Trailering Magazine Archives - Destinations

The Waters of Watts Bar - Lake Tennessee

It is the largest of the nine reservoirs operated by the Tennessee Valley Authority, running more than 72 miles from Watts Bar Dam northeast to Ft. Loudon Dam. Built as part of the New Deal to put people back to work during the Great Depression, these TVA projects were the center of the largest hydroelectric project in the country. Today, the five power-generating units inside Watts Bar Dam providing electricity are one of 29 hydroelectric power plants in the TVA system.

"In comparison to other inland lakes, Watts Bar has a history," says Al Alexander, assistant manager of West Marine's Knoxville store. "You'll see old road beds that come out of the hills and go into the water and old railroad trestles." This was all part of the Tennessee River until 1939 when TVA went to work creating reservoirs and power plants. Watts Bar Dam and Ft. Loudon Dam to the north created the huge lake, which now has more than 783 miles of shoreline.

"You can come out of our cove (Cane Creek) watching the depth finder," says Blue Spring Marina owner Larry Steidle, "and though we have plenty of water (30 feet), you'll see where there are parts of a trestle bridge you'll pass over. This was part of the area before the dam was built."

"The Prettiest"
Watts Bar Lake continues to be a destination for Trailering Club Members Elliott and Joan Free from Cullman, Alabama. "We have cruised on Watts Bar about five times," says Elliot, who owns an insurance company and, when not writing policies, is usually on the water (or the road) with his 26-foot Grady White powered by twin 150-hp Yamaha outboards. "If you are cruising upstream and exit Watts Bar Lock and Dam, you instantly notice the scenic Cumberland Mountains in the distance. Many boaters consider Watts Bar Lake the prettiest of the Tennessee River impoundments because the shoreline is relatively undeveloped."

In just the past few months, the Tennessee Valley Authority Board of Governors adopted a new land use plan and in doing so, refused to sell 1,700 acres of Watts Bar land for residential development. The issue isn't over but TVA has been aggressive in trying to maintain the rural atmosphere around the lake's 783-mile shoreline.

Lying equidistant between Knoxville (to the north) and Chattanooga (to the south), Watts Bar isn't the "go-to" lake for boaters from these cities. "Both Chattanooga and Knoxville have a Tennessee River lake closer to them, which greatly reduces the boating pressure that could otherwise occur on Watts Bar," observes Elliott Free.

"This lake is undiscovered," says Larry Steidle of Blue Springs Marina located at the midpoint on the lake's eastern shore (Mile Marker 547.5-for reference, Watts Bar Dam at the southern end of the lake is Mile Marker 529.9 and Ft. Loudon Dam at the top of the lake is at Mile Marker 602.5). "Four lakes border it but so much of the land remains undeveloped, though we have a lot of folks from places like Ohio and Michigan building homes in the area. It's growing fast, though."

The Islands
It's an inland lake but the islands make Watts Bar unique. "When this lake was flooded in 1942, the rugged terrain with mountain hollows and valleys was transformed into deep coves for beautiful gunk-holing," observes Elliott Free. "There are uneven shorelines and rocky islands with names like 'Thief Neck,' 'Half Moon' and 'Iron Hill.' That's what makes Watts Bar different from the more regularly shaped, pond-like lakes downstream."

Thief Neck Island is a Tennessee Wildlife Preserve at about Mile Marker 551 at its southern point. Larry Steidle always suggests a trip there when boaters ask for suggested Watts Bar lake destinations. "It's about three miles around and is at the widest part of the lake. It's all wilderness and if you do some hiking, you'll discover a small lake inland. You can beach the boat and just spend the day wandering the little trails, seeing deer, eagles and all kinds of wildlife."

Both Half Moon and Iron Hill islands are south of Thief Neck and, though much smaller, can be good stopping-off and anchoring areas. Iron Hill is just offshore of the Euchee Marina (Mile Marker 539.9) while Half Moon will be seen coming out of Blue Springs Marina and Cane Creek.

