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J. Strom Thurmond Dam and Lake



The following is from the book “History of the Savannah District, 1829 – 1989” by Henry E. Barber and Allen R. Gann, published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Savannah District, 1989, pp. 419 – 434. Please note that some changes have been added to the below information to bring it up to date – these changes are in italics. This book is available for checkout at a number of local libraries.

The first District Engineer in the Savannah office, Lieutenant Oberlin M. Carter, stated in an 1890 survey report that the flood problem in Augusta could be solved only through a system of restraining reservoirs created by dams constructed on the upper tributaries of the Savannah River. This recommendation went unheeded, however, until the 1927 Rivers and Harbors Act authorized the Corps of Engineers to investigate existing and prospective development on various streams throughout the nation for purposes of navigation, power development, flood control, and irrigation. This authorization was embodied in House Document 308, 69th Congress, 1st session. Therefore, the reports submitted to Congress as a result of the act generally were known as the "308 reports?' The Savannah District Engineer completed such a report on the entire Savannah River Basin May 1933. This document recommended against any US. Government flood control project for the river. Two locations, however, were proposed as likely sites for future power dams in the upper Savannah River Basin: Clark Hill and Hartwell1.

The Clark Hill Project

The multipurpose dam and reservoir project for the Clark Hill site was not authorized until 1944, but interest had been kept alive through the efforts of Augusta community leaders such as Lester Moody, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce; Dick Allen, Mayor of Augusta; Tom Hamilton, Editor of the Augusta Chronicle; and other members of the Savannah River Improvement Commission. In May 1935 Colonel Creswell Garlington, District Engineer, invited these men to Savannah to discuss the Savannah River development. Garlington told the group that they should press their case by tying navigation improvements, flood control, and power together and focusing on the Clark Hill site as the location for a dam that would accomplish these objectives2.

The Augusta delegation, impressed with the District Engineer's suggestion, went to Norfolk to enlist the aid of Division Engineer, Earl I. Brown. On recommendation, the group then met twice with General Edwin M. Markham, Chief of Engineers. After securing the support of Georgia Senators F. George and Richard Russell and of Congressman Paul Brown of the Congressional District, they approached the President himself. On 8 August 1935after several months of document preparation and project analysis, President Roosevelt appointed a special board to investigate the possibility of constructing the Clark Hill and other proposed dams north of Augusta. In October a public hearing was held in Augusta. The findings from this meeting were forwarded to the President in February 1937. As a result of all of this action and interest, the Committee on Commerce of the U.S. Senate passed a resolution on 1 November 1938 that called on the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors to review the 308 Report on the Savannah River “with a view to determining the advisability of constructing a reservoir on the Savannah River at the site known as Clark Hill for the development of hydroelectric power" as well as for aiding navigation of the river below Augusta and "for other beneficial effects.”3 The review, conducted by the Savannah District office, was submitted through the Board of Engineers for Rivers and Harbors and the Secretary of War to the Committee on Commerce on 22 Apri11939. Although World War II diverted the nation's attention from this and other civil works projects, the Augusta group retained their vision for the development of the Savannah River Basin.4

