The Wilbur Dam is one of those Carter County treasures that has been around a lot longer than most of us. More than one generation has enjoyed fishing from its banks or sitting in a small boat on its placid waters, enjoying the tranquility of the moment. Its waters when released into the Watauga River crash against the large boulders at the bee cliff, providing adventure to rafters and canoeists. Even in the dog days of summer, the Wilbur remains cool, with a constant breeze blowing through the Watauga River Gorge.
It is the second oldest dam in the TVA system, dating back to 1911 — 100 years ago. At that time there were some idealists, among them John L. Curtis, who saw the Watauga River as a perfect place for a hydro-electric dam, that could generate electricity to a growing community that stretched far beyond Elizabethton.
The dream took root in 1911 with the erection of poles over a 21-mile span from the Horseshoe Dam to Elizabethton. The aluminum transmission lines were completed in May 1911. Later that year, the concrete dam at the Horseshoe was completed and powerhouse machinery was put together and adjusted. According to Frank Merritt’s “Later History of Carter County,” construction of the dam required 119 cars of cement. When completed the dam was 58-1/2 feet at the base, 300 feet long and 55 feet high. It took 17 hours for the river to fill the lake before water began flowing over the dam. John L. Curtis’ dream came true as in December 1911 he pushed the button “flooding Elizabethton with light and power.”
The next year, Saturday, Jan. 20, 1912, at 3:15 p.m., the first power from the Horseshoe Dam to Bristol was produced. According to Merritt’s book it was the first hydro-electric power to be developed in the state of Tennessee. At the dam for that hallmark event were W.E. Hunter of the Watauga Power Company, Harry Grayson from Bristol and Lee F. Miller of Elizabethton. Grayson and Miller spearheaded the movement to fund the hydroelectric project.
Miller, Hunter and Judge W.P. Dungan of People’s Bank sold $150,000 in bonds to Chicago capitalists to finance the construction of the dam. An advertisement said the dam “will generate 2,500 to 3,000 horsepower of electricity — one of the biggest things of its kind in East Tennessee.” Miller and Grayson were also able to raise more capital for the project, which cost in the neighborhood of half a million dollars.
Later that winter in celebration of the event, Merritt noted that a special train of 100 from Bristol, picking up others in Johnson City and Elizabethton, came to the Wilbur Dam. A newspaper recounting the day’s events said, “The people of Elizabethton and Bristol do not yet fully realize the magnitude and importance of this enterprise.”
The dam construction brought jobs to the Horseshoe. It also brought outsiders — Italians, Russians, African-Americans and Yankees — who mingled with the local citizens.
Dan Crowe, in his book, “The Horseshoe People,” noted that the construction of the dam turned the Horseshoe into a boom town. “A sidetrack was built at the dam site, and mule-powered dump carts, steam boilers, cement and men converged on the construction site,” Crowe wrote.
He also noted that selecting a name for the dam became a problem. Local preference called for the dam to be named Horseshoe Dam after the geographic phenomenon which swept through the rocky bottom of a “V” formed by converging mountains at the Watauga River.
The Virginia and Southwestern Railroad Company, which had built a railroad through the community earlier, established a flag station and side-track in the Horseshoe, where they stopped to load logs from a logging operation in the Big Laurel Branch. The logging was being done by Jim Wilbur out of New York, and the railroad in its business correspondence referred to the station as Wilbur Station.
Today, the official name of the dam is Wilbur Dam, but Crowe wrote, “If you ask for directions to the Horseshoe Dam, local people will tell you how to get there.”
Some of the Horseshoe residents who worked on the dam included Jim Carden, who was hired as a water boy. He was paid 50 cents a day in gold. He carried water for a crew of about 12 Russians
Henry Woods, a Spanish-American War veteran, worked as a boiler operator and watchman.
Joe and Bruce Estep operated a hoist on the project. The hoist was used to lift cement from the railroad side-track to the area of construction. You must remember this was before modern day cement mixers and excavation equipment.
Crow notes in his book that one tragic accident marred the construction of the dam. Frozen dynamite had been placed around a fire for thawing. A rock slide scattered the fire onto the dynamite. Henry Wilson, a black man, jarred a stick of dynamite while trying to put out the fire. “The ensuing explosion was so forceful it shook the keys out of doors in the village and blew Henry to pieces. Another man, Frank Sproles, was seriously injured by the explosion. A telephone call was placed to a store in the Hunter community requesting that the train, which had just passed through the Horseshoe be flagged. The engineer uncoupled all cars except the baggage car and backed to the scene of the accident. Sproles was loaded on the baggage car and ‘rushed’ to the hospital,” according to Crowe’s account.
Others who Crowe mentioned that worked at the dam site were “X” Treadway and Little Ollie Collins, who carried coal across the river in cement bags to fire the boilers. Russell Curtis and Ike Estep used a star drill and sledge hammers to set steel supports for splash boards atop the dam.
Frank Crowe started on the project as a water boy and later was made flagman. He left the Horseshoe to serve in World War I. When he came back from the war he was offered a job as an apprentice operator. He later became an operator at the power house.
Only one family was forced to relocate because of the impoundment — the Campbell Nave family lived in an area now covered by water and the company bought their property. They moved up above the would-be lake level to another house on the other side of the lake.
Eventually the power produced by the Wilbur was synchronized with power from the Nolichucky Dam to form the nucleus of the East Tennessee Light and Power Company, a name sometimes synonymous with the Watauga Power Company.
The 1940 flood did extensive damage to Wilbur Dam. The powerhouse was swept away, leaving the generator exposed but usable after a cleanup operation. Soon after the flood, TVA began construction of the Watauga Dam and purchased Wilbur from the East Tennessee Light and Power Company for less than a half million dollars. For an additional $2 million, Little Wilbur was raised by placing steel gates atop the existing dam. The powerhouse was repaired and another generator added. Two hydroelectric generating units were installed when the dam was built and a third added in 1926.
Thus, it all began with the dream of one man, John L. Curtis.