50th Classic: Lake Guntersville history

It’s doubtful that anyone from Company E, 167th Infantry Division had any notion that their pre-WWII armory would someday house the historical curations reflecting the waters upon which the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic would be held. Nevertheless, when bass fishing’s grandest event celebrates its 50th birthday, March 6-8, the castle-like building made from locally-hewn limestone will overlook Lake Guntersville with an array of meaningful memories.

Constructed in 1936 under President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, the building was turned over to the city of Guntersville in the 1970s when the armory moved to a new building. That original stone structure served as a local fire station until the mid-1980s and, after a facelift, it welcomed the Guntersville Museum.

With its building now listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the museum’s displays include “Mississippi Bill” Harris’ 12-foot fishing boat, Native American artifacts dating to the Paleo-Indian era, a collection of work by nationally-acclaimed local artist Frank Nelson, a display of mostly native birds collected and mounted by the late Bessie Rayburn Samuel in the 1920s and archival photos and historical documents that show the area before the lake was impounded.

Rollin' on the river

Alabama’s largest lake, Guntersville covers approximately 69,000 acres with 890 miles of shoreline, a 15-foot average depth (60 max) and a length of 75 miles from Guntersville Dam to Nickajack Dam. Located in Northeast Alabama, Lake Guntersville claimed second place in Bassmaster’s 100 Best Bass Lakes rankings for 2019.

The lake and dam project owe their existence to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, which created the Tennessee Valley Authority. Formed in May 1933, this hugely impactful Depression Era agency carried out the Unified Development of the Tennessee River plan’s trifold objectives: flood control, navigation and power generation.

Editor's note: Read more about TVA History.

Objectives one and three are pretty straightforward, but often less obvious is the Tennessee River’s importance in the nation’s international shipping system. Emerging at the confluence of the Holston and French Broad rivers in Knoxville, Tenn., the Tennessee River flows 652 miles into the Ohio River at Paducah, Ky. Completing the 234-mile Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (aka Ten-Tom) in 1984, connected the nation’s midsection to the Gulf of Mexico.

To make a lake

Notably, discussions of a dam in the Guntersville area actually preceded the TVA. In fact, the early 1900s saw the Corps considering multiple upstream sites that could alleviate longstanding navigational challenges due to unreliable water levels.