It is relatively common knowledge in this part of the country that the rugged gorge encasing the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River was almost dammed at the Devils Jump rapid near Blue Heron; that much of the 125,000 acres of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area was almost underwater as part of a lake that would have rivaled Norris and Dale Hollow to the east and west.
It is perhaps easy to forget that the Devils Jump Dam was just one of two that were proposed for the Big South Fork region. The second was much further upstream, where Clear Fork and New River come together to form the Big South Fork River.
The so-called Helenwood Dam would have been located at the “Forks of the River,” as it’s known locally, and would have impounded both New River and Clear Fork.
The idea of damming the Big South Fork dated back to the 1930s, and was at least partially owed to the devastating floods that swept through the region in the 1920s. There is still a picture floating around that shows U.S. Hwy. 27’s New River Bridge underwater in the 1927 flood, which was the greatest on record in the Big South Fork region.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a survey in 1929, from which a report was released: “Cumberland River Survey for Navigation, Flood Control, Power Development and Irrigation.” The report proposed to dam the river at Devils Jump for the purpose of both flood control and generating hydroelectric power.
Even as the report was being prepared, however, the great stock market crash of 1929 occurred, launching the Great Depression. Four years later, as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Tennessee Valley Authority was created. Its specific purpose was flood control and hydroelectric power production on the Tennessee River. A more broad goal was to improve lives in the Tennessee Valley, which had been hard-hit by the Depression.
That move might have ultimately saved the Big South Fork from being flooded, as the TVA-versus-Corps of Engineers became a political issue, with the TVA attempting to seize control of damming projects on the Cumberland River.
Four years after that, the Cumberland National Forest was established in Kentucky, from lands acquired from the Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. It would later be renamed the Daniel Boone National Forest. Together, along with the U.S. being pulled into World War II, those events staved off any action on the Corps of Engineers’ proposal to dam the Big South Fork at Blue Heron.
The issue wasn’t quite dead in the water, however. As early as 1946, almost immediately after the war ended, dams at Devils Jump and Helenwood were again discussed, though no action was taken. In the late 1950s, the Corps of Engineers took up the issue again. A study published in 1958 suggested two alternatives for dams. One would be a single dam at Devils Jump, which would impound all 29 miles of the BSF River between the confluence and Blue Heron, as well as 16 miles of Clear Fork and 37 miles of New River.
The second alternative was to build two dams: One at Devils Jump, and a smaller dam at the Forks of the River. The river confluence had first been identified as a possible location of a dam by studies conducted in the 1930s.
Had the dams been built, Scott County would look much different today. At a minimum, New River would have been impounded all the way to Smokey Junction, while Clear Fork would have been impounded as far upstream as Peter’s Ford, west of Rugby.
Congressman Howard H. Baker Sr., a Huntsville Republican, was a strong advocate of damming the river. But public sentiment was decidedly against it. And while the U.S. Senate appropriated money for a dam at Devils Jump on five different occasions, the matter consistently failed in the House of Representatives.
Ironically, perhaps, it was Baker’s son — U.S. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. — who was instrumental in the creation of the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area as an alternative to flooding the region. The elder Baker died unexpectedly after suffering a heart attack in January 1964. His wife, Irene Bailey Baker, finished out his term in Congress. Two years later, his son was elected to the Senate.
Baker Sr. “was always in favor (of the dams) and the Tennessee and Kentucky delegations repeatedly entered legislation to authorize construction,” Sen. Baker later said. “By the time I was elected to the Senate it seemed clear to me that was not going anywhere.”
Early on in Baker’s Senate tenure, a meeting took place between the Tennessee and Kentucky delegations — Baker, Sen. Al Gore Sr., Sen. John Cooper and Sen. Thruston Morton. Together, the men decided there was “no realistic chance” of getting funds appropriated to build the dam, and decided to shift their focus.
So, the Corps of Engineers was tasked with pursuing a different study: identifying a way to manage the Big South Fork River without damming it.
“That really was the beginning of the Big South Fork park,” Baker said. “When we agreed to do that, others, mostly because they were happy to not have to tell us no on the dam appropriations, decided it was a good idea and we passed a resolution asking for the study by the Army Corps of Engineers. That was the beginning.”
While the public had heavily opposed damming the river, not everyone was in favor of a national park, though most were. In fact, there was some significant opposition. Chief among the opponents: The Stearns Coal & Lumber Co. While the Stearns company had donated several thousands of acres of land to Tennessee for the establishment of Pickett State Forest, and had sold tens of thousands of acres more to the federal government for the Daniel Boone National Forest, the company still owned a lot of land in Tennessee — lands that weren’t yet depleted of their natural resources; lands that would be impacted by the creation of a new national park.
It created a bit of a predicament for Baker, who had represented the company as its legal counsel.
“(I was) absolutely floored when they indicated to me that they thought this was a bad idea, but they did,” Baker said.
But Baker didn’t budge.
“I said, thank you for your views, but that is not what we are going to do,” Baker said.
The Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area was America’s first National Park Service unit to combine both a national river and a national recreation area. National rivers are strictly protected while national recreation areas have somewhat relaxed restrictions to allow for the development of recreational opportunities.
The Big South Fork NRRA was first authorized by Congress in 1973, but was vetoed by President Richard Nixon. However, the legislation passed again in 1974, and this time it was final.
In an unusual move, the creation of the Big South Fork NRRA was assigned to the Corps of Engineers rather than the National Park Service. The reason? According to Baker, the Senate’s Public Works Committee had jurisdiction over the Corps of Engineers, while the Interior Committee had jurisdiction over the NPS. The legislation establishing the BSF couldn’t clear the Interior Committee but it could clear the Public Works Committee.
So, in what is believed to be the first and only time a national park was created in such a legislative manner, the Corps of Engineers was tasked by Congress with purchasing the lands in and around the BSF gorge and establishing a new national river and recreation area. It wasn’t until 1991 that the National Park Service took over management of the Big South Fork from the Corps of Engineers.
The Big South Fork’s enabling legislation specifically mentioned that the purpose of the new NPS unit was to “preserve as a natural free-flowing stream the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, major portions of its Clear Fork and New River stems, and portions of their various tributaries for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations, the preservation of the natural integrity of the scenic gorges and valleys and the development of the area’s potential for healthful outdoor recreation.”
That’s quite a different approach from what was long considered: damming the river and flooding the gorge. Fortunately, an alternative plan prevailed. While most would agree that lakes are nice, there are major lakes found within an hour’s drive of Scott County in all four directions — Norris to the east, Dale Hollow to the west, Lake Cumberland to the north and Watts Bar to the south.
However, there is only one Big South Fork.