The Strange Case of Cades Lake

The Strange Case of Cades Lake

Depending on who you were and what you stood for, the idea of turning most of Cades Cove into a 50-foot-deep lake—three miles long and two miles wide—was either brilliant or terrible.

Pro-lake constituents included National Park Service Director Arno B. Cammerer (immortalized by the naming of Mt. Cammerer), Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning, the Great Smoky Mountains Conservation Association, park booster Col. David Chapman, and Knoxville City Manager George Dempster.

Those opposed included acting and former NPS Directors Stephen Mather and Horace Albright, Robert Sterling Yard of the National Parks Association, and stalwart conservationists Harvey Broome Benton MacKaye.

The plan, which raised its resprouting head three or four times between 1926 and 1937, was to build a dam—60 feet tall and 400 feet long—in the vicinity of today’s Abrams Falls trailhead. The dam would back up the meandering waters of Abrams Creek to an elevation of 1,750 feet, thus creating a lake that would inundate most of the historic cabins, churches, cemeteries, barns, gristmills and other reminders of the once-thriving Cades Cove community.

Unlike Fontana Lake, which was constructed in the 1940s to generate electricity to bolster America’s chances of winning World War II, Cades Lake was proposed solely for its recreational, scenic and tourism-boosting attributes.

The pro-lake crowd had a lengthy list of reasons and rationalizations:

  • The lake would cover “nothing except impoverished farm land,” an area that at the time was “barren of any attraction…” *Tennessee Governor G. Browning
  • There would be excellent fishing and boating.
  • Lake Cades would provide habitat for waterfowl, which do not occur naturally in the area because there are no natural lakes in the Smokies.
  • Some un-named geologists are believed to have once stated the whole cove was once a lake.
  • Unspecified “scientific” purposes.
  • It would be the perfect place for a large concessionaire to build a major lodge that would generate revenue. (Some also stated that without the lake it was unlikely that many tourists would visit Cades Cove or stay for very long.)

Those opposed to flooding Cades Cove rebutted:

  • Cades Cove’s limestone geology and marshy areas are habitat for many unusual wildflowers and other plants.
  • It would set a bad precedent for other national parks to build artificial lakes for recreational and business purposes.
  • There never was a lake in Cades Cove and artificial lakes did not belong in national parks.

I find it interesting and revealing that there was little if any mention in the debate of historic preservation or wildlife. Of the latter, this can be explained simply by the fact that there was almost no wildlife (even deer) in the cove at the time. The former reflects the mindset of many Great Smoky Mountains National Park advocates who were clearly focused on converting a landscape that had been extensively farmed and logged back to a natural-looking area that resembled national parks in the West. Calls for preserving remnants of the mountain culture did not get widely heard until later in the park creation process when historic structures had become increasingly scarce.

The standing decision not to flood Cades Cove was made partially on scientific grounds and partially due to politics. A credible geologist named Dr. Arthur Keith stated for the record that there had never been a lake in Cades Cove. Broome, Yard, MacKaye and other conservationists made sure their voices were heard loud and clear. The National Parks Advisory Board advised against making an artificial lake. And Cammerer finally conceded Lake Cades was a bad idea and a bad precedent for creating other artificial lakes in other national parks.

As a result, the churches, cabins, barns and gristmill, the bear, deer, bobcat and quail in the place we know and love as Cades Cove, were preserved.

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