Condemned by TVA

Black and white aerial photograph of a river valley

Courtesy TVA

Illustration of a man sitting in chair

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 10 No. 4, "American Heretic: Portrait of Jim Dombrowski, artist and activist." Find more from that issue here.

Two years ago, on a gray November day, I stood with friends in a yard belonging to a man who was about to be evicted by federal marshals acting on behalf of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Within two hours, bulldozers razed the small, four-room white frame house where Beryl Moser was born to make way for the Tellico Lake in Monroe County, Tennessee.

It was almost noon. This was the last stop for the TVA wrecking crews which had spent the better part of the past 10 years demolishing, leveling and doing whatever else was necessary to erase the farming communities which had developed along the fertile bottomland of the Little Tennessee River during the nineteenth century.

For Beryl Moser, city judge for the town of Vonore and the last holdout against the Tellico Project, the day of reckoning had finally come. Moser's family and close friends had gathered in the empty rooms of the house since early morning. Network television crews and newspaper and magazine reporters from all parts of the country began to arrive soon after, swarming through the small home and across the property less than a country block from Vonore City Hall.

Among the onlookers were others who had lost their homes during the 15-year drive by TVA to acquire 38,000 acres of privately owned land for the Tellico Dam Project. One woman lost her 300-acre ancestral home on the banks of the Little T during the early years of the project; the bitterness of the struggle to keep her farm was etched in the lines of her face.

Together we watched as Moser and his two sisters tearfully said goodbye to their childhood home.

"This is just like the Trail of Tears all over again," said the woman, making an observation profound in its simplicity as well as its insight.


The Little Tennessee River Valley and the mountains which surround it are at the heart of TVA country, located approximately halfway between the agency's main offices in Knoxville and Chattanooga. It is a place of beguiling and deceptive beauty where the richness of life has more to do with the state of the soul than of the physical world. It is a land of steep ridges and dark coves where resourcefulness is often a person's greatest asset. In many areas, the family names are the same as those which were there a hundred or more years ago.

Long before whiskey was being distilled from the corn which grows so well in these mountain hollers, the Little Tennessee River Valley was the land of the Cherokee. "Going to water" was central to Cherokee religious beliefs. They considered a river essential to paradise and undoubtedly the forebears of the modern Cherokee thought they had found paradise incarnate when they stumbled into the valley of the Little T. The Cherokee, who had long ago made peace with their environment, found the fertile bottomland ideal for growing corn and the surrounding forests plentiful with game. During the eighteenth century, great Cherokee towns flourished along the banks of the river and its tributaries.

The encroachment of the white settler on Cherokee land intensified during that century, and after many years of conflict, the Treaty of Long Island was negotiated in 1777. In exchange for a promise that the boundaries established in the treaty would "remain through all generations and be kept by our children's children," Cherokee leaders gave up much of their land north and west of the Little T.

But the Cherokees soon discovered that treaties, contracts, promises and constitutional rights are null and void in the face of progress. "We have held several treaties with the Americans when bounds were fixed, and fair promises made that the white people would not come over," observed Old Tassel, a Cherokee leader who helped negotiate the Treaty of Long Island. "But we always find that after a treaty they settle much faster than before. Truth is, if we had no land we should have fewer enemies."

During the 1980s, the "children's children" of the white settlers who pushed the Cherokee out of the Little Tennessee River Valley have been dispossessed of the same ancestral lands in the name of progress. Once again, the federal government, in the guise of TVA, has assumed the stance of the Great White Father.

Created by the United States Congress in 1933 ostensibly to uplift us from ignorance and poverty, TVA was expected to transform what policy makers perceived as a stagnant agrarian economy into a vital, industrial one by bringing electricity to the valley. An uneasy marriage now exists between the independent people of the Tennessee River Valley and TVA. As a federal agency, it unilaterally claims eminence over state and local governments. But despite the immense authority granted to the agency over four decades, the seven states in the TVA region still rank around the bottom of all scales measuring economic, educational and social progress.

The Tellico Project is now almost two decades old. In 1963, TVA proposed the damming of the last free-flowing stretch of the Little Tennessee River as a showcase development which would illustrate the agency's planning expertise and bring prosperity to an economically deprived area. In addition to massive recreational and industrial development, TVA proposals for Tellico included the construction of a model city of 12,000, a "living" Cherokee Indian village and an extravagant marina-resort complex. TVA claimed it needed to acquire an additional 22,000 acres in order to maintain quality control of the lakeshore environment. To support the unprecedented confiscation of so much private land for a single project, TVA claimed the right of eminent domain, a legal loophole which justifies the sacrifice of individual rights as necessary for the "common good."

In 1967, Charlotte and Paul Hughes lived with their two daughters on the 300-acre farm near Vonore which had been bought by her grandfather at the turn of the century. The Hugheses' sand company a few miles down the river provided their livelihood.

