National Geographic : 1948 Apr
Around the "Great Lakes of the South" BY FREDERICK SIMPICII With Illustrations by National Geographic PhotographerJ. Baylor Roberts ". \ROM my front yard-if I could get down to it-I might look up now and see a 30-pound catfish swimming where wild geese used to fly," said an Alabama farmer. "Or up in what used to be the sky, I might see an excursion steamer from Cin cinnati, a wheat barge from St. Louis, a speedboat race-or even a bevy of bathing beauties diving from a raft!" Fantastic? No! This man's farm now lies in the bed of an inland sea, one of that long string of "Great Lakes of the South" created when Uncle Sam built dams in the Tennessee River and made it a part of nearly 15,000 miles of navigable inland and coastal water ways. One of these lakes, formed by Kentucky Dam near Paducah, Kentucky, is 185 miles long (page 487). Some are so deep that in certain seasons you could let your hook down 60 or 70 feet and find fish (Plate IV). For 650 miles downstream from Knoxville. Tennessee, across northern Alabama, then back north through Tennessee and Kentucky to where it flows into the Ohio, this river is just one lake after another; their total shore line measures as much in miles as our com bined Gulf and Pacific coasts. Barely 15 years ago this turbulent Tennes see-draining parts of Virginia, North Caro lina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Missis sippi, and Kentucky-what with its floods, land erosion, and wasted power, balked the welfare and progress of this populous region, which covers 40,910 square miles. Now all that's changing fast. Dams for Many Purposes Today, multiple-purpose dams control floods, aid navigation, and provide electric light and power for millions in this area (map, pages 488-9). This gigantic job began in 1933 when, by Act of Congress, the Tennessee Valley Au thority, or TVA, was set up. Its nonpartisan board is named by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate. Rainfall in the Great Smokies drains into the Tennessee, and may reach 80 inches a year. By radio, telephone, and teletype, watching engineers know just what rainstorms are doing along the Tennessee River and its upper tributaries. The 28 dams in this river system (of which 12 were constructed during World War II and two are under construction) form as many lakes. They stand, each a bit lower than the one above it, like a series of big bathtubs. So, to control floods and still hold water enough behind the dams to run turbines and make power, the engineers simply open or close a water gate here or there, like turning a faucet on or off in a bathtub (map, pages 482-3). Most Completely Controlled River This makes the Tennessee now the most completely controlled major river anywhere in the world. But for this control, high water as of old would still lay waste the Tennessee Valley and add to lower Ohio and Mississippi River floods. When you see how puny man has balked this wild river, you think of that Bib lical tale of how God held back the waters of the sea while Moses' Israelites walked through with dry feet. Since 1936, when the first dam above Chat tanooga was built, 15 floods have started on the Tennessee River. The crests of all have been reduced. In the two largest, those of January, 1946, and January, 1947, flood stages at Chattanooga were reduced by 10 and 12' feet. Total estimated savings in flood damages to that city alone are well over $20,000,000. Similar benefits accrued all down the valley. Kentucky Dam, which corks up the Ten nessee near its mouth, helps cut down flood levels in the Ohio and Mississippi by from one to three feet. For this magazine the writer covered the historic Ohio and Mississippi floods of 1927 and 1937.* Then, rowboats landed at the second story of a hotel in Paducah, drowned mules lodged on people's front porches, long reaches of the Lower Mississippi became vast inland seas, and some 600,000 people had to be removed to higher ground. You can no longer blame the Tennessee for any part in such disasters. Imagine the U. S. Coast Guard setting up navigation markers along new waterways which now lie over what used to be Alabama * See, by Frederick Simpich, in the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE: "Great Mississippi Flood of 1927," September, 1927; "Men Against the Rivers" (Missis sippi and Ohio Rivers), June, 1937; and "Taming the Outlaw Missouri River," November, 1945.