Back to the Index THE FONTANA STORY Back to the Index

By Ruth G. Elliott, with grateful acknowledgments to Government Services, Inc. for source material from their publication, "The Village of Five Lives" (Lucile K. Boyden) and photographs of Fontana Dam and The Log Cabin, and to The Tennessee Valley Authority, Fontana Operation, for source material from their publication "The Fontana Project" and photographs of the dam during construction.

In 1872 the State of North Carolina decided that two hundred and ninety-five square miles of land adjacent to the Tennessee border, the most rugged, isolated, and inaccessible land in all of Eastern America, should be separated from the County then known as Cherokee, and a separate unit established. This new unit was given the name of Graham County, in honor of Dr. W. A. Graham, one-time governor of North Carolina, Confederate senator, and Secretary of the Navy. The main theme of this story concerns a section of roughly two-and-one-half square miles of this mountain area, known as Fontana.

The first known use of the word Fontana in this area came with the lumber barons. Among the first was the Montvale Lumber Company in 1890. The lumbermen of this company, after scouting the forest for the finest timber, pitched a few tents on the Swain County side of the Little Tennessee River, and set to work with a will. Among these first industrial pioneers was the late Mrs. George Leidy Wood, of New York, wife of the executive Vice-President of the Montvale Lumber Company. She spent a great deal of time in this lumber camp and fell in love with the beauty of the area. She and her husband felt the camp should have a name, and it was she who suggested the name "Fontana." So it was named. The first Fontana was a tent town.

The second village by this name was constructed by the Montvale Company, and was located further up on Eagle Creek. It was built in 1907 and was situated near the then productive copper mines. This was no tent town, but a complete and charming community. This Fontana could boast a modern school building, a medical service center, a community church, even a Fontana Hotel. With the extension of the standard gauge railroad from Bushnell, fifteen miles away, by the Southern Railroad, the rapid schedule of industry had really come to the Great Smokies. Now a small building proudly wore the sign: U.S. POST OFFICE - FONTANA, N.C.

But in time the United States Government took a long look at the lumber companies operating and multiplying throughout the Smokies, and decided their vast extent had begun to take on the look of "exploitation and mutilation" of our forests. Through an Act of Congress, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. One large, permanently organized lumber company, the Bemis Hardwood Lumber Company, Inc., was allowed to continue its operation, with headquarters in Robbinsville.

When the lumbering business was cut drastically by the formation of the National Park, Fontana began its third life - that of a mining town. The copper mines on Eagle Creek were employing at that time more than 100 experienced miners, working three shifts, day and night. Copper ore was abundant and the Southern Railroad hauled great carloads of ore to the smelters at Copper Town, Tennessee.

A strange destiny awaited this third Fontana. December 7, 1941, that "Day of Infamy," stunned the nation. The Federal Government ordered that mining interests on Eagle Creek in western North Carolina be terminated immediately. With that order came a notice that the Tennessee Valley Authority was on its way to Graham County. Already a legislative Act had authorized the construction of a gigantic hydro-electric power dam on the Little Tennessee River, in the Great Smoky Mountains. The location of this project, one of the largest engineering feats in history, was to be on land already acquired from the Aluminum Company of America. The purchase agreement stipulated that the new dam was to be named "Fontana."

In January 1942 more than 6,000 officials and workmen had converged on this mountain region, almost before the miners on Eagle Creek could realize the sudden turn of events, settle their rights and liabilities, and vacate their homes. In only a few days the work schedule was established, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the 480-foot-high concrete dam, designed to harness the floodwaters of the Little Tennessee into a 30-mile, deep-water lake was begun. The forces of the river were converted into the production of atomic energy, and into multiple uses for the good of the nation. Even as the last of the miners moved away the lake was already deepening against the cleared mountainsides, and the third Fontana was slowly drowning.

Excavation for the Fontana Dam abutment

Fontana Dam under construction

But already the fourth Fontana had sprung up across the river in a historic and picturesque spot, rimmed with mountains, called Welch Cove. This was a completely new and modern town hastily planned and equipped, to house the builders of Fontana Dam. 6,000 people, officials, supervisors, engineers, and workmen moved into the sprawling construction camp equipped with large community and recreation buildings, modern dwellings, cafeterias, a large hospital, a large school, a sizeable theater, and churches. This fourth Fontana Village was a thriving metropolis, drawing the attention of the world.