Blue Springs Marina has a two-lane boat ramp (there is no cost) and plenty of parking. Elliot Free has brought his boat there for an overnight slip and gives good reviews to the restaurant.

A Daytrip
At Mile Marker 568 is Kingston, where the Clinch River merges with the Tennessee. By boat you'll see Ft. Southwest Point which was built in 1797 to house troops sent to make peace with less-than-enthusiastic (and trusting) Cherokee Indians. Ten years later, an agreement was reached with the Cherokees about what land would be given to the settlers, provided Kingston was made the capital of Tennessee. When the document was signed, the Tennessee General Assembly came to Kingston, held one day of official business and made arrangements to meet the rest of their term in Knoxville. The existing fort is built on the site of the original Ft. Southwest Point.

One can cruise past Kingston along the Clinch River and connect with the Emory River just a few miles northeast of the Interstate 40 Bridge. The town of Harriman (population 6,700) has a city park where docking is allowed, and you'll pass some magnificent rock cliffs on one side of the river. It is interesting to note that activists in the Temperance Movement founded Harriman. Their elegant and very Victorian American Temperance University building recently observed its centennial. In 1993, liquor was finally allowed to be sold in Harriman. The building is now Harriman City Hall.

Looking at Locking Through
Because commercial traffic uses the Tennessee River (and these reservoirs) as part of the continuous waterway channel between Paducah, Kentucky and Mobile, Alabama (Ohio River to Tennessee River to Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway to Mobile Bay), a series of locks are found at each of the 9 TVA dams. "Locking through," as it's called, can be a tense time in some places but not at Watts Bar Lake.

"Follow the lockmaster instructions," advises Al Alexander of West Marine Knoxville. "The most valuable tool you can have on this lake is the VHF radio. As you approach the lock, contact the lockmaster (Tennessee River lockmasters monitor Channels 16 and 13, 24 hours/day). You'll be asked to switch to another channel, usually 14. Identify your boat, the size and the direction you are traveling. They may ask you to circle for a while in order to accommodate other boats or traffic going the opposite direction. Watts Bar Dam and Lock has a 58.5-foot drop (or rise) while Ft. Loudon Dam and Lock has one of the largest at 83 feet. If you prefer, all the lake maps have a phone number for each lock and we have them here at West Marine."

One who knows the procedures all too well is Jim Mowrey who has been "locking through" recreational and commercial boaters at Watts Bar Dam for 29 years. "If you're a first-timer, let us know," he advises. "Have your bumpers out on the side you are instructed to tie to and you'll be directed into the lock and told to tie onto one of a few floating yellow tanks (also called "ballards"). Center your boat on the ballard and have a boathook nearby to keep the boat parallel to the wall. You'll do fine."

"Watts Bar Lake is a great melting pot of people. You'll find doctors and you'll find retired folks and you'll find young families and factory workers and when they're on their boats on the water, everybody gets along-well, usually," laughs Larry Steidle."

As for Elliott and Joan Free? Well, they're planning another trip to Watts Bar Lake.

West Marine, 7812 Kingston Pike Knoxville, TN 865-690-9744

Blue Springs Marina,
(Mile Marker 547.5) 866-376-7298
www.bluespringsmarina.com

Kingston, TN www.kingstontn.org

Watts Bar Lake www.wattsbarlakeinfo.com

Hydroelectric power operates by the release of water that turns as many as five turbines at Watts Bar Dam. The Tennessee Valley Authority is installing an automated warning system at several of its hydroelectric plants (including Watts Bar). When the dam is going to be opened:

- Sirens will be activated both upstream as well as downstream of the dam. When you hear this, quickly move away from the dam.
- Prior to the gates opening, strobe lights will begin flashing.
- There are three buoys with the words "Danger Dam" across both the upstream and downstream sides of Watts Bar (this is also the case at Ft. Loudon Dam).