On May 18, 2023, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) will celebrate its 90th Anniversary. Though most of the records relating to the Tennessee Valley Authority reside in other departments and facilities within the National Archives, the Cartographic Branch has nine different series under the heading of RG 142: Records of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1918-2000. These records focus mainly on subjects such as mapping of recreational areas and reservoir sites, navigational aids, topographic mapping, aerial photography (like the one shown directly below), and land sale and transfer maps.
The maps throughout this blog post will provide you with some idea of the immense scope of the projects undertaken by TVA and show the vast swaths of land managed by the agency today. TVA manages over 180,000 acres of land set aside for wildlife protection and management and public use for recreational purposes. You will notice the wealth of navigational information included as you look through the maps. Additionally, information found within the brochures created for the public act as guides for responsible use of the resources.
Below is a prime example of a brochure created for the public, this one specifically focused on Chickamauga Lake. If you look closely, you will notice that it covers everything from water safety to hunting!
Some of you may not be familiar with TVA, but as someone who grew up in East Tennessee, it was a figure that loomed large in our everyday lives. If you were outside, near a large body of water, you were probably on, or near, TVA property. If you fished, skied, hiked, or rode horses on the numerous trails near the dams and reservoirs, or used public picnic shelters, you likely had TVA to thank for that. For me, the names come back like those of old friends – Norris, Douglas, Fontana, Melton Hill, Tellico, Cherokee, Watts Bar, and the list goes on and on. The names are synonymous with summer fun and happy memories of days spent with family outdoors.
Admittedly, others had a very different experience with the Tennessee Valley Authority. Some had terrible, life-altering experiences with TVA. Some families were resettled, either by choice or by force, cemeteries and towns were flooded to make way for massive projects, and, more recently, TVA was responsible for the largest coal ash slurry spill in history at the Kingston Fossil Plant in Tennessee. Like most things, the TVA story isn’t black or white, but rather spreads out in nuanced hues spanning nine decades.
Even though the Tennessee Valley Authority Act was not signed into law until 1933, its history can be traced all the way back to a project involving the building of a hydroelectric dam near Muscle Shoals Alabama. In 1916, Woodrow Wilson approved the building of the dam to supply power for a WWI-era munitions plant nearby. However, the war ended prior to the completion of the project and the dam sat, unfinished, for over a decade.
The dam remained a focus within Congress until Sen. George Norris proposed the Muscle Shoals Bill in 1931. In short, the bill proposed allowing the federal government to utilize the dam to produce and sell electricity, but Herbert Hoover vetoed the bill because he believed that providing power was not the job of the government, but should be left to private industry instead (1).
However, the cost of power for private citizens continued to rise throughout the Great Depression and people began to reconsider the idea of federal ownership and management of utilities. So, in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act, and the dam at Muscle Shoals became the very first TVA hydroelectric facility.
According to the text of the bill, which can be found here. This was “AN ACT To improve the navigability and to provide for the flood control of the Tennessee River; to provide for reforestation and the proper use of marginal lands in the Tennessee Valley; to provide for the agricultural and industrial development of said valley; to provide for the national defense by the creation of a corporation for the operation of Government properties at and near Muscle Shoals…” (2).
The bill gave sweeping powers to the TVA including having the power to exercise the right of imminent domain in the name of the United States for purchase real estate or to acquire real estate through condemnation proceedings (3). The bill went on to allow that TVA “shall have power to construct such dams, and reservoirs, in the Tennessee River and its tributaries, as in conjunction with Wilson Dam, and Norris, Wheeler, and Pickwick Landing Dams, now under construction, will provide, a nine-foot channel in the said river and maintain a water supply for the same, from Knoxville to its mouth, and will best serve to promote navigation on the Tennessee River and its tributaries and control destructive flood waters in the Tennessee and Mississippi River drainage basins…” (4).
Given the mission stated in the TVA Act, the land in question would be forever, irrevocably altered and so would the people impacted by the projects. Due to the sheer size of the landscape involved, this meant that thousands of families would be displaced, entire towns would be flooded, graves and cemeteries lost under lakes and reservoirs. For the Norris Dam Project alone, 2,989 families were displaced (5) and little or no resettlement help was offered.
On the other hand, TVA did have some positive impacts within this same time period. The agency created thousands of jobs during the Great Depression and extension programs created and run by the TVA taught new farming techniques aimed at fighting soil erosion and increasing productivity and output (6). It also created affordable electricity for a region desperately in need.
Today, TVA employs around 10,000 people and provides power to seven states through a system of 5 fossil fuel plants, 3 nuclear plants, 29 hydroelectric plants, 1 pumped storage plant, 17 natural gas facilities, 1 diesel generator site and 14 solar facilities. Operationally speaking, the agency has an 80,000 square mile service area, with over 16,00 miles of transmission, and a 99.99% reliability rate (7).
(1) The American Presidency Project. Herbert Hoover, 31st President of the United States. Veto of the Muscle Shoals Resolution. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/veto-the-muscle-shoals-resolution
(2) Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. Long title. https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/tennessee-valley-authority-act
(3) Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. Sec. 4, subsection (h), pg. 5 https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/tennessee-valley-authority-act
(4) Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933. Sec. 4, subsection (j), pg.6 https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/tennessee-valley-authority-act
(5) Williams III, Chambers G. “ (5) A part of their history: Norris State Park events to chronicle stories about families displaced by the dam.” The Courier News. April 28th, 2021. https://www.mycouriernews.com/articles/2021/04/4608/a-part-of-their-history
(6) History.com TVA. https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/history-of-the-tva. June 1, 2019.
(7) Tennessee Valley Authority: Our Power System. https://www.tva.com/energy/our-power-system