Close to 50 years ago, the islands in the Fontana Reservoir were mountain peaks.
But those mountains, along with dozens of towns, villages and farms in the Western North Carolina gorge, were submerged in 1944 after the Tennessee Valley Authority's Fontana Dam was built to generate electricity for the war effort.
Helen Vance was 17 when her family was forced to abandon its farm to make way for the dam. Now she returns to the reservoir each year to pay homage to her first home and family members buried in the lakeside cemeteries above the water's reach.
"As we're traveling on the lake, I can see in my mind's eye where the old towns and farms used to be," Vance said. "When people go up to the Hazel Creek area, most just see wilderness. But I see houses still."
At 480 feet tall, Fontana Dam is the highest dam in the eastern United States. It stretches 2,365 feet across the Little Tennessee River, belting a deep mountain lake mirroring the pinnacles of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The mountains, the vaulting dam and the lore of the lost towns converge to create an intriguing pull to Fontana Lake.
The 29-mile-long reservoir boasts more than 240 miles of mostly undeveloped shoreline. As boaters skim the lake, they're treated to majestic views of misty mountains sloping into the lake.
But the mountains themselves are a destination for many who venture to Fontana. The lake serves as an access point for some of the more remote areas of the Smokies, and the Appalachian Trail crosses right across Fontana Dam.
AT A GLANCE
-- Best things to do/places to visit: There's plenty of boating and fishing on the lake. Smallmouth bass, muskie and walleye all lurk in the reservoir's depths. There are also ample hiking trails in the vicinity, many accessible only by boat.
-- Biggest employers: Tennessee Valley Authority, which runs the hydroelectric dam.
-- Miles from downtown Chattanooga: 140.
-- Landmarks: The lake forms part of the southern border of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the northern border of part of the Nantahala National Forest. The eastern end is the Tuckasegee River near Bryson City, N.C.
-- Date founded: Fontana Dam was completed in 1944.
-- Historic info: Before the dam was built in the 1940s, the gorge was dotted with dozens of towns, villages and farms. After they were removed, the 5,000 people who came to work on the dam building project lived in a small village in the forest, working around the clock and breaking construction records. What was once the workers' village is now Fontana Village, a small resort developed south of the dam that offers comfortable accommodations along with hiking, boating and fishing trips.
-- Most-famous visitors: Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre visited Fontana on a wartime press junket in early 1945. Sartre purportedly expressed amazement that a city seemingly had sprung up overnight in the wilderness.
-- Unique characteristics: When TVA draws the lake down in September, you often can see the remnants of old homes and farm structures from submerged towns.
-- Unique traditions: Throughout the year, a group called the North Shore Cemetery Association arranges boating trips for descendants of people who lived in now-submerged towns to visit their ancestors' graves in the cemeteries along the reservoir's shores.