Moments in Memory: Chickamauga Dam brought relief to flood-threatened Chattanooga

The front page of the Chattanooga Daily Times on March 8, 1917, shows destruction from flooding. / Photo provided by the Chattanooga Public Library

In March of 1867, much of Chattanooga found itself underwater, ravished by days of continuous rain that caused the Tennessee River to surge around 58 feet higher than usual.

A few days after the rain is said to have stopped, the Daily American Union, a Chattanooga publication at the time, referenced the floods with bold headlines speaking of "Widespread Destruction" as bridges had been swept away, railways were blocked and whole families had been reported drowned.

While the flood of 1867 was the worst in the history of the city, this brand of highly destructive flooding was a trend that persisted for decades, forcing residents to raise the heights of their streets and buildings.

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"Floods are known to have occurred 17 times between 1791 and 1936," Sam D. Elliot wrote in 2016 a Times Free Press column about how the city was unprepared for the 1867 flood.

On May 6, 1917, more than a whole page of the Chattanooga Daily Times was dedicated to flood coverage citing highway damage, closed schools and businesses as well as people being driven from their homes.

But that was all set to change under the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his post-Great Depression New Deal, which brought various programs, projects and regulations to the entire country.

In 1933, the administration created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), an agency meant to address energy, environmental and economic needs, namely flood control, in the Tennessee Valley.

photo A page from the Chattanooga Times on Sept. 8, 1940, details a visit by President Franklin Roosevelt to Chattanooga. / Photo provided by the Chattanooga Public Library

The addition of the TVA was considered a "dream of many years," according to an article in Chattanooga Times on May 18, 1933.

Under this new organization, plans began for the Chickamauga Dam. The president himself came down to Chattanooga to dedicate the dam to defense, as the country was in the throws of World War II when the construction was completed in 1940.

On Sept. 3, 1940, two days after Roosevelt's dedication, the Chattanooga Times reported the president as having said, "Today we see the progress we have made," and according to the TVA website, Chickamauga and other reservoirs in the area have prevented an estimated $5 billion in flood damage since their construction.

Even though almost 80 years have passed since that day, the words of the president still ring true for many that are able to live near the river and in the city with less fear of the disastrous, fatal and life-altering flooding of the past.

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