This article appeared in the July 2005 issue of American Motorcyclist.
By Grant Parsons
I’ve decided to go for a dam ride in Tennessee.
While people in West Virginia and Kentucky labored in mines, those in Tennessee went to work building dams. The Tennessee Valley Authority, created at the height of the Depression in the 1930s, built so many dams that at one point in the 1950s it was the nation’s largest producer of electricity.
Norris Dam. Photo courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority
As I roll through the Clinch River valley north of Knoxville, I’m headed right for one of the most historic dams of the bunch.
Tennessee Route 33 serves up the kind of lazy, sweeping curves that makes it really easy to enjoy the cloudless sky on a beautiful day.
After a few wrong turns, I finally turn onto the entrance road to Norris Dam State Park. Brief glimpses of the 265-foot-high dam through trees give way to sweeping vistas of a whole lotta concrete. Then the road turns to run right across the spine of the structure itself.
On one side, a sheer drop 26 stories high. On the other, water only a few feet down. Just when I think the view can’t get more dramatic, the road curves up to a parking lot on a bluff overlooking the whole scene.
I stop, dig some crackers and Gatorade out of the saddlebags, sit on a bench and contemplate the amount of work that goes into a project like this.
Norris Dam has the distinction of being the first dam built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was charged with solving three problems in the region: controlling flood waters, making electric power available and putting people to work at a time of staggering unemployment. This dam project did all three, at its height employing enough workers to fill an entire community.
I get back on the bike and ride to that community, which is the nearby town of Norris, built by the TVA to house workers.
Norris was a planned community, laid out in a circle. And the houses featured an impressive new construction method for private homes: cinderblocks. They also offered the modern marvel of oscillating fans, thanks to all that electricity produced by the dam.
Even today, it looks like a neat place to live.
The hustle of everyday life returns when I reach the town of Oak Ridge, straight west of Knoxville. This city also was built for a very specific purpose.
Tens of thousands of people were moved here in 1942 to work on the most secret project of World War II: the creation of the atomic bomb.
While most people familiar with the Manhattan Project, as the atomic-bomb program was known, think of Los Alamos, N.M., as center of that wartime effort, much of the research that went into the bomb was conducted right here, in Oak Ridge, chosen because of its proximity to cheap TVA electricity. But the work was so secret that for seven years the town didn’t appear on any maps, and no visitors were allowed past the guard stations at the entrances. At its height, 75,000 people lived here, which made this the fifth largest city in Tennessee. And it didn’t officially exist.
Once the war was over, the town was allowed to come out of hiding. But Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which stretches out to the south and west of the city, remains on the cutting edge of energy technology today.
After several days on backroads, though, Oak Ridge looks entirely too much like a city, so I’m glad to put it in my mirrors and head down state Route 304 into the heart of the Tennessee River valley.
The pace changes almost instantly, with the roads straightening even more, and the thrum of the Triumph twin perfectly matching my mood, as I ride through the trees in the floor of the wide valley.
I spend the afternoon zig-zagging back and forth across the river, taking a bridge here, going across the top of another dam there, and otherwise not being in a big hurry.
By the time I reach Chattanooga it’s almost sundown, but there’s still time for one last run to a very cool place.
Navigating through downtown seems entirely too much like work, but soon I’m on Ochs Highway up Lookout Mountain. Despite its name, the road turns into a residential street at the top.
I pass Rock City and keep heading up. At the top, I find an overlook between the tony houses, park the bike and sit down to watch the sunset.
Sitting there, with the town of Chattanooga laid out below and the Smoky Mountains on the horizon, I think back to the hard-working country I’ve been through.
While it’s true that everybody has to work, the folks I’ve seen in the last few days are at least lucky enough to do it in one of the most beautiful regions of the country.
Plus, the roads aren’t half bad on a motorcycle.