Their life of complacency was shattered the day they received a letter from TVA notifying them that their property would be within the boundaries of the proposed Tellico Reservation. With that letter began a 15-year struggle which has not ended with the closing of the dam gates, and through which Charlotte Hughes came to identify her fate with that of the 16,000 Cherokee Indians who were forced out of the Little Tennessee River Valley on the Trail of Tears in 1838.

"For the next three-and-a-half years, we lived with TVA. They got us up in the morning and put us to bed at night," recalls Mrs. Hughes while describing the frequent, unannounced visits to their farm by TVA personnel. "You've already got a feeling of helplessness and then you discover that you're also being harassed and threatened."

Three months after an appraisal, a buyer from TVA presented the Hugheses with a contract offering them approximately $475 per acre for their farm, less than half of which was to be flooded. "I did not cry the day they took my farm because it was the first property we lost," says Mrs. Hughes. "But I did cry when they took the sand company. TVA put us out of business, but they said they did not owe us damages because it was a federally controlled river.

"I told them, 'You have left us with this house. Now I want you to tell those people back at TVA that if any TVA personnel ever steps foot on my property again uninvited, I will leave that so-and-so lying in my front yard wounded.'

"I felt utterly helpless, like I had no place to turn. When I tried to find a lawyer who could tell me what my

A Tale of Two Decades

By Mary K. Hendershot

The Tennessee Valley Authority first advocated locating a dam near the mouth of the Little Tennessee River in a 1936 report to Congress. In June, 1942, Congress appropriated $10.7 million for construction of the dam. The project, known as the Fort Loudoun Extension, was shelved in October of the same year due to the diversion of construction materials for World War II.

In 1963, the Fort Loudoun Extension was again proposed as the Tellico Project. TVA wanted 38,000 acres of land for Tellico rather than the 20,000 to 30,000 originally proposed during planning for the Fort Loudoun Extension; it claimed that the additional land would ensure controlled development. The cost of the project was now estimated at $41 million.

During 1965 and 1966, Congress conducted hearings to consider arguments by opponents and advocates of the project. Those who opposed the project focused on the destruction of agricultural land, the Cherokee Indian culture and the free-flowing river. Tellico advocates stressed the economic growth which was expected to benefit an economically deprived area.

Congress approved the initial appropriation for Tellico in 1965 and construction began in 1967.

The project was temporarily halted for the first time in 1971 by a federal court ruling that TVA had not filed an adequate environmental impact statement (EIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. Construction started again in 1973 when TVA's final EIS was accepted.

The Tellico Project was designed as a resource base for the community of Timberlake, a joint development of TVA and the Boeing Aerospace Company. However, Boeing withdrew its commitment to the project in March, 1975. By this time, Tellico was 75-percent complete and the estimated cost had risen to $100 million.

Also during March, 1975, citizens petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the snail darter as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The darter had been discovered in the waters of the Little T by University of Tennessee biologist David Etnier during the fall of 1973.

TVA argued that the act did not apply since the Tellico Project was initiated before the ESA became law. On February 18, 1976, a suit (Hill vs. the Tennessee Valley Authority) was filed in federal district court seeking to halt Tellico because it was in violation of the ESA. The case was dismissed a month later but was appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in July. The appeals court issued an injunction which prohibited closure of the dam gates but permitted TVA to continue construction.

In the fall of 1976, the Department of the Interior issued a report which concluded that the existence of the snail darter would be jeopardized if the Tellico Dam was completed.

On January 31,1977, the court of appeals reversed the district court decision and ruled that the ESA was applicable to Tellico. The court did permit TVA to continue work on highway and bridge construction. The project was now 90 percent complete.

In May, 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court accepted TVA's request for a review of the appeals court decision. Oral arguments were presented to the Supreme Court on April 18, 1978, and on June 15, the court affirmed the appeals court ruling by a vote of six to three.

Also during April, 1978, Congress approved legislation which established the Endangered Species Committee, a review board which was empowered to exempt some public works projects from the ESA. That committee subsequently refused to exempt Tellico.

On June 13, 1979, the U.S. Senate rejected legislation proposed by Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee which would have specifically exempted Tellico from the ESA. On August 1, 1979, the House of Representatives approved similar legislation introduced by Representative John Duncan, whose district includes the counties sur rounding Tellico. Duncan's amendment was attached as a rider to the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. That bill was approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in September, 1979.

On October 2, transplanting of the snail darters from the Little T to the Hiwassee River was begun.

On October 12, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation filed suit in U.S. District Court in a last-ditch effort to halt impoundment of the lake. The Cherokees claimed that the lake would infringe upon their religious freedom by denying them access to sacred lands and burial sites. The Cherokee suit was dismissed on November 1.

