Cades Cove Was Nearly Turned into a Marina in the 1930s
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Cades Cove is far and away the most popular section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Over 2 million visitors frequent this breathtaking valley each year to see its historic buildings, gorgeous mountain views, and spectacular wildlife. While today it seems obvious that Cades Cove would become a can’t-miss attraction in the Smokies, the valley’s potential wasn’t always recognized.

Back in the 1930s, Cades Cove wasn’t considered anything special. In fact, Gordon Browning, the Governor of Tennessee, wrote that the cove was “nothing except impoverished farmland” and “barren of any attraction.” However, a number of Tennessee politicians and National Park Service employees had a plan to drum up interest in Cades Cove: they would turn the valley into a lake.

Yes, believe it or not, there was serious talk of converting Cades Cove into a marina in order to make it a viable tourist attraction. Reporter Sam Venable covered this bizarre story for the Knoxville News Sentinel, and we have summarized his research below.

Building a Dam in the ValleyA photo of Abrams Falls, one of the top Cades Cove hiking trails.

To make “Cades Cove Lake” a reality, the National Park Service proposed building a dam close to the present day site of the Abrams Falls trailhead. According to Great Smoky Mountains National Park expert Steve Kemp, the dam “was going to be 60 feet tall and 400 feet long and impound Abrams Creek into a reservoir three miles long and two miles wide.”

It is worth mentioning that this dam scheme wasn’t just a crazy idea thrown out during a brainstorming session. In an interview with the News Sentinel, Kemp noted that the plan for a dam in Cades Cove “was an official proposal” that “came up several times in the 1930s…It came close to happening, too.”

The Reasoning Behind the Dam

While the prospect of damming Cades Cove seems ludicrous in hindsight, it sounded much more reasonable at the time for a number of reasons. Dams were having something of a moment in the 1930s, when thousands of miles of streams and rivers were being turned into reservoirs across the nation. Additionally, the recently established Great Smoky Mountains National Park was taking inspiration from the resort parks found out west, where lakes were a major attraction. “Many thought a lake was the only way to draw visitors to Cades Cove,” said Kemp.

Cades Cove during summerA Roster of High Profile Supporters

The idea of creating a lake in Cades Cove was championed by a number of important people around Tennessee and beyond. Famous supporters of the plan include the aforementioned Governor of Tennessee Gordon Browning, Knoxville Mayor George Dempster, National Park Service Director Arno Cammerer, and the well-known Great Smoky Mountains National Park advocate Col. David Chapman.

Pseudoscience Enters the Debate

One of the strangest arguments made by those in favor of Cades Cove Lake came from some “expert geologists.” According to Steve Kemp, these scientists “argued that Cades Cove once had been covered by water. They claimed to document the old lake level and said the new lake would return Cades Cove to its natural form.” All of this was, of course, pseudoscience, but these wild claims did inform the debate over the dam.

Environmentalists Thwarted the Schemecades cove bear cub

Fortunately for all of us, the plan to dam Cades Cove was never implemented. Despite the vast institutional support for the scheme, a number of environmentalists and their allies in the National Park Service succeeded in stopping the proposed dam from moving forward. Notable opponents of the plan included Harvey Broome, Benton MacKaye, Stephen Mather, and Horace Albright.

Visiting Cades Cove

Although you can’t go waterskiing in Cades Cove, there is plenty to see in this picturesque valley! To start planning your next trip, check out our guide to 5 can’t-miss stops on the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Jason Fishman shares the latest news and travel tips for Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains.