Classic: TVA’S deep-reaching history

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James Overstreet

The potential was there, but it took the grand vision of America’s 32nd president to harness an immense energy source through an ambitious project whose realization bestowed deep-reaching benefits; not the least of which was the creation of incredible fisheries like Lake Guntersville, which is hosting the Academy Sports + Outdoors Bassmaster Classic presented by Huk March 6-8.

We’re talking about the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), one of the most impactful agencies spawned from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. Notably, the TVA joined a collection of agencies often referred to as “Alphabet Soup” for their three- and four-letter acronyms. Others, also still in existence include the Social Security Board (SSB), Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).

Established in 1933, the TVA played a major role in FDR’s New Deal — a series of programs and projects created to restore prosperity to an economically devastated nation through job creation and various relief efforts.

When Roosevelt (the only U.S. president to serve more than two terms) took office (1933-45), the country was four years into the Great Depression of 1929-39, which had been precipitated by the stock market crash of October 1929. Few regions knew the struggle in greater measure than the largely agricultural and developmentally isolated Tennessee River Valley.

Comprising parts of Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, this region lacked electric power and suffered through disastrous droughts and frequent floods. The latter not only threatened lives and property, but also eroded precious topsoil needed for corn, cotton and other row crops.

The solution

In 1933, congress signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, which created an entity whose Unified Development of the Tennessee River plan included three principle objectives: flood control, navigation and power generation. Starting with the latter, between 1933 and 1944 the TVA created a network of 16 hydroelectric dams throughout the valley to manage the flow of tributary waters into the main stem of the Tennessee River.

Seven of the main river’s nine dams — Fort Loudoun, Watts Bar, Chickamauga, Guntersville, Wheeler, Pickwick and Kentucky — were completed during this time. Wilson Dam, initially an WWI era project, preceded the TVA by nine years, while Nickajack would be added between Chickamauga and Guntersville in 1967.

With construction workers making good wages and enjoying a variety of perks, like bountiful dining halls, projects were pushed forward on aggressive time frames. At one point, the TVA had 12 projects under construction simultaneously (WWII’s increased demand for aluminum production spurred some of this).

With each completed project, power lines extended deeper into a region once lit only by candles and kerosene lamps. Soon, TVA power would enable new businesses to flourish with expanded commerce and employment opportunities.

The impacts

Flip the switch: Modernizing a large area of the rural south by bringing affordable power not only illuminated homes, but improved agricultural efficiency through irrigation pumps and other electric equipment. To help maximize these newfound opportunities, TVA staff traveled throughout the valley conducting demonstrations on home and farm applications.

Waters tamed: Damming rivers allowed the TVA to control the rate at which water moved through the valley’s many arteries, thereby minimizing the once-devastating frequency of seasonal floods. Property owners bore less risk, while curtailing soil erosion greatly improved the farming outlook.

Growth boost: Maximizing this soil retention, TVA agriculture experts developed fertilizers and worked with farmers to improve methods in what has become a model for modern-day agricultural extension services.

Stay afloat: A dependable water management system has enabled the TVA to maintain navigable depths throughout more 650 miles from the Tennessee River’s Knoxville, Tenn., headwaters at the juncture of the Holston and French Broad Rivers to Paducah, Ky., where it enters the Ohio River. This affords access into and out of the Tennessee valley and links regional industry to supply routes and markets.

Americana

Images and references to the TVA and it's projects have appeared in various cultural and entertainment venues. For example, Country star Jason Isbell (hometown: Muscle Shoals, Ala.) included the song “TVA” on his 2009 album The Fine Print: A Collection of Oddities and Rarities. The track touches on how the TVA impacted his family, from fishing next to Wilson Dam to this sentiment:

"So I thank god for the TVA
Thank god for the TVA
When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day's pay
Thank god for the TVA"

Elsewhere:

Well somebody told us Wall Street fell
But we were so poor that we couldn't tell
Cotton was short and the weeds were tall
But Mr. Roosevelt's a gonna save us all
Well momma got sick and daddy got down
The county got the farm and they moved to town
Pappa got a job with the TVA
He bought a washing machine and then a Chevrolet.

- "Song of the South," Alabama

Wild River (1960) — Lamenting the sorrow of families displaced from generational properties by TVA flooding plans, the movie starring Montgomery Cliff and Lee Remick tells the tale of Mattie Randolph, whose clan refused to budge during the construction of the Norris Dam in 1936.

The Electric Valley (1983) — Combining archival footage with modern interview, this 1983 documentary chronicles the TVA’s history, including the disapproval and distrust expressed by those leery of governmental imposition.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) — George Clooney’s 1990 comedy follows depression-era characters striving to reach a buried treasure before the TVA floods the area.

Bristol Motor Speedway — Tennessee’s NASCAR short track venue hosts “The Pinnacle Speedway in Lights Powered By TVA” — a holiday tradition comprising a 4-mile route with 2 million lights, which raises money for regional children’s charities.

B.A.S.S.-friendly

Since the New Deal era, the TVA has become the nation’s largest public utility and one of its largest electric providers with 29 hydroelectric plants, along with fossil fuel, nuclear, solar and wind energy facilities. Initially federally funded, the TVA is now fully self-financing.

While the agency’s impact on the course of U.S. history stands foremost, there’s also no overstating the TVA’s contribution to bass fishing. The series of tremendous fisheries created by damming the Tennessee River has provided the backdrop for several past Classics, including the 1976 Lake Guntersville event won by legend-in-the-making Rick Clunn — the universally inspirational icon who, at 72 years young, opened the 2019 Elite season by claiming his 16th career B.A.S.S. victory on the St. Johns River.

March sees the nation’s top anglers returning to the historic Tennessee River waters where FDR’s vision perpetuates the pursuit of big bass on the big stage where someone will realize their big dreams of hoisting high the Bassmaster Classic trophy.