When the Tennessee Valley Authority built its 47 dams on the Tennessee River and its tributaries beginning in 1933, the agency moved thousands of cemeteries and graves.
“The total number is more than 20,000 graves,” TVA historian Patricia Bernard Ezzell said.
By family request, more than 2,000 graves were left in place to be covered by rising water, she said.
“It was a massive undertaking, and I think they realized early on that it was a very sensitive thing they were about to undertake,” Ms. Ezell said. “It continues to be sensitive today.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
* To see TVA’s grave relocation Web page:
* To contact the National Archives, e-mail: email@example.com or call (404) 763-7474.
The grave removal — continuing over several decades as new dams were built — was done in accordance with the wishes of the next of kin, she said, and the remains were moved to comparable burial places nearby. After the move, TVA policy was that the agency would have no further obligation for the care or upkeep of the relocated graves.
Detailed records TVA compiled in the process mean the moved graves may be among the region’s best archived, according to local genealogy publisher James L. Douthat, of Signal Mountain.
“The TVA grave removal process was highly regulated by the federal government,” he said. “They tried with uncanny ability to find out who unmarked graves were. They kept records. They could have told you who dug up the grave. They can tell you what it cost to dig the new grave and what it cost to fill it in.”
Mr. Douthat should know. He reviewed the records to transcribe all the names into more than 10 volumes of genealogical lists. He said his resulting database of names numbers 38,000, including those individuals whose graves were left in place.
“Many of the families did request that because they felt their ancestor had fought and died and lived on their property and (so) just leave them alone, which I would agree with,” Mr. Douthat said.
In some cases, if family members knew, TVA records included the deceased’s cause of death, Ms. Ezzell said.
The original information on the moved or submerged graves also is available for review at the National Archives southeast region office in East Point, Ga., said Ms. Ezzell.
The archive records include identification and history of graves, agreements from family members of court orders to move the graves, reinterment data, including identification and inventory of the remains, and a record of the original and reinterment location — including cemetery plats.
The head end of the casket was marked, and all reinterments were made with the head toward the west, in accordance with the custom of the people of the area, according to TVA’s Web page about the relocated graves.
“A simple metal grave marker with card insert was placed at the foot of each grave for temporary identification (during the relocation). All markers or monuments from the original graves were moved and relocated to the new grave site,” the Web page states.
TVA still keeps the cemetery relocation database compiled from the original removal survey, Ms. Ezell said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...