Technology, History, and Place

Tag: Alabama (Page 1 of 2)

Bartletts Ferry Dam

Dams of the Chattahoochee

As a follow-up to my two previous posts about dams in Alabama, here is a post about dams on another southeastern river, the Chattahoochee.

The Chattahoochee River starts in the Appalachian Mountains of northern Georgia and flows southward along the border of Georgia and Alabama to Florida. There are several dams along the river between Georgia and Alabama. Since the stateline runs along the west side of the river, these dams are technically not in Alabama, which is why I didn’t include them in my gallery of Alabama dams.

My exploration of the Chattahoochee River was not comprehensive, but here are the dams I was able to see, from north to south.

Just north of I-85, the highway between Montgomery and Atlanta, West Point Dam forms a big reservoir on the Chattahoochee. The dam is a US Army Corps of Engineers project. Its construction was authorized in 1962; the lake began filling in 1974 and the power station came online the following year.

As a postwar earthen dam, West Point Dam is not much to look at, but it is more accessible than the Alabama Power dams because it is public property. There is a visitor center on the site, and visitors can take a look at the turbine hall from a viewing gallery. The entire dam is remotely operated from Walter F. George Dam, ninety miles downstream.

West Point Dam powerhouse and spillway

View of the powerhouse and spillway of West Point Dam, with part of the long embankments on either side that form West Point Lake.

West Point Dam and Powerhouse dedication plaque (1975)

Dedication plaque of West Point Dam.

West Point Dam generator hall

Interior view of the generator hall of West Point Dam.

From Valley, Alabama to Columbus, Georgia, the Chattahoochee passes through the Fall Line, where the river descends steeply from the Appalachian piedmont to the coastal plain. Small dams on the river in Valley and Columbus used to divert water into textile mills, before the mills closed.

Langdale Mill in Valley, Alabama

The Langdale Mill in Valley. The dam for the mill is out of sight behind the trees in the background.

Georgia Power, a private electric utility, operates a cluster of dams downstream from Valley. Columbus Electric and Power Company built Bartletts Ferry Dam in 1924-1925, and Georgia Power took it over in 1930. Georgia Power modified the dam after World War II, raising the dikes on either side of the dam and adding a fourth generator and buttresses to the spillways. Another phase of modifications in the eighties added a second powerhouse with two additional generators. As the dam stands now, it looks similar to the Alabama Power dams on the Tallapoosa and Coosa rivers.

Bartletts Ferry Dam

Panoramic view of Bartletts Ferry Dam, which forms Lake Harding on the Chattahoochee River.

The original powerhouse of Bartletts Ferry Dam, built 1924-1925 and expanded after World War II.

The original powerhouse of Bartletts Ferry Dam, built 1924-1925 and expanded after World War II.

The next dam downstream is Goat Rock Dam, built in 1912. According to the Georgia Power website, the dam was named after a family of goats that used to cross the river by hopping from rock to rock!

Goat Rock Dam on the Chattahoochee, mostly blocked by trees

Goat Rock Dam, mostly obscured by trees.

Oliver Dam, built in 1959, is visible from the US-80 highway bridge on the north side of Columbus, Georgia.

Oliver Dam partially obscured by trees

Oliver Dam on the Chattahoochee upstream of Columbus.

The number of dams on the Chattahoochee is actually decreasing. In 2012 and 2013, the city of Columbus removed two dams that had diverted water into the city’s textile mills: Eagle & Phenix Dam and City Mills Dam. Since the mills had been closed for some time, the city removed the dams in order to restore whitewater along a stretch of the river. When I visited Columbus in 2013 to check out the progress at Eagle & Phenix, I found that the dam was all gone and whitewater was churning where the dam used to be. The old powerhouse was still there, and some of the ductwork had been left in place. A formerly inaccessible island had been developed into a park. I was gratified to see that some restoration work had been done on the river, but the old industrial heritage hasn’t been removed entirely either.

The old textile dams of Valley are also in their last days. Georgia Power has started to go through the bureaucratic process to remove two small dams, Langdale and Riverview, once their licenses expire in 2023.

Eagle & Phenix Mills powerhouse in 2011

The powerhouse of Eagle and Phenix Mills, seen in 2011 before the dam was removed.

Little Chattahoochee island before Eagle & Phenix Dam removal

An island adjacent to the Eagle & Phenix Dam, before the dam’s removal.

Little Chattahooche island after removal of Eagle & Phenix Dam

The same site in 2013, after the removal of the dam. The island in the previous picture is now a park.

Eagle & Phenix Mills ductwork

Some preserved ductwork in the Eagle & Phenix Mills powerhouse.

Whitewater on the Chattahoochee

Whitewater at the former site of the Eagle & Phenix Dam.

Eagle & Phenix Dam remnants

Remnants of the Eagle & Phenix Dam next to the restored stretch of river.

Eagle & Phenix Mills

The former Eagle & Phenix Mills.


Martin Dam backside

A gallery of Alabama dams

As I described in my previous post, Alabama has some old and impressive dams. Although I lived within easy driving distance of several of them in graduate school, I knew nothing about them for the first two years that I lived in Alabama. My discovery of these dams at the end of my second year of grad school was a revelation. It changed how I viewed Alabama. It also sparked an enduring interest in dams that influenced my dissertation topic and subsequent research.

After my first encounter with the dams of Alabama, I made it a point to visit as many dams as I could in my remaining two and a half years living in the state. Here is a gallery of my pictures of the dams that I saw, organized by river system.

Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers

The Tallapoosa and Coosa are two rivers in the Piedmont of east-central Alabama. The rivers exit the Piedmont and flow into the flatlands of the Black Belt before joining together near Wetumpka and becoming the Alabama River, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile Bay.

Alabama Power, a private electric utility, built dams on the Tallapoosa and Coosa in the early 20th century. I was able to see all of those dams, as well as some newer ones. There are also Army Corps of Engineers lock-and-dams downstream on the Alabama River, but I never got to see any of them.

Lay Dam (1914)

Starting with the Coosa River, which is the western of the two. This is Lay Dam, Alabama Power’s first dam in the Alabama Piedmont. It entered service in 1914. Originally named Lock 12 Dam, it was renamed in honor of the founder of Alabama Power in 1929.

Mitchell Dam

Mitchell Dam, downstream from Lay Dam and completed in 1923.

Jordan Dam

Jordan Dam (1928), the last dam on the Coosa River. It is located at the Fall Line, where the Coosa reaches the flatlands of the Black Belt. This is the most impressive of the Alabama Power dams, in my opinion.

Jordan Dam powerhouse

Jordan Dam powerhouse.

Jordan Dam monument

Art Deco monument at Jordan Dam.

Martin Dam (1926)

The biggest dam on the Tallapoosa is Martin Dam (1926), which impounds the attractive Lake Martin. It is tucked away in a ravine and hard to get a good picture of.

Yates Dam (1928)

Downstream from the Tallapoosa is the smallest dam on the Tallapoosa, Yates Dam. Completed in 1928, it was built on the site of Alabama’s first hydroelectric plant, which was built in 1912. This is a telephoto view from the next dam downstream, Thurlow Dam.

Yates Dam lake

The pretty lake behind Yates Dam.

Thurlow Dam at dusk

Thurlow Dam (1930), at Tallassee on the Fall Line. It is the easiest to see of any of these dams, because a bridge runs right in front of it.

Thurlow Dam panorama

Panoramic view of Thurlow Dam.

Logan Martin Dam

I was able to see two newer dams on the Tallapoosa–Coosa river system. This one is Logan Martin Dam, upstream of Lay Dam on the Coosa. It is named after William Logan Martin (a truly auspicious name!), an attorney-general of Alabama. A road runs across its crest.

Bouldin Dam (1967)

The most unusual dam on Tallapoosa–Coosa is Bouldin Dam (1967). What makes it unusual is that it is built on an artificial canal connected to the Coosa River, rather than the river itself. Although the dam itself is not especially impressive, it has the largest powerhouse of any of the dams on the Tallapoosa–Coosa (225 MW).

Black Warrior River system

On the western side of the state, Alabama Power has three dams on the Black Warrior River system: Smith Dam, Bankhead Dam, and Holt Dam. Once, on the way back from a camping trip in Bankhead National Forest, I tried visiting all three dams, but I was only able to visit Smith Dam. I made it as far as the locked gate for Bankhead Dam, and I missed the turn for Holt Dam entirely and just drove through Tuscaloosa and headed home.

Smith Dam (1961) is located on the Sipsey River, a tributary of the Black Warrior. As a postwar rockfill dam, it has a fairly cyclopean appearance.

Smith Dam (1961) is located on the Sipsey River, a tributary of the Black Warrior. At 300 feet high, it is the tallest dam in Alabama. It is a postwar rockfill dam and has a fairly cyclopean appearance.

Smith Dam powerhouse

Smith Dam powerhouse.

Tennessee River

The Tennessee River makes a giant bend through northern Alabama, and it is dammed three times during its course through the state. I was able to visit two of the dams (Wheeler and Wilson), but I was never able to make it to the third (Guntersville). All three of the dams are owned and operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, a public utility established in 1933 during the New Deal.

