THE BIRTH OF THE OCOEE’S

“An encapsulated history of the development of the Ocoee River in Polk County, Tennessee.”  By Joyce Gaston Reece

 

 

 

 “Where does it come from and where does it go?”

 

            The Ocoee River has its beginnings in the mountains of Northeast Georgia and Chattahoochee National Forest.  Its first impoundment is Blue Ridge Lake near Morganton, Georgia.  Construction on the Blue Ridge Dame was begun in 1925 and completed 5 years later.  It is 167 feet high and is 1,000 feet across.  It isn’t really the Ocoee River here.  Its official name is the Toccoa River.

 

            Below this earthen dam lie the townships of McCaysville, Georgia and Copperhill, Tennessee.  The Ocoee then flows into the Cherokee National Forest where it is impounded by Tennessee Valley Authority’s number three dam.  Ocoee Dam #3 began in 1941 and completed in 1942.  It is a small lake of 360 surface acres.  The Dam is 110 feet high and 612 feet across.  The water is diverted through an underground pipeline for several miles.  It emerges at Ocoee #3 Hydro-electric Power Plant on Hwy #64 in Polk County.  

 

             The Ocoee then flows several miles down stream to the Diversion Dam.  This structure was originally built by East Tennessee Power Company in 1913 and is only 30 feet high and 450 across.  This small structure diverts the water into a 4.7 mile long flume at the end of which lies the historical Ocoee #2 Hydro-electric Plant.  (This section of the river is also very popular with whitewater rafting enthusiasts.)  From #2 it flows into Lake Ocoee (aka. Parksville Lake).   (See “Why Was One Tiny Village So Unique” below.)

 

 

 

            Number 1 dam and hydro-electric plant is in the community  known as Parksville.  The dam itself lies just as the Ocoee emerges from the Appalachian Mountains.  All the Ocoee’s were designed for hydro-electric power.  Construction was begun by the East Tennessee Power Company in 1910 and completed in 1911.  The lake is 1,930 surface acres with 109 miles of shoreline developed for recreation.  The dam is 135 feet high and 840 feet across.

 

            From #1 the Ocoee flows east & northward for several miles before feeding into the Hiwassee River which in turn feeds into the Tennessee River and thus the Mississippi River.  Many rivers which head up in the Appalachian Mountians into the Mississippi basin have been known to flow northward for many miles before turning eastward toward the Big Muddy. 

 

 

 

 

Photo of Parksville Dam before 1949.  The steamplant is still there.  Photo taken from the south-downriver side.  The lake is in the background.

 

 “The Building of Parksville Dam”

 

         

            “When I think of the early part of the nineteenth century, it all seems so wonderful and really the beginning of a new Southeast Tennessee.  Those changes from horse and buggy age to an over-populated and whole new world.  The ‘Electrical Age’ from carrying water from springs and using rain barrels to the washing machine run by power.”  Grace K. Matlock, The Rebirth of Parksville, page 1.

 

            At the foot of the Appalachian Mountains as the Ocoee River made its peaceful way down the valley lay the community of Parksville, Tennessee.  It was a relatively new community…not even incorporated.  In the community lived the Parks’ family along with the Rymer’s, Fout’s, Orr’s, McClary’s, Copeland’s, Boyd’s, Brock’s, Kimbrough’s, Elrod’s & Fetzer’s. 

 

            Electricity was becoming more in demand.  Electric lights & streetcars were needed.  Refrigerators, cook stoves and wringer washers were the modern conveniences that came later on…especially after the Rymer’s began a new manufacturing company that built ranges.  The Eastern Tennessee Power Company was formed by a Philadelphian named Clark who had come to Chattanooga, purchased the lighting and railway company’s then the Parksville properties.