By January of 1945 the first power-producing unit was in operation, though all construction work in connection with the dam, powerhouse, observation buildings, etc. was not yet completed. As the dam reached completion the camp reached a level of inactivity, lack of employment, and a gloomy emptiness. Finally only a few inhabitants remained to operate the dam. Now the TVA officials in Washington were faced with another emergency - what to do with the tremendous layout of community services that had been constructed for the benefit of those thousands employed in the construction of the dam. For by 1945 this, the world's fourth largest hydro-electric power dam, stood two miles to the east of a large road sign warning, "No Beyond." A nine-mile paved spur connected the area with U.S. Hwy 129 to the west and already, a million visitors a year were coming to see this great wonder of the times.

The fifth Fontana has grown increasingly popular over the years as a family resort, with over 300 cottages and a lodge for housing the thousands of vacationers who come every season to share the beauties of our lakes and mountains. There are all types of recreation available under competent personnel. Fontana Village operates its own water plant, sewage treatment plant, and all other community facilities, including a large cafeteria, laundry, and store buildings, as well as many others.

It was with much foresight that the builders of the construction camp for the Dam decided that the Log Cabin in the fourth Fontana was to be preserved, for here, indeed, is a rare and beautiful structure. It was in 1875 that Jesse Gunter decided he would leave home in Stecoah and come to Welch Cove to visit his brother Cyrene. It wasn't far "as the crow flies," but by foot or ox-team, it could as well have been across the continent. There were still a few old Indian trails left to follow, but nothing in the way of a road.

Like many others since, Jesse Gunter lost his heart to Welch Cove, and decided then and there that here was where he would bring up his family. So back he went to Stecoah, loaded his wife, Catherine, and their children onto an ox-sled, along with their meager belongings, his axe and his rifle, and set out to cut his way back to this new and promising land. In time he constructed his story-and-a-half log house in Welch Cove, two rooms with a full-size loft above, acres for a yard, a rail fence rambling all around. Jesse took great pride in that house, and built it carefully. He had to select and cut his trees, scale and cut them carefully, rive and notch them, smooth them - a great deal of work, indeed!

He would like his house today, too, for it is now used as a gift shop, selling only mountain handcrafts, and keeping much of the original charm it had when Jesse lived there himself.

Gunter log cabin built 1875

Gunter log cabin today

It was in 1884 that tragedy struck Jesse and Catherine Gunter. Two of their children died in February of that year. Jesse buried them on the little round hill across the valley from the front of their house, a spot he and Catherine loved, and where he had often said was "the prettiest, most peaceful spot on earth where a body could be laid to rest." In November of 1888, Jesse's beloved Catherine died and was buried close beside her children. Their gravestones still stand in the little cemetery on the little round hill. The site is included in one of the self-guided Nature Walks in Fontana Village.

In July of 1971, several of the descendants of Jesse Gunter gathered at Fontana Village, coming from the States of Washington, Oregon, and California. They were delighted with the old family home-place, and visited the family burial plot also. They also went to Stecoah, where they met for the first time their great aunt, Mrs. Thomas Henry, daughter of Jesse Gunter.

Some of the statistics regarding the construction of the dam are most interesting. The dam reaches an elevation of 1,727 feet, and is 480 feet high, 376 feet wide at its base. A 22-foot road crosses the top of the dam, and lake waters can be released through tunnel spillways. The reservoir extends 30 miles into the mountains, covering 7,276 cleared acres, 10,530 acres at full pool. The shoreline measures 240 miles. The first generator was placed in operation in January 1945 and puts out 67,000 kilowatts. A second came into production in March of that same year and a third in February 1954. The rated continuous output is now 202,500 kilowatts.

Engineers admire the completed Fontana Dam

Fontana Dam after completion

There was a total of 2,171,100 cubic yards of excavation; 760,000 cubic yards of fill; 2,813,000 cubic yards of concrete; 5,000 tons of reinforcing steel; 700 tons of structural steel; 4,679,900 square feet of forms; 97,500 cubic feet of grout; and 274,700 linear feet of cooling pipe used in the construction of the dam. Construction started January 1, 1942, and dam closure (beginning of reservoir filling) was November 7, 1944. 

In view of this great accomplishment each of us can feel very proud when we read the inscription over the turbines, "Built by the TVA for the People of the United States."

A rare water release from Fontana Lake, through tunnels once used as diversions for the Little Tennessee river while the dam was under construction.

Fontana dam is so high that gates on top of the dam are impossible, as the falling water could undermine the dam's foundation.