For the builders, blasters, concrete and steel workers who built the dam, powerhouse and tunnel that make up the Walters Lake and power plant in the Pigeon River gorge, their jobs ended when water surging through the six-mile tunnel to the power house began converting to electricity. But for a few, the adventure was just beginning.
Knowing the isolation would be a problem, Carolina Power & Light company built a “model village” for its workers near powerhouse just inside the N.C. line. When the system began generating power in 1929, access to that region was still easiest by railroad, or by road from east Tennessee. But the families of workers there had a school, a clubhouse, bungalows and each other.
For the families who lived six miles up the gorge at the dam, however, the isolation was more complete. It took a special, and a tough, kind of man to do the work of maintaining the dam and the power and telephone lines cutting through miles of wilderness. And it took a special kind of woman to live in a such a place, or to live apart from her husband much of the time.
Not to mention, as did the late Stonewall Rathbone, the physical challenges of painting flood gates on a narrow foot walk 180 feet above the rocks where the Pigeon River had once flowed. Most, if not all, of the river was now routed six miles under the mountain to generate electricity. The work was physically demanding, and the families would either thrive in, or flee from the isolation.
The Teague family thrived, two generations of them. The place got into their blood, so that even after they left work, it was a passion that drew them back to the site and pulled forth memory after memory.
Joe Teague’s relationship with CP&L began in 1927 when he was called to fix a cable system used to haul rock blasted from the tunnel. He fixed the cable system so well and so quickly that he was hired on as a rigger foreman, his son would later tell. When construction ended, the plant supervisor asked Joe Teague to remain as maintenance supervisor for the dam. According to his son, Joe told CP&L he would try it for a year. He stayed for 30.
His son Wilbur grew up at the lake before the construction of Interstate 40, when the easiest way in and out was across Walters Lake. That boat trip five miles upstream was the method by which the family brought in groceries and other supplies. Once they reached the southeastern end of the lake, it was another 20 miles to Waynesville, if they needed more supplies than they could get at country stores in Fines Creek or Jonathan’s Creek.
Because the lake could be frozen in winter, or dangerously cold, Wilbur and his sister boarded with a family in Fines Creek part of each school year, to ensure they could get to school. At other times they rode the boat across the lake each day, then walked to the nearest bus stop.
Wilbur started working for CP&L as soon as he graduated from high school. His father retired in 1957. Wilbur became maintenance supervisor four years later, retiring in 1989. By the time his children were school-aged, roads had improved enough that they could be driven to Fines Creek – but they had to leave home at 5 a.m. each morning, he said.
Before the system was computerized, maintaining the dam and monitoring lake levels would be a 24-hour job during bad weather. When the water was rising, lake levels had to be checked every 10 minutes, in case the flood gates had to be lowered, Wilbur Teague remembered in a 1997 interview.
Each of the 13 flood gates would take 29 minutes to lift. When the lake was rising and the gates had to be opened, the Teagues had to monitor and plan to open the gates far enough in advance that they would not be caught on the dam trying to get them open with water rushing over the top.
The most terrifying effort to open the gates may have been in September of 1940, when the second of two major floods on the Pigeon River wiped out livestock, barns, homes and crops and broke all water-flow records for the Pigeon. The waters carried debris and much of the cordwood from Champion’s paper mill as it barreled into Walters Lake.
Joe Teague and Frank Rathbone headed to the dam. Frank Rathbone, who was filling in for his uncle, was suddenly faced with the challenge of helping open more flood gates than had ever been opened at one time. With the water rapidly rising and thousands of logs crashing up against the dam, it was terrifying, he said in a 2001 interview. “I wanted to run, but I didn’t,” he said. “I had to stay on there. … Those trees going through there (the flood gates), they would drop 200 feet and burst into splinters.”
Wilbur, his mother and sister had been away from the dam at the time of the flood. That weekend, when they tried to return home, they reached the boat landing and saw a lake full of wood and debris. It took them four hours to navigate their boat through the wood, with one running the motor and the others pushing debris away from their crafts.
Patrol — and bootleggers
Stonewall Jackson Rathbone also worked for CP&L at the lake and the dam. For 12 and a half years, he patrolled miles of wilderness checking telephone and power lines running to and from the plant and the dam. It was, he said, in 1994, “the roughest job I ever had.” Rathbone helped paint the flood gates, tying a rope around himself in case he slipped.
More than the dangers of height, Rathbone remembered the frequent soakings his job entailed. Many times he helped open the flood gates during rain or sleet. And if the wind blew up the gorge, it blew mist from the falling waters back onto the workers atop the dam.
Rathbone’s most strenuous work came from checking the miles of power and telephone lines each month. The dangers included bootleggers — who left him alone because they knew he would not report their stills — and rattlesnakes. His encounters, and near misses, with rattlesnakes were many. In such remote country, a rattlesnake bite could be a deadly threat.
Rathbone and his wife, Fannie, lived at one of two houses at the dam until their children were school-aged. Then Fannie moved to their Fines Creek farm and visited on weekends, traveling to their company house by boat.
Stonewall Rathbone knew his days as a dam maintenance worker were ending when he visited his family at Fines Creek one day and found his wife chopping wood to cook with while tending sick children. He knew she needed him more than they needed the job at the dam, he said. The 12 years of strenuous work apparently served Rathbone well, however. At his death, he was just two months shy of his 98th birthday.