 

            As early as 1810 Congress had seen the feasibility of damming the Ocoee between the Sugar and Bean Mountains.   Congress wanted to set up a series of locks and dams between the Ocoee and the Conasauga Rivers.  The Conasauga River lay just a few miles south and ran into a completely different watershed.  Where the Ocoee was a part of the Mississippi River watershed the Conasauga flowed south into the Chattahoochie and, eventually into the Atlantic.  The waterway between the two rivers would have made movement of cargo much simpler.  A trial shipment of whiskey was conducted but the whiskey was lost in transit.  Congress ‘officially’ stated that they could not get right-of-way from the Cherokee.  Many say this might not be factual.

 

            In 1910 the J.G. White Construction Company began work on the dam.  A camp for the worked sprang up in the nearby area.  Newspapers described the area as “decidedly roomy, cozy and substantial”.  The health conditions were described as “splendid” with water and sewer lines everywhere.

 

            Twelve hundred laborers were employed.  To house and accommodate these employees was Hopkins Inn and four other permanent buildings:  two white sleeping quarters, twenty cottages for married foremen, a bathhouse, two messhouses, two engineer quarters, a bunkhouse, twelve buildings for Italian quarters, a boiler house & a commissary.  The shops included electric, machine, rigging and carpenters.  Other buildings included a storeroom, a cement house, a mixer, a boilerhouse, stable and a bakery.  There were quarters for “Negros, Irishmen, Hungarians and Bulgarians”. 

 

            An interesting story sprang up concerning the Hungarian workers.  They were reputed to be the best workers with a shovel.  “They used to do most of the cement mixing.  One afternoon a new foreman told these Hungarian fellas that he was going to cut their pay from .20 an hour to .10 cents an hour,  ’cause he thought the job was worth half of what they were getting paid.  Well sir, they didn’t say a word.  They left work at the end of the day, took their shovels with them and went by the blacksmith shop.  Next day they showed up with their shovels cut in half…Foreman went back to paying ‘em .20 cents an hour.

 

            Parks Mills was moved into the village to be used as the commissary.  This site is where the coffer dam was built. 

The Camps and Coffer Dam were under construction at the same time.  The framework was large timbers and bows of evergreens were laid to help hold back the banks of dirt.  A track was laid around the top so that dirt cars could side dump dirt into the dame and a steam line was laid to operate the steam equipment.

 

Stiff leg derricks were used to get the framework up before they started pouring cement in July 1911.  It was called the “Solid Concrete Parksville Dam”.  Because so much concrete was used the quarry was kept going all day and all night.  It was located on the north side of the river.  Limestone was used in the beginning but since it was too coarse it left voids in the concrete.  They began using river sand at that time.  The concrete mixer was over 20 feet high and was next door to the cement house, which held 50 cement cars.  Surrounding the limestone in the structure was then called “cyclopean structures”.

 

            ‘One of the darkest days on the job was the day they found a big hole which turned out to be a cave.  The coffer dams were up and they were pouring the cement into large dam frames when the cave was found.  The men were all so dedicated trying to keep cost at or below one million dollars.  They were greatly worried.  It took a great deal of cement – I don’t remember whether it was an extra car load or two.  This cave, I believe, caused the crack in Parksville Dam that we hear about today – 1973).”  G.K. Matlock, The Rebirth of Parksville.

 

            During April 1911, 17,000 cubic yards of concrete were placed in 22 working days.  During those days a cubic yard weighed 4,183 lbs.  So on an average day 3,348,000 lbs of concrete was poured. 

 

            The Dam was completed in December 1911 and on January 28, 1912 hydroelectric power was producing electricity for the region.  On top of the Hamilton Bank building in Chattanooga these word were lit up for the first time, in five foot letters it read “Plucky Electrical City”.  That made the newspapers all over the city.  In July of 1916 the Parksville Steam Plant began production of electricity by means of a coal fired steam plant.  In 1949 the steam plant was removed.

