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Wednesday, 18 February 2009 19:01

Reservoir rendezvous

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Joe Wright was born and raised in the high Nantahalas in the northwest corner of Macon County. He was 90-some-years-old when I interviewed him back in the early 1990s or thereabouts and made the notes upon which this account, in part, is based.

Wright took a job with the Nantahala Power and Light Co. (now a subsidiary of Duke Power Company) and did survey and other work for the company “off and on” for 40 years. He remembered when the massive Nantahala Dam — 250-feet high, 1,042-feet long, impounding a 1,605-acre lake — was built in the early 1940s. It was a project that pioneered the rock-fill method of using earth and rock instead of all-concrete to build large dams.

Wright also vividly recalled construction in the Nantahalas that resulted in hydroelectric impoundments so small that they’re called “vest pocket” dams.

Two of these are situated in the Aquone area on Dick’s and Whiteoak creeks, emptying their waters via connector pipes into the main Nantahala Dam pipe that leads above and below ground almost 30,000-feet down to the Beechertown substation at the head of the lower Nantahala Gorge (near the present day raft put-in areas). A few miles to the east at the head of the Winding Stairs road there’s the Queen’s Creek dam, which has its own pipe leading directly down to the Beachertown substation.

These three facilities are small impoundments; indeed, the ones at Whiteoak and Dick’s creeks are duck-pond size, having dams that are about 75-feet wide that back up water not more than 150 or so feet. But there’s yet another facility on the Diamond Valley drainage above Dick’s Creek that can be classified as tiny. Locals who worked at the dam construction sites refer to these lilliputian constructions as “watch fob” or “virgin” dams.

At 12-feet across, 6-feet high, and pooling up just enough water to take a shallow bath in, the Diamond Valley dam, built in 1948, was supposed by Nantahala officials back in the early 1990s to be the world’s smallest hydroelectric dam used for commercial purposes.

Located at 2,935-feet elevation, it’s the highest of the dams in the Nantahala system. An 18-inch pipe from the little dam runs down about 100 yards to the Dick’s Creek impoundment, which it empties into with a sparkling gush through a concrete conduit, adding its bit to the generating capacity of the entire system.

Nantahala officials were — and probably still are — fond of the Diamond Valley midget. “If a dam can be cute, this one is,” said Fred Alexander, the company’s manager of corporate communications at that time

And neither did they scoff at its capabilities. Each year, according to Alexander, water siphoned from the Diamond Valley watershed added “approximately 1,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to supply power for 111 homes based on 9,000 kilowatt hours per home per year.” Maintenance was minimal, involving little more than periodic leaf removal from the outflow screen and the cutting back of brush, for a system that contributed about $50,000 worth of water annually.

“The Dick’s Creek dam was built by men working around the clock in shifts,” recalled Wright. “Dump trucks brought in rock and we laid it out in three tiered sections of 50-feet each.”

The flat location chosen for that dam and pond placed it about 100 yards above the mouth of Diamond Valley Creek. Therefore, as Wright recalled, in order to collect Diamond Valley’s output, the connecting pipe had to be run underground at an angle back up Dick’s Creek’s under Junaluaka Road. It was a cunning bit of micro-engineering.

When the observation was put to him that, “You dam-builders seemed determined to gather just about every last drop of available water,” Joe Wright rocked forward in his chair, eyes glittering with mirth, and nodded assent.

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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