The next comprehensive study of the upper basin was completed in 1943. The report that resulted from this survey was included in House Document 657, 78th Congress, 2d session, and was based on authorization that predated the war.5 Colonel Peter A. Feringa, the District Engineer who was responsible for the study, reported that the Savannah River Basin offered an exceptional opportunity for developing multipurpose projects and that the best plan for developing the water resources of the basin would start with the construction of the Clark Hill development, to include a full power pool of 335 feet above mean sea level. The District Engineer went on to recommend that the Clark Hill project should be followed, in order, by the Hartwell, the Goat Island, and the Middleton N Shoals Dams on the Savannah River; the Camp Creek, the Rogues Ford, the, Sand Bottom, and the War Woman Dams on the Chattooga River; the Tallow Hill and Anthony Shoals Dams on the Broad River; and possibly, in the distant future, dams at the Newry-Old Pickens site on the upper Seneca River.6 The report added that other advantages such as reduction of dredging costs in Savannah Harbor; reduction of saltwater intrusion into the lower reaches of the  river; and benefits to recreation, wildlife, and general industrial development could be expected from constructing this system of dams. Flood control, navigation improvement, and power development remained, however, the primary justifications for the projects. This general plan for developing the upper Savannah River Basin was approved, and construction of the Clark Hill Dam was authorized in Public Law 534, 78th Congress, passed on 22 December 1944, The Clark Hill Reservoir, the first of the multipurpose projects to be completed in the comprehensive river basin development plan, is approximately 22 , miles above Augusta. The project report, completed in May 1946, called for the dam to have a total length of 5,682 feet, including a concrete section 2,282 feet long flanked on either end by earthen embankments. The height of the concrete dam was planned for 200 feet. A 1,096-foot spillway was to span the main river channel. The spillway would be topped by 23 tainter gates, each 40 feet long by 35 feet high, which could be opened to release water from the reservoir pool. The plan called for a reservoir with a maximum elevation of 335 feet above mean sea level. The top five feet of this maximum pool would be used for flood control, and the pool between elevation 305 and 330 was planned for power generation. When completed, this would be one of the largest inland bodies of water in the South.7 The reservoir impounded by the dam would extend 39.4 miles up the Savannah River and would have a surface area of 78,500 acres. The shoreline would be approximately 1,200 miles long.8

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Construction at the Clark Hill site began on 1 August 1946 with the letting of a contract for the access railroad. That same year, a contract was let for diverting the river from its normal channel, and in 1947 construction of the first-stage cofferdam in the original channel began. Both east and west earth embankments were partially constructed and a temporary bridge to carry vehicular and rail traffic was erected across the river downstream from the dam site. During 1946 and 1947, sub-surface seismic exploration of foundation conditions and of the quarry site was also in progress. An excellent quality of granite was found within one mile of the dam, and a later decision to manufacture fine aggregate and sand from the same granite material allowed for close control of the quality of the concrete used in the dam construction.9 The contract for the dam was awarded in November 1947. The construction plant for this work, costing $2.5 million, was completed by October 1948. The plant consisted of quarrying facilities, primary and secondary crushers, a systern of conveyors for transporting the aggregate in its various gradations, and a concrete mixing plant capable of producing 200 cubic yards of concrete per hour. Three revolving gantry cranes with 125-foot booms capable of placing a four-yard concrete bucket anywhere within the area of construction were mounted on a steel trestle erected parallel to the axis of the dam.10   

The composition of the concrete to be used in the dam was researched extensively to find the right "recipe" for providing maximum strength. This was necessary because the dam was designed as a gravity-type structure in which the weight of the dam is always greater than the weight of the water pushing against it. To prevent the concrete in the dam from cracking from pressure and weather conditions, the "setting" process had to be controlled rigidly. In order to reduce the heat of hydration within the mixture during the curing stage, ice was used in the concrete mix. The ice was provided by two compressors capable of producing 150 tons of ice daily. In another effort to achieve maximum strength, 20 percent natural cement was mixed with typical portland cement, sand and gravel from local granite material, and air entraining agents. William T. Neelands, the Engineer technician in charge of this phase of construction, was considered an expert in masonry construction.11

After completion of the cofferdam on the Georgia side of the river, the rock bed of the channel was excavated and prepared, and the first concrete was placed in October 1948. By the following May, initial construction of the spillway section had been completed. The second-stage cofferdam then was constructed, restoring the river to its original channel where it flowed through the eight sluiceways provided in the spillway section. Construction operations moved to the South Carolina side of the river.12

When work was to begin behind the second-stage cofferdam, the Engineers discovered a fault in the rock bed of the river. After thorough investigation, it was determined that satisfactory foundation conditions could be obtained by inserting concrete into the fault under pressure. Concrete operations on the main dam, however, were not resumed until January 1950, in part because of the nationwide steel strike in the fall of 1949. By November 1950, the intake section of the dam, which would service the powerhouse, was near completion. The spillway crest was completed by July 1951, and work had been started on raising the concrete piers for the tainter gate installations.13

