Behind Dangerous Waters

Second only to the Interstate Highway, the Tennessee Valley Authority was the most coherent physical idea the United States ever had.


Just on its own, Micah Cash’s photograph, “Pickwick Landing, Downstream,” offers plenty to ponder. Sober harmonies of hue and tone and texture. Rust cracking the enamel of modernity. A sign ruled for an absent message. A frame within a frame, a view blocked, a working landscape classicized. You needn’t have been to Tennessee.

But I have been to Tennessee, grew up there, in fact. I learned to swim in Watts Bar Lake, and I’ve spent a lot of time on the TVA reservations, so I can tell you something else about “Pickwick Landing, Downstream”: I can tell you why the back of a sign is something to take a picture of.

Do you know that Wallace Stevens poem about the jar?

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill. 1

Architects are drawn to the poem because of the license it seems to confer, but that’s not how order is brought to most landscapes. Or, anyway, it’s not how it was brought to the landscape of Tennessee. Order came to that landscape through the pen of a liberal, bow-tie-wearing Republican senator from Nebraska, George W. Norris, who wouldn’t abide Henry Ford buying — for pennies on the dollar — a dam that had been built with taxpayer money to power armament production for World War I.

The tussle over the fate of that earlier dam sparked the idea, but the idea was much bigger. At that point it was the vastest and most coherent physical idea the federal government had ever imagined. Second to the Interstate Highway System, it remains so to this day. More remarkably, it is the only project of its size in the U.S. comprising a natural, rather than a political, territory: the watershed of the Tennessee River, which includes parts of seven states.

Conceived by Norris in 1926, the Tennessee Valley Authority was chartered by Congress in 1933 with lofty goals:

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 in the State of Alabama, and for other purposes.

Most people who quote this passage from the preamble to the TVA Act highlight “and for other purposes,” with good reason: in addition to the items specified, the TVA eradicated malaria, which affected thirty percent of people in the region in 1933, and powered production of much of the weaponry of World War II, including the atomic bomb. 2 Today it provides not-for-profit electricity — and plenty of good fishing — to more than nine million people. 3

A lot of benefit, but at great cost: entire towns (and 20,000 graves) relocated, thousands of acres of rich bottomland farms erased. The families who owned those farms — my father’s among them — suffered loss, but it was a necessary loss if cities like Chattanooga were to be spared the floods that periodically tore them apart.

Tennessee River Flood, Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1917. [Tennessee State Library and Archives]

A photograph of Chattanooga during a 1917 flood gives an idea of the dangerous waters that lie distantly behind the sign that Cash has photographed. Chattanooga was at a choke point on the Tennessee, where the river had, ages earlier, broken through Walden Ridge, severing Lookout Mountain to the south from Signal Mountain to the north. To manage the waters, the TVA made controlled floods: the chain of lakes pushed out from the Tennessee by the nine main-river dams — Fort Loudon, Watts Bar, Chickamauga, Nickajack, Guntersville, Wheeler, Wilson, Pickwick Landing, and Kentucky. 4

Courting popular sentiment, first to promote its own agenda and then to support the burgeoning war effort, the TVA enlisted the design professions in a unified program of persuasion — propaganda, if you will — remarkable for its scope and coherence. 5 Its vision is almost seamless, and so are its landscapes.

The typical reservation surrounding one of the dams unfolds gradually for the visitor, the verges becoming progressively tidier, the roadway riding the topography more gracefully than the workaday roads of the wider world. The first view of the dam itself is precisely staged, as the roadway emerges from woods and curves toward the tableau of the dam between its flanking hills. Every moment is considered, every detail, down to the doorknobs. At a dam with an enclosed powerhouse — Norris, say, or Fontana— the roof of the powerhouse, visible from above, is clad in great concrete tiles to match its walls. There are no loose ends. If there were, there might be room to doubt the rightness of it all. Contingency has been submerged in a landscape that is as inevitable as nature itself. Unlike the rest of the built environment, with its groomed fronts and ratty backs, the TVA has no backs. Which is why the back of a sign is something to take a picture of.

Today, the waters below Pickwick Landing are dangerous only to folks out fishing in small boats, who ease up to where the turbine outflow roils the surface, churning oxygen into the water, which the fish like. The sign seems outsized for its task, but it needs to be read, of course, from a distance.

Fort Loudon, Downstream, 2013.

  1. Wallace Stevens, “Anecdote of the Jar,” Harmonium (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923). It would be interesting to know if Senator Norris had read this poem.
  2.  The “Government properties at and near Muscle Shoals” include Wilson Dam and  facilities for the production of ammonium nitrate, useful in peacetime for fertilizer, in wartime for explosives. Much of the aircraft aluminum for the war effort was produced in Alcoa, an eponymous company town just east of Knoxville. Uranium for the atomic bomb was enriched in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. All three processes require huge amounts of electricity.
  3. Unlike the WPA and other three-letter New Deal agencies, the TVA is something that is, not something that was. When President Obama proposed, in his 2014 budget, the privatization of the Authority (being self-sufficient, it takes no taxpayer dollars, but the notion of taking its debt off the federal books presents a perennial temptation to anyone seeking the look of austerity), he was roundly shouted down by the valley’s congressional delegation, which is composed largely of Republicans considerably less liberal than George Norris.
  4. Many of the 23 tributary dams in the TVA system boast significant lakes, as well.
  5. For more, see Tim Culvahouse, ed., The Tennessee Valley Authority: Design and Persuasion (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2007). Would that we thought of infrastructure similarly today.
Tim Culvahouse and Micah Cash, “Behind Dangerous Waters,” Places Journal, April 2015. Accessed 21 Mar 2023.

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