Norris, TN

“Shall Be Taken in the Name of the United States of America” The Tennessee Valley Authority, the Norris Dam, Model Towns, and Displacement

“Well I think that most of the people in that area thought of the government as being so omnipotent, sort of like God, you know. What right do you have to question what the government’s gonna do here?” (John Rice Irwin)

In the 1930s, the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression, one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been elected president in 1933 and was pulling together his comprehensive New Deal which was aimed at creating jobs and economic opportunity for the unemployed and the poor. It was also aimed at revitalizing industry and commerce which had experienced precipitous declines. The creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in 1933 was a key piece of the New Deal strategy of using government investment to provide jobs, reduce poverty, and rebuild an infrastructure on which industry could thrive. The TVA would do this by building dams, creating hydro-electric capacity, controlling floods, and building a reliable water supply. It targeted Tennessee as well as portions of other Southern states that had been particularly hard-hit by the Depression and, as largely rural states, had not yet developed distribution of electricity that already existed in the more urbanized Northeast and Midwest.

There was an urgency to turn around the economy and bring back prosperity in the wake of the 1929 collapse of the Stock Market and precipitous decline of the economy. This urgency not only led to the rapid passage of legislation creating the TVA, but it also gave the new agency the tools to quickly remove any barriers that might stand in the way of its goals. Given the gargantuan scale of the TVA’s plan, the legislation gave the TVA wide authority to purchase land and take, through eminent domain, the many square miles of land that would be needed for dams and the resulting reservoirs. The Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 stated that the TVA

"[s]hall have power in the name of the United States of America to exercise the right of eminent domain, and in the purchase of any real estate or the condemnation of real estate by condemnation proceedings, the title to such real estate shall be taken in the name of the United States of America, and thereupon all such real estate shall be entrusted to the Corporation as the agent of the United States to accomplish the purposes of this Act.[1]"

The Norris Dam was the first of many dams to be built by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). Built 25 miles north of Knoxville, Tennessee, it dammed the Clinch and Powell Rivers, both part of the Tennessee River Watershed. The construction of the dam provided significant employment in an area hard-hit by the Depression. During construction the Norris Dam project employed over 2700 workers.[2] Construction of Norris Dam began in October, 1933 and was completed in March, 1936.

© Richard Wasserman, 2010

To make way for the dam and the resulting reservoir, the Norris Dam project required the government’s purchase or eminent domain condemnation of over 125,000 acres, forcing the relocation of 3,500 (15,750 people).[3] Sixty-nine percent of the removed population were land owners and the remainder were renters, tenant farmers, or sharecroppers.[4] The mean number of years the displaced owners had lived in their communities was 35 years; for the renters and tenants the average was 15 to 20 years.[5] The dam’s reservoir covered over 33,000 acres of land. The newly-created Norris Lake extended 73 miles up the Clinch River and 56 miles up the Powell River from the dam.[6]

[1] New Deal Network, “Tennessee Valley Authority Act” in “TVA Electricity for All” 2015. Website.  Accessed February 6, 2016

[2] Bob Fowler, “Norris Dam: families uprooted, jobs created.” [Knoxville] News-Sentinel. April 29, 2012.

[3] Michael J. McDonald. “Tennessee Valley Authority Records” Agricultural History. Vol. 58, no. 2 (April 1984), 127-137; and New Deal Network, “The Displaced People of Norris Basin,” in “TVA Electricity for All” Website: 2015. Accessed February 6, 2016.

[4] McDonald and Muldowny, p. 91.

[5] McDonald and Muldowny, p. 92.

[6]Tennessee Valley Authority, “Norris” Website. Accessed February 13, 2016.