Meanwhile, contracts for the main generating units were placed in the summer of 1949, and a contract for the construction of the powerhouse was awarded in October 1950. Each of the generators required 32 railroad cars to transport it to the site.14  The downstream arm of the second-stage cofferdam had been left in place to facilitate construction of the powerhouse. Because of a shortage of materials due to the military requirements of the Korean conflict, this phase of the project lagged from its beginning. However, by July 1952 the powerhouse was 60 percent completed.15  The first generating unit was operating by November 1952, and the first electrical power from the dam was transmitted to South Carolina in January 1953.16 Six remaining units went into operation between February 1953 and July 1954.17 At that time the project was considered be complete at a cost of almost $78.5 million.18 The estimated cost of the entire project at its inception in 1944 had been $35.3 million. The work on the Clark Hill project, however, was not without problems. Perhaps the most serious of these was the dispute between the Corps of Engineers and private power corporations in the fall of 1946. The events leading to the conflict began as early as 7 August 1928, when the Federal Power Commission issued Permit No.798 to the Savannah River Electric Company, a subsidiary of the Georgia Power Company, for the construction, operation, and maintenance of a hydroelectric project at the Clark Hill Dam site. In 1932, because of the depressed economy and a consequent lack of demand for electric power, the company surrendered its license. As already noted, in 1935 a group of representatives from Augusta and the Augusta Chamber of Commerce began negotiations with the Corps of Engineers for the development of the Savannah River Basin. Before pursuing their objectives in Washington, D.C., however, is group met with the President of the Savannah River Electric Company, P.S. Arkwright. He assured the group that his company had no desire to revive plans for a hydroelectric plant at the Clark Hill site. Mr. Arkwright "pledged his cooperation and stated that his company would be interested in purchasing the power at the switchboard if and when the project was completed.”19   Moreover, he expressed willingness to cooperate again on 2 October 1935 at a hearing in Augusta before the special board that had been appointed by President Roosevelt to investigate the Savannah River Basin project. The Corps of Engineers then began to develop the project as discussed earlier.

In August 1946 the preliminary work on the Clark Hill project was halted by President Truman's freeze order in response to the depressed economic conditions following World War II. Taking advantage of this situation, the Savannah River Electric Company applied for a renewal of its license to build the plant.20   This action introduced the issue of whether the Government or private corporations could best provide electric power for public consumption. During October and November 1946, the Federal Power Commission held public hearings in Atlanta relating to the power company's application. Perhaps not coincidentally, President Truman lifted his freeze order on the Clark Hill construction funds, and work was resumed in late November under the direction of the Corps of Engineers.21 In January 1947 the Federal Power Commission ruled " against renewing the power company's license, and the way seemed clear for the government's construction of the dam.

Undaunted, however, the Georgia Power Company secured the support of Representative George A. Dondero of Michigan, chairman of the House Committee on Public Works. Congressman Dondero introduced a bill that would have authorized and directed the Federal Power Commission “to grant a license to the Savannah River Electric Company to construct, own, operate, and maintain the powerhouse of the Clark Hill Reservoir Project.”22 This would have allied the power company with the Corps of Engineers. The Engineers would build the dam and reservoir, and the power company would be responsible for the powerhouse. The bill subsequently was defeated, but the debate continued for almost two years. In January 1949 the Georgia Power Company finally announced that it would no longer fight for control of the power produced by the Clark Hill and other river basin projects.23

The Corps of Engineers also encountered some difficulty in acquiring the necessary land for the reservoir basin as power companies challenged the Government's condemnation procedures. In December 1946 the Savannah River Electric Company lost a court case when a Federal judge ordered that 1,532 acres of company land be turned over to the Government for Federal development of the project.24 In March 1947 this court order was challenged in U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The company claimed that the December order was unconstitutional because the action had been taken before any condemnation papers had been served. Company officials also argued that the land in question was part of a much larger tract that had a value for hydroelectric development of more than $2 million, and that Federal possession of the land at the dam site would destroy the value of the entire tract.25 Eventually, this conflict was settled in favor of the Corps of Engineers, and the entire 164,OOO-acre area was acquired.