On November 13, the last two families holding out against removal by TVA were evicted and on November 29 the dam gates were closed.

On April 7, 1982, Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander signed legislation creating the Tellico Reservoir Development Agency (TRDA). The agency will be composed of representatives from the three counties which surround Tellico Lake and will be empowered to manage the lake area in conjunction with TVA. TRDA and TVA are now developing the terms of a contract designating each agency's powers and responsibilities.

Local officials made the proposal for TRDA during the spring of 1981 because they were frustrated by TVA's lack of initiative to develop the Tellico project further.

A year ago, several other snail darter habitats were discovered in streams in southeastern Tennessee and Alabama. TVA has recommended that the Department of the Interior remove the snail darter from the Endangered Species List.

rights were as an American citizen, I was made to feel that I wasn't a good American if I tried to stand in the way of TVA. At that time, people thought TVA was the Great White Father and it was un-American to stand in the way of progress.

"Everybody was fighting for themselves. Neighbors would not talk to neighbors. The reason people didn't get together was because of an old teaching in this area that you don't discuss your financial business with other people."

However, like many other landowners dispossessed by the Tellico Project, the Hugheses soon found themselves discussing their financial business with the Internal Revenue Service. They were audited for three years following the sale of their land to TVA. Mrs. Hughes describes the ordeal as "pure hell."

The only recourse for landowners who opposed the sale of their land to TVA was an appeal to a three-person commission appointed by TVA. By 1977 the project was nearing completion, and only three families still held out in the face of TVA pressure to give up their land. At that point, construction on the dam was indefinitely halted following a federal court ruling that the snail darter was entitled to protection under the Endangered Species Act, and the original owners of Tellico land got a second chance. Eventually, U.S. Representative John Duncan succeeded in specifically exempting the Tellico Project from the Endangered Species Act, but while the future of the lake was in doubt, many residents tried to lease their former holdings for agricultural purposes.

"After TVA had bought all the property, they would not give the original landowners the opportunity to rent their own land," claims Charlotte Hughes. "I retained my property for as long as possible, but then they rented my farm to someone else." By this time, the landowners had learned something about the futility of fighting a lone battle against TVA. The landowners organized the Dispossessed Landowners Association in 1977 in an attempt to regain their former holdings if the dam was not going to be built. If the lake was to be impounded, association members hoped to regain possession of their land which lay above the high-water mark.

Although the association, whose membership includes 150 families who were dislocated by the Tellico Project, was never able to achieve either of these goals, for the first time TVA was forced to recognize the landowners as a group. During the years when TVA was enjoined from closing the dam gates, the agency had been leasing Tellico land for $50 to $60 an acre that they had bought for $300 an acre. "They had already received more in rent money than it had cost them to buy the land," says Alfred Davis, the only Tellico landowner whose family filed suit against TVA to retain title to their land. "The main thing we accomplished was assisting landowners in leasing their former property."


Like the history of the Cherokee Indian, that of the Tellico Project is littered with broken promises. Two-and-a-half years after the dam gates were closed, local residents have realized few benefits to offset their losses. There are no marinas or boat docks allowed on the lake. More importantly, the only industry located in Monroe County's Niles Ferry Industrial Park is a TVA radiological testing lab which imported all of its employees from a similar facility in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.

The state of Tennessee has reneged on plans to locate a state "superpark" at historic Fort Loudoun. The state also defaulted on a commitment to rebuild sections of Highway 72 — a major artery between east Tennessee and North Carolina — which were flooded during impoundment of the lake.

In the spring of 1981, county officials, who had become frustrated by TVA's lack of commitment to Tellico, made a tentative proposal asking that control of the reservation land be relinquished to a three-county regional development agency. However, TVA's unexpected eagerness to cooperate has aroused skepticism among many county leaders who suspect the agency may simply be trying to wash its hands of any future responsibility for the Tellico Project. TVA has closed the door on any future appropriations beyond the $21 million already budgeted.

Today, 19 years after the Tellico Dam struggle began, TVA has exchanged the mantle of the Great White Father for that of the Bad Boy in the eyes of the residents of the Little Tennessee River Valley. We have grown tired of TVA's stranglehold on the direction our lives will take, and in the words of Old Tassle, "We do not see the propriety of such a reformation."

"The momentum has turned," observed Charlotte Hughes recently. "Back in the '60s, I had the feeling of utter helplessness. But I don't feel helpless anymore.

"For the last two or three years, we have been getting our publicity. We have been getting our knocks and our licks in. You know, misery loves company. I was miserable and I didn't have any company. It does me good to see TVA fall off the pedestal and if that's vengeful, then so be it.

"It is not the people who work for TVA that I hate, but the system, the establishment and the way they can manipulate people.

"If I can get in one good lick it causes me to get a good night's sleep and that makes up for all those years TVA kept me awake at night."