On Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived in Chattanooga by train and rode in a motorcade to the Chickamauga Dam. Accompanying him were First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Gov. Prentice Cooper and Sen. Kenneth D. McKellar, who introduced the president to a crowd of 30,000 people.
The 71-year-old McKellar, who was running for a fifth term, introduced the president as the author of the Tennessee Valley Authority. In his speech Roosevelt characterized "this chain of man-made inland seas" as the South's Great Lakes, opening "a new artery of commerce [and] new opportunities for recreation."
He said the dam was "a demonstration of what a democracy at work can do," and asserted "I glory in it as one of the great social and economic achievements of the United States."
Roosevelt reminded his audience that two years earlier he had visited the dam to lay the cornerstone at the beginning of construction on the impressive structure. At that time he and his wife had visited the home of his good friend, Judge Will Cummings, in Lookout Valley. Cummings was Chattanooga's first city court judge and later county judge from 1912 to 1918 and again from 1926 to 1942. He welcomed Roosevelt on this second visit as well. Cummings was very forward looking. He bought Chattanooga's first automobile, played an important role in the construction of the Dixie Highway, and is remembered as a founder of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Robert Sparks Walker reviewed the history of the project in "The Chickamauga Dam and Its Environs" (1949). It began when Congress passed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 giving power to the board to construct dams in the Tennessee River. Work began on the Chickamauga Dam on Jan. 13, 1936. The filling of the reservoir began on Jan. 15, 1940, and the dam was finished on Jan. 31, 1941, five years after it was begun. The total cost, including land acquisition, was $42 million. According to Walker, about half of the watershed of 40,910 square miles is found upstream from the Chickamauga Dam. Watts Bar and Fort Loudoun dams are on that part of the river. Downstream from Chickamauga Dam the Tennessee River flows 471 miles through Nickajack, Guntersville, Wheeler, Wilson, Pickwick and Kentucky dams before emptying into the Ohio River 35 miles from its juncture with the Mississippi.
T. M. N. Lewis of the University of Tennessee Department of Archaeology explored and excavated artifacts from ancient villages and mounds that were submerged above the dam. The waters also covered Dallas Island a few miles upstream.
As for the name of the dam, "Chickamauga" almost lost out to the "McReynolds Dam" honoring Chattanooga's congressman, S.D. McReynolds. Citizens protested in letters to the newspapers. When the Chickamauga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution weighed in, voting unanimously for the retention of "Chickamauga," Congressman McReynolds withdrew his name.
In recent years the lock of the 78-year-old dam has become a crumbling passageway for river traffic. It became necessary to remove up to 35 feet of riverbed rock to anchor the new 110' by 60' Chickamauga lock. The Army Corps of Engineers is in charge of this ambitious project now projected to come in at a cost of $850 million, making the initial cost of $42 million seem like a drop in the bucket. However, the new and bigger lock will allow a tow boat to move nine barges through at one time.
In his 1940 speech at the dam, President Roosevelt equated the construction of the dam with national defense, a big issue in 1940.
"We are seeking the preparedness of the American people, not against the threat of war or conquest alone, but in order that preparedness be built to assure American peace that rests on the well-being of the American people," he concluded.
"Let us therefore, today, on this very happy occasion, dedicate this Dam and these lakes to the benefit of all the people, to be benefit of the prosperity that they have stimulated, the faith they have justified, the hope that they have inspired, the hearts that they encourage—the total defense of the people of the United States of America."
In 2017 the dam and its infrastructure were listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In May of 2018, Chickamauga Dam began a pilot program of public tours for the first time since 9/11. It may be on its way to becoming a tourist destination.
Kay Baker Gaston is a regional historian and a former Chattanoogan. For more, visit chattahistoricalassoc.org.