Another controversy arose over the Corps policy related to basin clearing. The original plan was that all vegetation below the full 330-foot power pool would be cut, stacked, and burned. After the first contracts went out for bids, however, the Engineers developed a policy of “selective clearing”. This modified policy, adopted to save time and money, was applied to similar projects nationwide.26 Residents of the Savannah River Basin area, however, cited the possibility of an outbreak of malaria and expressed concern about the deterioration of the recreational value of the lake.  As a result of this local opposition to the new policy, the clearing procedure was changed again to provide for total clearing of timber in the fluctuating water zone and topping of trees several feet below water level in the minimum water pool.27 Archaeological explorations and the relocation of people, cemeteries, and roads were other problems that had to be solved before water could be impounded in the basin behind the completed dam. These were dealt with simultaneously with the construction of the dam.

In addition to providing power benefits, the Clark Hill project was designed to reduce floods on the Savannah River and to increase depths for navigation in the river below Augusta. The regulated flow from Clark Hill Lake substantially benefits the authorized 9-foot navigation channel on the river below Augusta by reducing the cost of both construction and maintenance and by reducing the sediment carried into Savannah Harbor by as much as 22 percent.28

The Clark Hill project also is estimated to prevent flood damages in unleveed areas at and below Augusta of approximately $185,000 annually. For instance, it reduced the height of the March 1964 flood from 38 feet to 25 feet at Augusta, where the flood stage is 32 feet.29

The 1944 legislation authorizing the construction of the Clark Hill project also provided that the Corps of Engineers was empowered “to construct, maintain, and operate public park and recreational facilities in reservoir areas under the control of the War Department.”30 For the first time the Corps was in the business of providing recreation facilities, and the Clark Hill development involved this new function.  In November 1948 public meetings were held in Lincolnton, Georgia, and in McCormick, South Carolina, to acquire community input into developing a recreational plan for the basin.31 At these meetings Colonel Paschal Strong, Savannah District Engineer, announced that Corps policy was to work closely with local interests. He further stated that it was incumbent on state or local governmental agencies to develop and manage the public parks, subject to the approval of the Corps of Engineers; that participation by local, state, and other governmental agencies would determine the number of facilities provided; and that any plans were subject to final approval, by the Chief of Engineers. Under these conditions and with considerable local involvement, an initial plan for recreation and conservation was developed for Clark Hill. More recently, The Water Resources Development Act of 1986, Section 864, added recreation and fish and wildlife management as project purposes for Clarks Hill.32The first Clark Hill recreation facilities were constructed between 1946 and 1954, coincidental with completion of the dam. The lake, one of the largest inland bodies of water in the South, has been a popular site for fishing, boating, camping, picnicking, and other forms of recreation. Because of the lake's popularity and the public-use legislation passed during the 1960s and 1970s, the Savannah District consistently has tried to provide numerous facilities for use by the general public. By 1989 many of these facilities were nearly 35 years old and in need of major repair or rehabilitation.32A program was underway to close and consolidate many of the small, isolated recreation areas to better use existing funds and manpower. Several over-used, rundown recreation areas were revamped to provide some of the finest day-use facilities found in any Corps of Engineers civil works projects, and by 1989, 37 of the 53 recreation areas on the lake were operated by the Corps. Public response to these improved camping sites, picnic sites, shelters, and restroom facilities was very favorable.33 Sanitary facilities in nine areas, water and electrical hookups in eight campgrounds, and additional support facilities such as playgrounds and sanitary fish-cleaning stations also were planned.34

Through leasing and licensing, the Corps also provided reservoir lands for recreational development by club groups, private organizations, and governmental bodies at city, county, and state levels. This program is administered by the Corps Natural Resources Manager and is governed by the Lakeshore Management Plan. As of 1989, the Resource Manager controlled approximately 1,500 permits/licenses.35

The Lakeshore Management Plan for Clark Hill Lake was approved in April 1983 and superseded the interim plan, which had been used since June 1976. The final plan provided a framework for fulfilling both present and future demands as well as for assuring maximum benefits to the public.  The permit/licensure program administered under this plan allowed adjacent property owners to install and use boat docks, walkways, utility lines, and other minor private facilities.