Wilson Dam, between Muscle Shoals and Florence in northwestern Alabama, is the oldest of the three TVA dams in the state. Built in World War I to power a munitions factory, it became part of the TVA when the utility was established by act of Congress. Wheeler Dam, not far upstream, was completed in 1936. Both dams are much larger than the Alabama Power dams to the south. Wheeler Dam is over a mile long and has a powerhouse with a generative capacity of 402 MW.

Wilson Dam

Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River.

Wilson Dam spillway

Detail of the Wilson Dam spillway.

Wilson Dam roadway

Driving across Wilson Dam.

Wheeler Dam pan

Panoramic view of the amazingly long Wheeler Dam.

Wheeler Dam spillways

Detail of the spillways on Wheeler Dam (more modern and less elegant than the Wilson Dam spillways).

Wheeler Dam lock bridge

Bridge over the Wheeler Dam lock.

Wheeler Dam antique crane

An antique crane on display on the southern side of Wheeler Dam. (It made me think of the children’s book Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel.)



Martin Dam backside

Discovering the dams of Alabama

When I moved to Alabama for graduate school ten years ago, the American Southeast at first seemed less interesting than I had hoped it would be. I’d had ideas that the Southeast would have a strong sense of history, because this was where the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement had taken place. But I found that most of the towns in east-central Alabama did not seem particularly old or historic. The town of Auburn, where I lived, consisted mostly of postwar construction, with only a few nineteenth-century buildings. It was not until the end of my second year of grad school that I found something in Alabama that really inspired my sense of history in a uniquely historian-of-technology way: dams.

I was no stranger to dams. As the son of a power engineer, I had visited my share of dams on family vacations. I had also gone to college in Washington State, and I would see dams along the Columbia River whenever I drove to Portland. But it wasn’t until the end of my second year in Alabama that it occurred to me that there might be some dams near me. I was vaguely aware that there must be a dam at the end of Lake Martin, which I would cross over on the way to Birmingham. But I had no idea what it looked like, who built it, or when.

Lake Martin view

Lake Martin on an October morning.

In the spring of my second year of grad school, I had been reading about dams built in India during Nehru’s time as I hunted for a dissertation topic. It occurred to me one fateful day that there were dams on the Tallapoosa River nearby that I had never seen, and they might make for an interesting Saturday afternoon excursion. Looking at a map, I found that I could see three of the Tallapoosa’s dams in a single trip, including the dam that impounded Lake Martin.

The first dam on my tour was Martin Dam, which I reached by taking AL-50 off of US-280 at Camp Hill. The road swings around the southeastern side of Lake Martin and passes over a bridge right in front of Martin Dam. There was no overlook for the dam, but I did find a place to pull off to the side of the road and park. The dam itself was tucked back in a canyon; I found a vantage point of it by following an abandoned roadbed for an old bridge across the river. The dam was big and impressive, if not exactly colossal.

Martin Dam

Martin Dam on the Tallapoosa River, built 1923-1926.

I continued south along the Tallapoosa. The next dam, Yates, did not appear to be accessible. (I later got a view of it from downstream.) But the last dam, Thurlow, was right in the middle of the town of Tallassee. A bridge ran right in front of it, and I could see the whole thing from a sidewalk on the bridge.

Thurlow Dam face

The face of Thurlow Dam on the Tallapoosa River, completed in 1930.

Thurlow Dam powerhouse

Thurlow Dam powerhouse.

From Tallassee, I took AL-14 straight back to Auburn. I eagerly sorted my pictures from the day. The next day, I checked out a book from the university library about the construction of the dams I had just seen: Putting “Loafing Streams” to Work: The Building of Lay, Mitchell, Martin, and Jordan Dams, 1910-1929, by Harvey H. Jackson. In the book, I read about how Alabama Power had transformed the landscape of the Alabama piedmont by building dams on the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers in the early twentieth century.

Seeing the dams and learning about their history opened up previously unexplored terrain in my mental map of Alabama history. It turned out that there were other interesting things that had happened in the state besides Civil War and Civil Rights. Those dams had been there the whole time I had been here, and much longer. They told stories of ambition, development, hard work, and not a little modernist hubris. Until embarking on my study of Alabama’s dams, I had no idea those stories were there to be told. Now that I’d started to listen to the stories, Alabama began to seem a good deal more interesting than it had before.

Lay Dam

Lay Dam, completed in 1914, was Alabama Power’s first dam built on the Coosa River.

Mitchell Dam

Distant view of Mitchell Dam on the Coosa River, completed in 1923.

Jordan Dam

Jordan Dam, completed in 1928, is the lowest dam on the Coosa River. The rocks in the foreground were part of Devil’s Staircase, a series of rapids that was destroyed by the construction of the dam.

Jordan Dam spillways

Closeup of the spillways of Jordan Dam.

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