Archives Month: Cheoah Dam

The Western Regional Archives (part of the State Archives of North Carolina) is writing a series of blogs relevant to this year's Archives Month theme, Water and History in North Carolina.

Contributed by Sarah Downing

Built across the waters of the Little Tennessee River in Graham and Swain counties between 1916 and 1919, the Cheoah Dam was the first of a series of dams constructed by the Tallahassee Power Company, (TAPOCO). At 225 feet, it had the distinction at the time of completion as being the tallest overflow dam in the world, as well as the most powerful hydroelectric facility on the planet. It served as a model for similar structures. Water flows from the 644-acre Cheoah Reservoir through one of 19 arched gates.

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Cheoah Dam  Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Scrapbook, WRA, circa 1941

The history of the Cheoah Dam, and the others that followed on the Little Tennessee River—Santeetlah, Calderwood, and Chilhowee—can be traced to the increased demand for aluminum at the end of the 19th century. Because much electricity was needed for its production, the Alcoa Company sought inexpensive means to produce the metal, and the Little Tennessee River provided ample sites advantageous for damming in order to produce hydroelectric power. North Maryville, Tennessee was selected for an aluminum production plant in 1913 and was later incorporated as the town of Alcoa. TAPOCO, who built the dams, is administered by a subsidiary of Alcoa.

If the dam looks familiar, you might remember it from a scene in the 1993 movie, The Fugitive, when star Harrison Ford jumped from the top into the swirling river water below.

In 2004, the Cheoah Dam and related structures were placed on the North Carolina Register of Historic Places. Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners purchased the dam in 2012.

Sources: Portrait of the past: Cheoah Dam, once world’s tallest, Rob Neufeld, Citizen-Times March 26, 2015.  National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Cheoah Hydroelectric Development, 2004.
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