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Truman speaking at Kentucky dam

TVA’s Mightiest Dam

In dedicating the massive Kentucky Dam, President Harry S. Truman summed up the success of TVA, a formula comprised of modern science, good management and common sense.

Mention presidential speeches given about TVA, and most history buffs will jump immediately to the one President Roosevelt delivered upon the corporation’s founding, or the JFK speech delivered at Muscle Shoals on its 30th anniversary. Few even know about the defining address given by Harry S. Truman at the dedication of Kentucky Dam.

For weeks in the fall of 1945, newspapers across the Tennessee Valley had reported on the completion of the dam and the approaching presidential visit. Correspondents described Kentucky as the “miracle of the Twentieth Century,” “a magnificent monument to man’s will over nature” and “the giant that harnesses the power of the Tennessee River.”

They called Kentucky Lake “the daddy of all man-made lakes in the Southeast,” citing its 158,000 acres formed 359 feet above sea level. All of this reporting generated much interest by the public, culminating in a huge turnout for the dam’s dedication.

A Luminous Day

According to newspaper accounts, October 10, 1945, was a warm, sunny day, allowing Kentucky Lake to sparkle like diamonds. A crowd of over 15,000—estimated at that time to be the largest crowd ever assembled in western Kentucky—gathered at the dam. Hoping for a glimpse of the President, 10,000 cheering school children lined his route. Truman, seated in the back seat of an open car, waved as he moved slowly through the streets of Paducah, Ky. The auspicious occasion also called for a group of notables which included—in addition to President Truman—15 members of Congress, the chairman and chief counsel of the War Production Board, Governor Willis of Kentucky and many others, including TVA directors and workers.

On a platform on the Gilbertsville end of the dam, amid the playing of marching bands and applause of the crowd, Truman dedicated the big Kentucky Dam “in the name of the American people who built it and to whom it belongs.” The President recalled controversies that attended TVA’s creation and declared it “is no longer an experiment, but a demonstration” of which “all except a small minority” regard as “a great American accomplishment.”

A Link to the Future

He went on to talk about the specifics of the dam, noting its contributions to flood control, to the great quantities of electricity it would generate and to the multiple recreational opportunities it created. He also touched on one of the most important points of Kentucky Dam—the completion of a deep-water, navigable channel from Paducah to Knoxville, Tenn. In fact, Truman emphasized this point in his speech, stating “the South and the Middle West of this Nation are now connected by water transportation. The benefits of this dam go not only to the Tennessee Valley; they go to Saint Paul and Minneapolis, to New Orleans and Memphis, to Saint Louis and Kansas City, to Omaha and Sioux City—to all the communities in the great Mississippi Valley that are served by our inland waterways.”

The festivities ended, and by early afternoon, President Truman was on his way back to Washington. However, the milestone that was recognized on that day back in 1945 continues its service even now. TVA created a river control system without parallel in our world or in our history, and that system helped improve the lives of many by providing a navigation channel, flood control, affordable electricity and economic development.

What President Truman said back in 1945 rings true today. He asked, theoretically, what made TVA successful, and then in his straightforward manner answered himself: “It is common sense hitched up to modern science and good management. And that’s about all there is to it.”