Two problems emerged in connection with the management program at Clark Hill.  The first related to serious erosion on the South Carolina shoreline as a result of wave action against the shore caused by sustained strong westerly winds. Some land had eroded as much as three feet per year affecting both public and private property.36 Homeowners, private marinas, and local businesses asked the Corps of Engineers for assistance in constricting breakwaters to halt erosion. The primary solution, constructing riprap along the shoreline cost approximately $100 per linear foot of shoreline. The District had no authority to spend federal monies to protect private property, however, and in most cases it was more economical to purchase the property than to try to stop the erosion. Property owners generally have opposed this solution.

The other problem concerned the passage of Public Law 97-140 in 1982. This law hampered efforts to manage the Lakeshore for the maximum benefit of the public because many previously authorized private facilities that were scheduled for phase-out or removal from the public lands were permitted to remain until January 1990. These facilities included mobile homes, private roads, docks, and ramps. Public Law 97-140 also made it difficult to explain to adjacent property owners why they were denied new permits for these facilities while their neighbors may maintain them.

In 1980, in addition to private club and quasi-public facilities, the Clark Hill project had 70 developed public-use areas.37 Georgia and South Carolina leased reservoir lands for intensive wildlife management. These areas provided turkey, deer, quail, dove, duck, and other small-game hunting in season. The Corps of Engineers also improved the habitat for deer and turkey on reservoir lands, and provided protected fields for doves and ponds for ducks. The maintenance of approximately 125 permanent wildlife food plot areas for quail and doves was one of the most beneficial and time-consuming activities at Clark Hill. The District also completed a 20-acre manmade impoundment near the headwaters of Fishing Creek, Georgia, which can be drained and planted in the summer and then flooded in winter to provide an abundant food supply for ducks visiting the area. Bluebirds also benefit from nesting boxes erected on selected sites in the public recreation area.38

A wild turkey restoration project has been established at Bussey Point wilderness area on the lake. It is a cooperative endeavor of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Georgia Wild Turkey Federation, and 7 private landowners. This 2,500-acre peninsula in Lincoln County, provided by the Corps, is managed to provide wildlife habitat under a "National Forest" management concept. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Game Management Division, and the Corps are responsible for general management of the project with the State agency responsible for the trapping of excess birds.39

The Bussey Point area came under some controversy in 1986 when the Chairman of the Lincoln County (Georgia) Commission suggested that "the Corps has control of too much property and if there is any they don't need, they should turn it loose.” He insisted that it would be better for the citizens of Lincoln County if it [the land] was put on the tax digest.”40 This suggestion was instigated by the sale earlier in the year of more that 3,000 acres of Corps land in the State of South Carolina, which had been declared surplus and was planned for commercial development. The South Carolina transaction was the culmination of 15 years of negotiations between the Corps and a State-created agency concerned with lakeshore development. The long period of negotiations was necessitated by the reluctance of the Corps to set just such a precedent, and while the Bussey Point controversy was short-circuited, the precedent remained.41

In order to enhance fisheries at the reservoir, the Corps of Engineers worked with state agencies to minimize annual water-level fluctuation in the spring to aid in the reproduction of bass and crappies. Also, within the reservoir proper several "tire unit" fish attractors were sunk, each consisting of 50 bundles of line tires arranged in a pyramid shape. The lower tires were filled with concrete to assure that the attractor was anchored firmly to the bottom of the lake. All attractors were attached to buoys marking their location. These programs, which were designed to enhance fish and wildlife populations and to provide the public with access to them, made Clark Hill one of the most popular of the reservoirs maintained by the Corps of Engineers. In 1988 more than 6 million people visited Clark Hill, and the lake continued to rank among the top 10 most popular Corps of Engineers projects in the nation.42 In December 1987 the congress of the United States by Joint Resolution designated Clarks Hill Dam, Reservoir, and Highway atop the Dam as the J. Strom Thurmond Dam, Reservoir, and Highway. Thereafter, all references to the project carried the new designation. The name change, which was quickly passed in response to a resolution introduced by Rep. Butler Derrick (D-S.C.), created several months of controversy in local news media.

