Stronger Nation
When Pickwick Dam was dedicated on the first Sunday in June 1940, more than 30,000 people came to see the great dam and to participate in the festivities. The 61-piece Sheffield, Alabama, High School Marching Band and the Al Chymia Temple Shrine Band of Memphis supplied the music for a program that included motorboat races, water pageants and—of course—many speeches. Tennessee’s Commissioner of Conservation, J. Charles Poe emphasized the recreational aspect of the new lake: “What great news this is to those seeking vacation spots in the South. Here is one of the best motor-boat courses in America.”
TVA Director James P. Pope stated that the “problems of conservation, power and navigation are not state or regional problems; they are national problems.” He added that “there will be no other chain of lakes to compare with this [the TVA system of dams and reservoirs]” and “its potentialities are far beyond the expectations of most of us.” Governor Prentice Cooper of Tennessee called Pickwick “a great step in national preparedness.” He went on to say that “one of our biggest shortages of the last war was in power. When a war comes, it is then too late to undertake building a dam for power. As a national defense measure alone, Pickwick is justified.” Governor Cooper summed up the spirit of the day when he proclaimed that “Pickwick and its sister projects will add much to the happiness, the security, the wealth and glory of Tennessee and the nation.”
During the Great Depression, the towns of Waterloo and Riverton were sacrificed as a result of the construction of Pickwick Dam. More than a loss of property, it was a sacrifice of community for the greater good. This act resulted in a better region allowing for the creation of jobs, economic security, recreational facilities and a better quality of life for the residents of the Tennessee Valley. As in other lost towns throughout the region, these communities and the families that lived in them dedicated their properties, homes and histories to the creation of a vastly improved region and a stronger nation for their children and grandchildren.