The National Park Service Almost Turned Cades Cove into a Lake

A group of horses grazing in Cades Cove.
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Frequented by over 2 million people each year, Cades Cove is the most visited section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With its picturesque fields, well-preserved historic buildings, and abundant wildlife, this breathtaking valley is a truly magical place. Back in the 1930s, however, Cades Cove’s potential as a major tourist destination went largely unrecognized. Believe it or not, there were serious plans to convert the cove into a lake!

As profiled in Sam Venable’s two-part series “Great Smoky Goofs” for the Knoxville News Sentinel, the proposed Cades Cove Lake nearly became a reality. Read on to learn about one of the strangest ideas to almost catch on in the Smoky Mountains.

Plans for a 400-Foot-Long DamAbrams Falls in the Smoky Mountains.

According to Steve Kemp, an expert on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the plan for a lake in Cades Cove included building a dam near the present day site of the Abrams Falls trailhead. “It was going to be 60 feet tall and 400 feet long and impound Abrams Creek into a reservoir three miles long and two miles wide.”

Although the idea seems completely bonkers in hindsight, the concept of a Cades Cove Lake had broad support from a variety of influential figures. Champions of the idea included Tennessee Governor Gordon Browning, National Park Service Director Arno Cammerer, Knoxville Mayor George Dempster, and prominent Great Smoky Mountains National Park advocate Col. David Chapman.

As Kemp told the Knoxville News Sentinel, “It was an official proposal. It came up several times in the 1930s. It came close to happening, too.”

A muddy road in Cades Cove after a storm.Why Build a Lake in Cades Cove?

Why were folks in the ‘30s so eager to cover Cades Cove with 50 feet of water? One reason is that dams were very trendy during that time period. All over the U.S., thousands of miles of streams and rivers were being turned into reservoirs.

Additionally, many Great Smoky Mountains National Park advocates believed that a lake was the only way to draw visitors to boring old Cades Cove. Governor Browning did not think highly of the valley, calling it “nothing except impoverished farm land” and “barren of any attraction.” As a recently established national park, the Smokies wanted to mimic the successful lake resort parks found in the western half of the country.

Proponents of the Cades Cove Lake concept even purported to have science of their side, although in reality, it was pseudoscience. Kemp told the News Sentinel, “Some ‘expert geologists’ argued that Cades Cove once had been covered by water. They claimed to document the old lake level and said the new lake would return Cades Cove to its natural form.”

Fortunately for vacationers, the plan to build a dam in Cades Cove was thwarted by environmentalists and some National Park Service officials. If things had gone just a little differently, however, we could have had bears doing the backstroke on Hyatt Lane!

A barn and a log cabin in Cades Cove.

Plan Your Trip to Cades Cove

No getaway in the Smoky Mountains is complete without a visit to Cades Cove! To start planning your tour of the valley, check out our step-by-step guide to the Cades Cove loop road.

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