1.  See chapter V, Savannah River at Augusta, for background on Clark Hill and Hartwell Projects.

2.  Augusta Herald, 17 Feb. 1946.

3.  S. Doc. 66, 76th Cong., 1st sess., pp.2-3

4.  Augusta Herald, 17 Feb. 1946.

5.  H. Doc. 657, 78th Cong., 2d sess., p. 11.

6.  Ibid., p. 66.

7.  Annual Report, 1946, pp. 764-765; U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Water Resources Development by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Georgia (Atlanta, GS: U.S. Army Engineer Division, Jan. 1973), pp. 40-45.

8.  U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,  Water Resources Development in Georgia,  1981,  p. 66

9.  U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Engineer Officers Advanced Class 1952, p. 45; Annual Report 1947, pp. 745-746.

10. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Engineer Officers Advanced Class, 1952, pp. 45, 48

11. Atlanta Journal, 12 Dec. 1948; Augusta Chronicle, 7 Dec. 1948; Greenville News, 30 Jan. 1949. These sources do not indicate whether Neelands was a civilian or a military engineer.

12. Annual Report, 1949, p. 726

13. Annual Report, 1950, pp. 724-725; U.S. Army. Corps of Engineers, Engineer Officers Advanced Class, 1952, p. 48.

14. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Engineer Officers Advanced Class, 1952, p. 48.

15. Annual Report, 1952, p. 544.

16. Annual Report, 1953, p. 511; Augusta Herald, 5 Jan. 1953.

17. Annual Report, 1853, p. 511; Annual Report, 1954, P. 343; Annual report, 1955, p. 340.

18. Annual Report, 1956, p. 450.

19. The Clark’s Hill Authority of South Caroling, Truth About the Clark’s Hill Project (1946), Installation Historical Files, Box 1342.

20. Augusta Herald, 21 Aug. 1946 Augusta Chronicle, 26 Sept. 1946; Savannah Morning Press, 2 Oct. 1946.

21. Augusta Herald, 26 Nov. 1946; and 18 Dec. 1946.

22. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Public Works, Clark Hill Power Project, Georgia and South Carolina: Hearings on H.R. 3826(Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1948), Installation Historical Giles, Box1342.

23. Augusta Chronicle, 9 Jan. 1949; Augusta Herald, 12 Jan. 1949.

24. Atlanta Constitution, 20 Dec. 1946.

25. Augusta Herald, 27 Mar. 1947.

26. Augusta Chronicle, 26 Apr. 1950.

27. Hartwell Sun, 8 Sept. 1950.

28. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Water Resources Development in Georgia (1979), P. 69.

29. Ibid.

30. Stats. At L., 58:329-330

31. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, “Minutes of Public Hearings on Recreation, Conservation and Publec Use,” Unpublished Document (U.S. Army Engineer District, 1948); Augusta Herald, 14 Nov. 1948; Augusta Chronicle, 19 Nov. 1948.

32. U.S. Army, corps of Engineers, Congressional Fact Book (1989)

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Congressional Fact Book (1989)

36. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Congressional Fact Book (1984)

37. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Corps of Engineers Wildlife Management at Clark Hill Lake (Savannah, GA: U.S. Army Engineer District, Oct. 1976),n.p.

38. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Water Resources Development in Georgia, 1981, p. 67

39. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Water Resources Development in Georgia, 1989, p. 61

40. Atlanta Constitution, 7 Mar. 1986.

41. The Calhoun Falls News and Times, 29 Jan. 1986.; The Anderson Independent Mail, 17 June 1986; The Augusta Chronicle, 10 Oct. 1986.

42. U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers, Water resources Development in Georgia, 1989, p. 61.