The Ocoee Dam: From War Machine to World-Class Whitewater


When Ocoee Dam No. 3 was built to help meet energy needs during wartime, it was thought there would be little or no recreational interest in the project. Flash forward fifty years, and you get an Olympic whitewater course and a world-class tourist destination. The first in a series of paddling-related stories from TVA…

On the day in 1943 when TVA flipped the switch and began producing power at its Ocoee No. 3 Dam for the first time, Under-Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson sent the Army’s congratulations. His message read:

“You have driven home another blow to the Axis by putting into operation Ocoee No. 3 Dam and power plant. Electricity from this station will help turn out the weapons and materials of war to defeat our enemies.”

TVA had already built or purchased 15 dams that were contributing to the war effort, including three projects on the Ocoee River. But there were still dire predictions of a crippling power shortage in the Southeast. Aluminum plants in Alcoa, Tenn., had been pressed into military service to produce metal for aircraft. And in nearby Oak Ridge, work was secretly underway to build a uranium enrichment plant to supply material for the first atomic bombs. Both required enormous amounts of electricity.
Built for War

TVA engineers knew the Ocoee River had more hydroelectric potential—an undeveloped fall of 316 feet below Blue Ridge Reservoir—and proposed a fourth project, Ocoee No. 3, to meet these needs.

The design of the Ocoee 3 project reflected the wartime need for power. Ocoee No. 2 would soon need extensive repairs so TVA weighed the economy of combining the Ocoee 2 and 3 projects and constructing a new powerhouse just upstream from the existing No. 2 plant. But that option was ruled out due in part to the necessity for rapid construction and the need to keep Ocoee No. 2 in continuous operation for the war effort.

The urgent need for power also drove the project schedule. The dam, tunnel and powerhouse were all to be completed in just 18 months. That meant, according to the technical report documenting plans for the project, “No feature of the dam could be permitted to be of a magnitude too great to complete in this period.”

To the engineering and construction staff’s credit, the dam was closed just seven months after the first concrete was placed. But delays in the delivery of the turbine and other vital equipment postponed power generation until April 1943—22 months after construction began…

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