Fontana Dam historical marker

Fontana Dam (Q-53)

Constructed, 1942-1944, by the Tennessee Valley Authority. At 480 feet tallest dam in eastern U.S. One mile north.

Location: NC 28 and SR 1245 (Fontana Dam Road) at Fontana Village
County: Graham
Original Date Cast: 2000

Fontana Dam, the largest of the Tennessee Valley Authority projects in North Carolina and a remarkable engineering achievement by any standard, at 480 feet is the highest dam in the eastern U.S. Like other TVA projects (the other major North Carolina project, Hiwassee Dam, was completed in 1940), it was constructed for flood regulation, regional power, and economic development. There was another objective, to supply electricity to Oak Ridge, where research on work on development of the atomic bomb was underway.

Initial interest in damming the Little Tennessee River came from Alcoa, which acquired property and proposed construction of two smaller dams. On August 14, 1941, Alcoa transferred its 15,000 acres to the federal government. Construction began on January 1, 1942, just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The crash effort was on a massive scale, involving at its peak over 6,000 workers working three shifts around the clock. To accommodate the veritable army of workers, it was necessary to construct housing and such amenities as a theater, cafeteria, library, bank, and post office. A small number of African Americans and about fifty Cherokees, both housed in segregated quarters, were employed. Fourteen workers died during course of the project. The concrete dam, 376 feet wide at its base, and six-story glass-walled powerhouse at its foot, cost $74,681,000. On the wall of the powerhouse is inscribed: “1942 Built for the People of the United States of America 1945.”

Water impoundment began on November 7, 1944, only thirty-five months after construction began, and electricity was first generated on January 20, 1945. The communities of Almond, Bushnell, Forney, Japan, Judson, Proctor, Tuskeegee, Wayside, and Welch were drowned under 10,600-acre Fontana Lake. There was a mid-war effort to change the name of Japan (taken from the local Japanese clover) to MacArthur, but most believed that it was more fitting to see it disappear under the water. Forty cemeteries and 2,043 known graves were relocated. Every five years the lake’s waters are drawn down for dam inspection and remnants of earlier times can be seen. In the years before the dam, lumbering and copper mining were the principal local industries. In 1947 the workers’ village was converted into the present-day resort community of Fontana Village.

Tennessee Valley Authority, The Fontana Project: A Comprehensive Report on the Planning, Design, Construction, and Initial Operation of the Fontana Project (Technical Report No. 12, 1950)
Catherine W. Bishir, Michael Southern, and Jennifer F. Martin, eds., A Guide to the Historic Architecture of Western North Carolina (1999)
Brent D. Glass, ed., North Carolina: An Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites (1975)
Lucile Kirby Boyden, The Village of Five Lives: The Fontana of the Great Smoky Mountains (1964)
Fontana Village website:
Tennessee Valley Authority website:

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