 

      “A Post Script.  I wrote this in 1973 – something wonderful happened this week (1980) that was a part of my first summer in Parksville.  There was a sweet little baby girl born in the camp.  The mother died.  I went by one day to see the baby.  There was sour milk in her bottle, flies all around and she needed care.  So I asked the father, Mr. Baker, if I could take her home with me and care for her until she was well, such a sick baby.  He was willing.  I kept her until she was gaining weight and happy.  Then a young couple by the name of Mason took her and raised her as their own.  After seventy years this summer she came to see me.  First time since she was five months old.  She was living within a hundred miles from here all this time.  Her husband and a son were with her.  God has been so good to her and me.  Patsy will always hold a soft spot in my heart.”  G.K. Matlock, The Rebirth of Parksville.

 

 

 

A LEGEND?

 

A lot of celebrating was going on around Parksville….mentioned was an infamous character who jumped off the top of the dam.  His name was Christian Dercignice.  Some say he slid down without so much as getting a scratch (some say he fell off and drowned).  There is a picture which is said to have been made of Mr. Dircignice after the event.  The stamp on the pictures says “Christ Dircignice, fell 110 feet from Parksville Dam, May 15, 1913. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People mentioned in association with Ocoee #1 are:

Mr. & Mrs. Artz

Mr. Clifford  Card

Mr. Kippax from Philadelphia

Mr. & Mrs. Robert Anderson

Marvin and Mary Fry/Roddy

John & Helen Lawrence

Mr. Jeff Barnes

John Munson (Hazelton, PA)

Mrs. Able

Mr. Henry Crumliss (Surveyor)

The Baker family

The Mason family

Patsy Baker or Mason

 

 

 

 

 

 

 “Did They Really Need Two”?

 

“In order to get a house at Caney Creek we had to give one room to the Master Carpenter and, believe you me, in his job a man had to be a master in the first degree. There were miles and miles of a big box being built to put the Ocoee River through.  On top was a dinky railroad with flat cars to carry material.  These were taken from the flat cars below, put on an incline and lifted to the top of the mountain.  As the flume line was competed the railroad was extended.”…..  Grace K. Matlock, “The Rebirth of Parksville”

 

          In 1910 construction was begun on Ocoee #2.  Placed about 10 miles up-river it was in service by 1913.  Some of the workers from the #1 construction stayed on to work on #2.  The #2 Power House is a brick structure which sits just beside the Ocoee.  The water diverted down the flume falls down through a large pipeline which turns the turbines that generate electricity.

          This was one of the most unique projects ever undertaken in this part of the country.  Upstream, 4.7 miles, was built an earthen and stone dam.  The Diversion Dam was 385 feet long and 27 ½ high.  Just as its name indicates the Diversion Dam diverted the Ocoee River into a wooden trough (the Flume) that carried the water to the #2 Hydro plant.

 

 

 

 

 

“THE FLUME LINE”

 

          If you have never seen the Flume it may be hard to imagine.  It is a wooden trough roughly measuring 14’ X 10’.  This trough was 4.7 miles long from the Diversion Dam to the Powerhouse…yet it falls only 17 feet in that distance.  The River drops over 250 feet in elevation.  The force of the water falling is the secret behind its ability to generate.  The flume was built of yellow pine from the forests of Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee…using just over eight million board feet of lumber.  In 1910 little heavy equipment was available to carve a 20’ wide level section almost 5 miles long out of the side of a cliff side of a mountain with a rushing river sometimes hundreds of feet below.  Building of iron trestles for bridges & framing wasn’t a simple task either.  Mules, wheelbarrows, picks, shovels, dynamite were the tools of the times.  Manpower being the most important one of them all.

 

 

 

The original placing of the timbers was horizontal.  In 1944 the flume was reinforced with timbers being placed vertically.  In 1976 the flume was condemned…doomed to be gone forever.  That is until the historians came along.  After several years of maneuvering the Ocoee River Flume & #2 Powerhouse was placed on the National Historic Register.  Thus TVA decided to rebuild the flume.  Actual construction began in 1982 after several months of construction on ‘test boxes’.   Late in 1983 water was, once again, flowing thru the Ocoee Flume line to produce Hydro-electric power.  Both the original flume and the modern day one have trolley type railcars on the top of the flume.  This provides access for maintenance and inspections.

