Geographers and the Tennessee Valley Authority*

By Boyce, Ronald Reed | The Geographical Review, January 2004 | Go to article overview

Geographers and the Tennessee Valley Authority*


Boyce, Ronald Reed, The Geographical Review


On 19 April 1933, after less than one month in office, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt eloquently argued before the U.S. Congress that the comprehensive development and planning of the entire Tennessee Valley drainage basin would be an important antidote for the Great Depression. He insisted that the project "transcends mere power development: it enters the wide fields of flood control, reforestation, elimination from agricultural use of marginal lands, and the distribution and diversification of industry" (quoted in Rosenman 1933, 123). In fact, the project would require the planned and coordinated development of all the resources in a seven-state area (Clapp 1956, 6). When President Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act on 18 May 1933, he launched the largest, most ambitious, and unquestionably most controversial regional development planning project in U.S. history--and the only such project ever undertaken in the nation.

The TVA was organized into about a dozen divisions and several offices, each with a number of subsections. Each unit would have considerable authority, and its leaders were to be encouraged to offer suggestions for achieving the general TVA goals. An active and involved three-man board would make final policy. All hiring and firing was to be nonpolitical, and advancement was to be by merit and performance only. Most novel, and very controversial, was how the TVA would take over the functions of half a dozen government bureaus and agencies in the TVA watershed (Lilienthal 1953).

The general goals of the TVA were to improve agriculture, industry, and commerce and to elevate the general standard of living in the region. Farming, the primary activity, was especially depressed, and TVA legislation required that fertilizer and power be available to farmers at the lowest possible prices. The legislation also specified that some farmland that had been heavily eroded by the growing of row crops--especially cotton, tobacco, and corn--on steep slopes be taken out of production and reforested. Another issue was the need to aid existing businesses and attract new industry. To accomplish these goals the TVA was to seek state and local cooperation through the democratic process that today is referred to as "grassroots democracy." To its many critics, "grassroots democracy" simply meant that local power groups such as the Farm Bureau Federation and the Agricultural Extension Service had to bow to TVA demands, particularly those that would benefit large landholders, such as white planters (Leuchtenburg 1963, 86-87). The primary goal was the generation of power from the dams to provide rural electrification.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

The immediate tasks of the TVA were to inventory and purchase the land needed for building dams and reservoirs, to begin construction of the Norris Dam on the upper Tennessee by October 1933, and to alternate constructing an upriver flood-control storage dam with constructing a multipurpose (flood control, navigation, and power) dam on the lower Tennessee, thereby creating a 650-mile-long navigation channel from Paducah, Kentucky to Knoxville, Tennessee. Work on the Wheeler Dam in Alabama, the first downriver multipurpose dam and reservoir, began on 21 December 1933 (Sayford 1935) (Figure 1).

The regional development aspects of the TVA project required immediate data gathering and analysis on a massive scale, particularly in agriculture, forestry, and town development. The Division of Land Planning and Housing, with the landscape architect Earl S. Draper as director, was created to accomplish that task. Draper was interested in town planning, conservation, and general efficiency (Black 2000, 85). The University of Chicago urban and regional geographer Charles C. Colby (1934-1944) was retained as a consultant. The division comprised five sections: land classification, which included most of the geographers who worked for the TVA in its early years; architectural and aesthetic matters; town planning; conservation and recreation; and service and drafting, which was later changed to maps and mapping and eventually obtained divisional status (Massa 1995). …

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