by Jennifer Watts
Tennessee is known for its many beautiful lakes. What people don’t know is some lakes have a secret. Under the sparkling waters are sunken towns. Whole communities were flooded by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the 20th century.
The rivers of Tennessee have a long history of flooding. These floods destroyed farms, washing away crops and homes. In the 1930s, the United States government wanted to help stop this from happening. They also wanted to aid farmers in protecting the farmland so important to feeding the nation. To do this, the TVA was created to build dams to control the rushing water and produce electricity. Many of these dams created reservoirs. The new lakes they created covered many towns with hundreds of feet of water.
One such town was Loyston, Tennessee. It was first settled around 1800 by the Stooksbury family. John Loy moved there in the early 19th century and by 1866 it was called Loy’s Cross Road. In 1894 the name changed to Loyston.
Home of Mrs. Jacob Stooksbury in Loyston, Photo by Lewis Hine, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Oakdale School in Loyston, Photo by Lewis Hine, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
The town was near the Clinch River in East Tennessee. By 1935, there were 70 residents. They had built homes, schools, churches, and several businesses. It was a lively community. All of it had to go when Norris Dam was built in 1936. Many of the residents did not want to leave. Their families had lived there for generations. The TVA made them move. How would you feel if someone from the TVA came to your door and said that they were going to make great improvements to bring electricity, but that you would have to leave the only home you’ve ever known? Many residents moved to Knox, Anderson, Blount, and Loudon counties nearby. Today the site of Loyston is remembered as the “Loyston Sea”. It is a small inlet on Lake Norris. It is known for great boating, fishing, and other water activities.
Postcard of Norris Dam and Lake Norris, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Another sunken ghost town was Willow Grove, Tennessee. Known today as “the town that drowned.” It was located on the banks of Iron Creek and named for the willow trees that grew nearby. Like Loyston, it was a thriving community. It had churches, a general store, a school, and a grist mill. In 1942, the government bought the land and began demolishing homes and other buildings. They forced the people to move. On July 18, 1942, the community had its final picnic. It was a way to say goodbye to the home they loved. Soon after the completion of Dale Hollow Dam, the waters came, and a lake was created. It was named for the Dale family that owned the land where the dam now stands.
Willow Grove Before Flooding, Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
The foundation of the Willow Grove School, Image courtesy of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
A third Tennessee town flooded by the TVA was Bulter. It had a long history of flooding by the Watauga River. In 1940, a bad one hit the community, and several people died. This event led to the building of Watauga Dam. Construction started in 1942 but World War II stopped it. Building started back up in 1946 and was finished in 1948.
Lake Watauga and Dam Postcard, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Butler was the largest town to be flooded in Tennessee. Over 700 families had to move. Butler’s story didn’t end like those of Loyston and Willow Grove though. Instead of being flooded and never seen again, Butler was moved to 200 acres of farmland on higher ground. The town was rebuilt, and the people returned. Many people today call it New Butler. In 1954 and 1983, drought lowered the water in the lake so low that the old town could be seen once again. Many of the old residents returned to see their old home.
(Right) Depot Street of Old Butler, TSLA Collection.
(Left) Moving Fenn Curtis’s home from Old Butler to New Butler, TSLA Collection.
Modern towns were not the only ones to be flooded by the TVA. The site of the Cherokee towns of Chota and Tanasi in Monroe County were also flooded. Located along the Little Tennessee River, Chota was the most important town of the Cherokee people in the late 1700s. The famous Cherokee leader, Attakullakulla, once lived there.
Toqua, Print by C. Motte (example of a Cherokee town), Tennessee State Museum Collection.
From 1969 to 1974, the University of Tennessee excavated the site and discovered several townhouses and over 60 other buildings. In 1979, the land was partially flooded by the Tellico Reservoir. A monument was built near the site in remembrance of the people who once called Chota and Tanasi home. The monument is designed like a Cherokee townhouse. It contains eight pillars for each of the seven clans and one for the whole Cherokee nation.
Chota Memorial, Image from www.tennesseerivervalleygeotourism.org.
Loyston, Willow Grove, Butler, Chota, and Tanasi are just a few of the many Tennessee towns flooded by the TVA. Their goal was not to destroy the towns but improve the lives of Tennesseans in the future. Today we benefit from the loss of those towns by the electricity the dams produce and their protection from damaging floods. Just think, the next time you are at your favorite lake there might be a sunken ghost town resting below the surface.
Dam - a barrier to hold back the flow of water.
Reservoir - a place where water is stored.
Inlet - a small or narrow bay of water in a lake, river, creek, or sea.
Grist Mill - a machine that uses the flow of rivers to move gears that turns large round stones. The stones crush grain (corn or wheat) into a powder that the owners used to make food or sell.
Demolish(ing) - the act of breaking something into pieces.
Drought - a long period of time with little or no rain.
Excavate – to carefully dig up or uncover an artifact or historic site.
Why did the TVA want to build dams on Tennessee rivers?
When did Willow Grove have their last community picnic?
Can you think of other ways building dams benefitted Tennessee?
Pretend you lived in the Tennessee Valley in the 1930s and the TVA was going to flood your town. Write a journal entry describing your move and how you think it made the people of the town feel.
Tennessee State Social Studies Standard(s)
SSP.05 Develop historical awareness by:
Recognizing how and why historical accounts change over time.
Recognizing how past events and issues might have been experienced by the people of that time, with historical context and empathy rather than presentmindedness.
Identifying patterns of continuity and change over time, making connections to the present.
SSP.06 Develop geographic awareness by:
Determining relationships among people, resources, and ideas based on geographic location.
Determining the use of diverse types of maps based on the purpose.
Analyzing the spatial relationships between people, circumstances, and resources.
Analyzing interaction between humans and the physical environment.
Examining how geographic regions and perceptions of them regions change over time.
Explain how geographic challenges are met with bridges, canals, dams, freshwater supply, irrigation systems, landfills, and tunnels.
5.16 Describe how New Deal policies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt impacted American society with government-funded programs, including: Social Security, expansion and development of the national parks, and creation of jobs.
5.48 Describe the effects of the Great Depression on Tennessee and the impact of New Deal policies in the state (i.e., Tennessee Valley Authority and Civilian Conservation Corps).
TN.51 Describe how the Great Depression and New Deal programs impacted Tennesseans, including the significance of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, Civilian Conservation Corps, Tennessee Valley Authority, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
US.43 Analyze the impact of the relief, recovery, and reform efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, including:
Agricultural Adjustment Act
Civilian Conservation Corps
Fair Labor Standards Act
Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation
National Recovery Administration
Securities and Exchange Commission
Tennessee Valley Authority
Works Progress Administration
Jennifer Watts is an Educator at the Tennessee State Museum.