 

          In June 1916 #2 Steam Plant was placed online.  During the early morning hours of April 14, 1949 while tests were being run on unit 2 (turbine #2) it tripped which caused it to overspeed.  It ripped away from the floor and flew through the wall.

 

 

 

 

 

D:  “What was so unique about one tiny village?”

 

The #2 project established the village of Caney Creek. There was a hotel, tennis court, commissary, a school/church, several houses and NO automobiles.

 

          Perhaps nothing was unique about one small village resting against steep mountains along the south side of the Ocoee River…unless you were fortunate enough to live there.  It was the policy of Tennessee Power Company to provide housing for its construction personnel, then later the workers at the #2 Power House.  Located approximately ¼ mile downriver from the power house, on the south side of the river were these homes that boasted indoor plumbing & electricity.  Refigerators, electric cook stoves and bathrooms with hot (and cold) running water was luxury living for many people at that time.  The village had a paved tennis court and a motel for visitors & a commissary for needed items. In the early part of the 1900’s most homes in this area had little to recommend them when it came to so-called modern conveniences.  The homes in this village had them.

 

         

Supplies were brought into the village in two ways.  Usually brought in from the town of Cleveland or Chattanooga they would be off-loaded onto a barge at Parksville’s #1 Dam and brought upriver to a dock that had been built just at the headwaters of the lake.  Here they were placed on a trolley (railway) and brought on into the village.  At times they were brought on up the Old Copper Road (present day hwy #64), carried across a ‘swinging’ bridge and taken into the village.  (The other swinging bridge on the river was across the Diversion Dam.  It still exists in a modern day version of cable and steel.)  No modern day cars or vehicles were ever in the village of Caney Creek, this fact gained it some notoriety.  Ripley’s Believe It or Not placed it in their facts just for this reason.

 

          We’ll probably never know all the families that lived in Caney Creek Village but some of the long time residential families were:  Lawrence German, Bill Vineyard, Frank Lowe, Robert Woody, Ed Higdon, Fred Childress, Walter Moore, E.M. & Frank Crye, D.G. Merrill, Donald L. Gaston, Sr., Ed Poe, Howard Vineyard, R.R. Green, Hugh McLary, Charles Walker & Earl Belk.

 

         

This photo taken in front of the third house down is a widely used picture when depicting life on Caney Creek.

 

     The one room school was used as a church.  Blanche McClary taught school there for many years.  Her students had many fond memories of her. 

 

          In 1938-39 the Tennessee Valley Authority was to acquire the company that first provided electricity to Knoxville, Chattanooga, Cleveland, Tennessee and Rome, Georgia.  This move saw the families forced to leave the village of Caney Creek and its ultimate destruction.  Only a few rock walls and many memories remain.

 

 

 

E:  “Number three during the War Years”

 

The War Years of the 1940’s saw many changes to the Ocoee’s.  A few miles upriver from the Diversion Dam a new dam was construction on the Ocoee River.  Resting well back from Hwy. 64 it could hardly be seen…unless you knew where to look.  This dam diverted water into underground pipelines into Powerhouse #3.  The Tennessee Valley Authority was formed to control flooding of the great Tennessee Valley & provide much needed energy for regional residents, #3 was built to help the “Great American War Machine”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(In the early 1980’s this writer had the privilege of being involved in the re-construction of the Ocoee Flume.  During that time I also had the privilege of making the acquaintance of a very lovely lady named, Mrs. Gertrude {Karaivanoff} Matlock.  Her experiences of the construction of Ocoee # 1 & # 2 are in a booklet named “The Rebirth of Parksville”.  I thank her for a personally signed copy of this book. “Gertrude {Karaivanoff} Matlock, May 3rd 1982-at the age of 93~~”.  )

 

(Donald L. Gaston, Sr. back row, second from left was my grandfather.  He began working for the Tennessee Power Company in 1924 having worked there until his retirement in 1966.  This writer was privileged to work there during reconstruction of the flume, 1982-83.  The Gaston's lived in the third house down.  They awoke many mornings with water flowing under the house.)