- Historic Sites
The TVA: It Ain't What It Used to Be
What has befallen “the greatest peacetime achievement of twentieth-century America”s since the New Deal
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Roosevelt named H. A. Morgan chairman in 1938 and Lilienthal chairman in 1941. It was Lilienthal’s leadership in the power program during World War n that made TVA a major contributor to national defense. In 1941, before U.S. entry in the war, the Office of Production Management asked TVA to increase its capacity by 100,000 kilowatts of power to enable the expansion of aluminum production for bombers. OPM gave the agency a timetable calling for the new capacity by the winter of 1943, and TVA engineers determined that they could build a required new dam on the French Broad River within that time. At the behest of landowners who would be flooded out, however, Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, held up construction, suggesting other dam sites. Standing by Lilienthal’s principle that “experts as well as rivers have no politics,” the engineers refused to accept alternative locations. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt got a congressional go-ahead, and the engineers set up a “hot line” phone system from Washington to the dam site so that work could begin the moment the President’s pen left the authorizing bill. The agency then completed the dam in thirteen months, setting a new world record for construction speed. Unbeknownst to TVA—although Lilienthal had some privy information—its power would also meet a critical need for the production of the atomic bomb at nearby Oak Ridge. With its power capacity and its production of munitions at Muscle Shoals, TVA’s significant role in the war ultimately helped to silence a larpe number of its critics.
By the end of ig53 the agency had reached many of its original goals. In some respects all that was to happen after that date were finishing touches. While its later accomplishments were still extraordinary, by the end of the first two decades TVA had tamed the river, established a power territory and system, rebuilt the region’s eroded hills, and fulfilled Roosevelt’s hope for an agency that “touches and gives life to all forms of human concerns.”
Following the river system plan devised by Arthur Morgan, the agency had proved that a river could be harnessed for flood control, power generation, navigation, and human uplift all at once—an idea that used to keep the Army Corps of Engineers in stitches over predicted fumblings of the maverick engineer. Thanks to Lilienthal, the agency had won the battle for public power, proving in the process the contested notion that a heavy electrical load and not consumer subsidy of transmission lines was the way to get volume power to neglected rural customers at the lowest price. The debatable conservative approach of TVA’s agriculture programs notwithstanding, H. A. Morgan’s efforts with fertilizers and farmers laid the groundwork for the restoration of valley farms and the chemical secrets of the processes that later produced the international “green revolution.” Altogether it was a remarkable record, doubly so because of its experimental nature and the political odds stacked against it.
In twenty years the agency had built twenty dams on the nation’s fifth largest river, turning the 65o-mile unpredictable and destructive giant into the nation’s most controlled river. At that time the total dam system had cost over $25 million and averted potential flood damage of more than $51 million. In 1952 alone the navigation system had saved barge shippers $10 million at an expense of $3.5 million to the government. Since ig33 the agency had reforested 212,000 acres of land and produced 295 million seedlings in its nursery. Over the same period sixty-eight thousand farmers had allowed their farms to be TVA test demonstration areas to educate them and their neighbors about new farming techniques. Per capita income had risen from 44 per cent of the national average in 1929 to 61 per cent in 1952. Manufacturing employment opportunities had increased 57 per cent faster in the valley than in the nation.
As impressive as the statistics were, they failed to convey the sheer magnitude of the project in the seven-state area of 201 counties. The concrete, rock, and earth laid in the path of the river and its tributaries was twelve times the bulk of the Great Pyramids. The’Volume of water behind its dams could cover the entire state of Illinois to a depth of eight inches. The construction effort at its peak in World War n had required forty-two thousand employees. But more importantly—and surprisingly—an agency that had had a vague mandate to “sell the surplus power not used in its operations” had by its twentieth year become the nation’s largest utility, selling power at the lowest possible prices to a people who in 1933 had had almost no knowledge of the electric age. By 1953 the agency’s customers were consuming twice as much power as their national counterparts.