6The first known use of the name "Fontana" in this area came with the lumber barons. Among the first was the Montvale Lumber Company in 1890. The lumbermen of this company, after scouting the forest for the finest timber, pitched a few tents on the Swain County side of the Little Tennessee River, and set to work with a will. Among these first industrial pioneers was the late Mrs. George Leidy Wood, of New York, wife of the executive Vice-President of the Montvale Lumber Company. She spent a great deal of time in this lumber camp and fell in love with the beauty of the area. She and her husband felt the camp should have a name, and it was she who suggested the name "Fontana." And so it was named according to lore and mountain legend from this pioneering era in the southwestern Smokies.

5The second village by this name was constructed by the Montvale Company, and was located further up on Eagle Creek. It was built in 1907 and was situated near the then productive copper mines. This was no tent town, but a complete and charming community. This early incarnation of Fontana boasted a modern school building, a medical service center, a community church, even a Fontana Hotel. With the extension of the standard gauge railroad from Bushnell, fifteen miles away, by the Southern Railroad, the rapid schedule of industry had really come to the Great Smokies. Now a small building proudly wore the sign: U.S. POST OFFICE - FONTANA, N.C.

3In time, the United States Government took a long look at the lumber companies operating and multiplying throughout the Smokies and decided their vast extent had begun to take on the look of "exploitation and mutilation" of our forests. Through an Act of Congress, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established. One large, permanently organized lumber company, the Bemis Hardwood Lumber Company, Inc., was allowed to continue its operation, with headquarters in Robbinsville. When the lumbering business was cut drastically by the formation of the National Park, Fontana began its third life - that of a mining town. The copper mines on Eagle Creek were employing at that time more than 100 experienced miners, working three shifts, day and night. Copper ore was abundant and the Southern Railroad hauled great carloads of ore to the smelters at Copper Town, Tennessee. A strange destiny awaited this third Fontana. December 7, 1941, that "Day of Infamy," stunned the nation. The Federal Government ordered that mining interests on Eagle Creek in western North Carolina be terminated immediately.
2With that order came a notice that the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was on its way to Graham County. Already a legislative Act had authorized the construction of a gigantic hydro-electric power dam on the Little Tennessee River, in the Great Smoky Mountains. The location of this project, one of the largest engineering feats in history, was to be on land already acquired from the Aluminum Company of America. The purchase agreement stipulated that the new dam was to be named "Fontana." In January 1942 more than 6,000 officials and workmen had converged on this mountain region, almost before the miners on Eagle Creek could realize the sudden turn of events, settle their rights and liabilities, and vacate their homes. In only a few days the work schedule was established, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the 480-foot-high concrete dam, designed to harness the floodwaters of the Little Tennessee into a 30-mile, deep-water lake was begun. The forces of the river were converted into the production of atomic energy, and into multiple uses for the good of the nation. Even as the last of the miners moved away the lake was already deepening against the cleared mountainsides.
4Even as the third incarnation of the town was disappearing beneath the new reservoir, the fourth Fontana had had already sprung up across the river in a historic and picturesque spot, rimmed with mountains, called Welch Cove. This was a completely new and modern town hastily planned and equipped, to house the builders of Fontana Dam. 6,000 people, officials, supervisors, engineers, and workmen moved into the sprawling construction camp equipped with large community and recreation buildings, modern dwellings, cafeterias, a large hospital, a large school, a sizeable theater, and churches. This fourth Fontana Village was a thriving metropolis, drawing the attention of the world. By January of 1945 the first power-producing unit was in operation, though all construction work in connection with the dam, powerhouse, observation buildings, etc. was not yet completed.
1As the dam reached completion, only a few inhabitants remained to operate the dam. Now the TVA officials in Washington were faced with a dilemma- what to do with the tremendous layout of community services that had been constructed for the benefit of those thousands employed in the construction of the dam. For by 1945 this, the world's fourth largest hydro-electric power dam, stood two miles to the east of a large road sign warning, "No Beyond." A nine-mile paved spur connected the area with U.S. Hwy 129 to the west and already, a million visitors a year were coming to see this great wonder of the times. Fontana Dam was completed at a cost of $70,420,688.48 and the gates closed on November 11, 1944. Two generating units were placed in operation on January 20, 1945, in time to provide crucial energy for aluminum production in the closing months of World War II. Over 40,000 acres along Fontana Lake's north shore were eventually transferred to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and several thousand acres along the south shore were transferred to the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Nantahala National Forest.

The builders of the Fontana Dam construction camp decided that the Gunter Log Cabin in the center of the camp should be preserved, for its historical value to the community. It was in 1875 that Jesse Gunter decided he would leave home in Stecoah and come to Welch Cove to visit his brother Cyrene. It wasn't far "as the crow flies," but by foot or ox-team, it could as well have been across the continent. There were still a few old Indian trails left to follow, but nothing in the way of a road. Like many others since, Jesse Gunter lost his heart to Welch Cove, and decided then and there that here was where he would bring up his family. So back he went to Stecoah, loaded his wife, Catherine, and their children onto an ox-sled, along with their meager belongings, his axe and his rifle, and set out to cut his way back to this new and promising land. In time he constructed his story-and-a-half log house in Welch Cove, two rooms with a full-size loft above, acres for a yard, a rail fence rambling all around. Jesse took great pride in that house, and built it carefully. He had to select and cut his trees, scale and cut them carefully, rive and notch them, smooth them - a great deal of work, indeed!

 

Take a video tour of the history of Fontana Village here.

Fontana Village Resort | 300 Woods Road • P.O. Box 68 | Fontana Dam, North Carolina 28733
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