Marion County's Hales Bar Dam was a snapshot of early 20th century American engineering. No matter that in 1905, the concept of hydroelectric energy was brand new. No matter that no one in the world had tried it.
Two prominent Chattanooga-area businessmen went for it, with help from one fabulously rich New Yorker.
And it almost worked.
By 1913, construction on Hales Bar Dam had blown its budget and its deadline.
Scheduled to open in 1907 at a cost of $2 million, the dam didn't open until five years later, and it racked up a $10 million price tag. That's $237 million in today's money.
And it leaked.
"They had no clue how to close up those terrible gaps," Nonie Webb, a Marion County historian, said last week.
The dam's engineers chose a location on the Tennessee River near Jasper, Tenn., because the river was narrow there, and that stretch -- the Tennessee River Gorge -- was notoriously tough to navigate because of turbulent waters. They intended to dam and widen the river, easing passage.
But the ground beneath Hales Bar Dam is porous rock, littered with pockets of air. As air pockets below the dam continually collapsed, the dam continually resettled, causing cracks to form in the dam wall.
Desperate to shore up the cracks and not knowing their root cause, Hales Bar Dam officials created the "rag gang," a group of men tasked with stopping up leaks with whatever they could find. The rag gang tossed mattresses, hay bales, blankets and truckloads of corsets into the water, hoping to clog up the cracks.
Nothing worked. Eight years of hype, hard work and a boom-town frenzy ended with a dam recognized not as an engineering miracle, but an accursed money pit. The dam's operators fought constant leaking for the next 15 years.
Then in 1939, after battling the newly formed Tennessee Valley Authority over possession of Hales Bar Dam, Jo Conn Guild Jr. -- president of Tennessee Electric Power Co. and son of one of the dam's pioneers -- was forced to sell Hales Bar, intended to be a Guild family legacy.
TVA tried to fix the dam for the next 28 years before ultimately deciding to abandon it. TVA's Nickajack Dam, a few miles downstream, was completed in 1967.
Jeromie Gentry, a University of Tennessee at Chattanooga filmmaker and Hales Bar Dam tour guide, said that despite its failures, the "lessons learned" had a lasting impact on the engineering world. Those what-not-to-do lessons still are taught in engineering classes 100 years later.
Webb recently met Gentry, and the two teamed up to gather the dam's history and commemorate its 100-year anniversary this month.
Gentry has been filming a documentary about the dam, capturing the firsthand stories of folks the project directly affected. It's a look at the "very few" who saw, heard and experienced the dam, he said.
Webb has been collecting history about Hales Bar Dam for more than 30 years. In 1989, she helped organize a reunion of Hales Bar Dam kids, those who lived near the dam or had family who worked there. Some of them had even worked at the dam at some point.
Those reunions ceased some years ago. Since then, almost all of the newspaper articles and photos documenting the dam have been stored safely on a shelf at Webb's home.
But she is anxious to give that history back to the community.
"There's so much," she said. "What they learned from Hales Bar has helped build the dams all across Tennessee and all across the United States."
Contact staff writer Alex Green at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731.
Alex joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 as a region business reporter. He is a native of Dayton, Tenn., located 35 miles north of Chattanooga, and he is a fifth-generation Dayton native. Alex came to the Times Free Press as an editorial intern in July 2013. He was previously a correspondent at The Herald-News, located in Dayton, through college and editor-in-chief of the Triangle, Bryan College's student-led media group. Alex was ...
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