From the mighty Coosawattee to scenic Carters Lake
This story is from our 2017 Information Please magazine. To view the magazine in its entirety, click here.
When Donald “Duck” Walker and Ronald “Hoss” Walker began working on the Carters Dam project in 1963, they were told from a study of statistics that seven men would lose their lives during the massive 15-year project.
“We lost one man,” Duck said. “A rock fell on him working inside the tunnel. He had on a hard-hat, but it killed him.”
“It was very dangerous work — steep, rough and lots of rock,” said Hoss. “Albert Morgan, he was a superintendent for Clement Brothers Construction, said, ‘Men, I’ve got a dam to build. We’re working 12 hours a day, seven days a week. If you can’t do that, I don’t need you.’ I liked it.”
The Walker brothers worked on the project that would dam up the mighty Coosawattee River seven years total, but their time was broken by identical stints serving in the U.S. Army in Vietnam. Duck said they were supposed to get a month off after they finished their military obligation.
“After a week (Clement Brothers) called and said, ‘Get back out here and help us build this dam!’ So we did,” he said.
Today, Carters Lake and its surrounding shoreline and other recreation areas host a staggering 500,000 visitors a year, noted Natural Resource Specialist Allen Earhart with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He said the story of the dam and how it was built is like history that’s still alive.
“That’s the neat thing about the project, that people are still around who participated in the construction,” he said.
For the Walkers, it was a calling — literally.
“We were working as heavy equipment operators on a construction project in New Mexico and came back here when we learned about the dam being built,” Duck said. “We started at ‘union scale’ pay of $3.65 an hour — that was what heavy equipment operators made there then.”
‘It was too dangerous’
Hoss said they earned every penny.
“Very few people stayed with the job, it was so rough,” he said. “Inexperienced people didn’t work at Carters Dam, it was too dangerous. Being experienced was what kept you alive.”
Duck remembers many hours “sloping banks” for the Corps of Engineers project.
“We cleaned (the dam bed) down to bedrock,” he said. “(The dam) was 463 feet high and a mile wide at the bottom. It’s shot rock (uncrushed) with a clay core. We grouted all the cracks, and we had to go inside the tunnels and look for water and plug those. The rock gets bigger the further away from the core you get, with riprap on the outside. It was work.”
In building a tunnel for the Coosawattee River to flow through, they used an “air track” drill that would use water and air to blast away at the abutments.
“It had so much force it could knock an oak tree or stumps out of the ground,” Hoss said. “It worked off a boom that you could move around hydraulically. We used TS-24 pans to pull (the debris) out of there and take it to the dump. We moved 1,700 (dump truck) loads of rock and dirt every shift.”
Carters Dam is the tallest earthen dam and deepest man-made reservoir east of the Mississippi River. Its history goes back to 1945, when Congress passed legislation that eventually became the dam project. The area now covered by the lake was once known as “The Great Valley,” according to historical records, and was home to Native Americans and also early settlers. However, as the repository watershed for rivers and numerous creeks and streams, heavy rains often flooded farmlands in the Coosawattee’s path, as well as “devastating inundations” of the towns of Calhoun and even Rome, according to georgiacanoeing.com.
The Carters Lake area is rich in Native American history — the prehistoric village of Coosa was nearby — and there are more modern structures and sites like the Chief Vann House in Spring Place, New Echota above Calhoun and the Etowah Indian Mounds in Cartersville, within easy driving distance. Also, skirmishes and battles in the Civil War were fought within miles of the dam and lake site.
How do the Walkers feel today about working on a project of such historic proportions?
“I liked it,” Duck said. “I wish they had another one going on now.”
“The pay was good and the people you worked with was good,” Hoss added, “and you couldn’t have worked for a better company than Clement Brothers.”
Bears, panthers, wolves
Earhart was asked about the dam’s construction, and if — as some have speculated — it was built with earth and rock instead of concrete because of the Cartersville Fault Line that runs under the area where metamorphic rock meets sandstone.
“There is a fault line over there,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the reason for earth instead of concrete, but I assume so. I’m definitely not an engineer. We have geologists who come and look at the fault, and I’ve gone over there with them and they think it’s something spectacular — it really gets them all fired up. When I look at it, it looks like rock.”
Carters Lake and Dam is named for Farrish Carter, who owned property in the 1800s near the present-day site. He also appears to have been the patriarch of a community called Carters. According to Murray County Heritage, the Carters area was “occupied by Indians even before the Cherokee era. In fact, many believe that the Spanish explorer, Hernando de Soto, visited a settlement on the banks of the Coosawattee River in 1540 (see accompanying article) ... The town’s name was Guasili (or Guaxile) during that time and the Cherokee then called it Coosawattee ‘Old Town’ or ‘Old Creek Place.’”
Heritage also points out that in Autobiography (1910), a Methodist minister named William J. Cotter wrote of spending time in this area around 50 years after the 1782 attack on the village by Col. John Sevier, a Revolutionary War marauder who terrorized the Native Americans in northwest Georgia, and massacred Indians in the river village of Ellijay.
In the 1830s, Cotter “saw that part of the State when all was new — waters ... as clear as crystal, hills and mountains covered with a thick forest; a land of beautiful flowers. There was plenty of wild game ...” Cotter also noted “The troubles encountered with bears, panthers and wolves.”
The De Soto – Carters connection
In 1540, the De Soto expedition passed near the modern-day site of Carters Lake Dam, historians believe, in the Spaniards’ search for gold in the New World. Scholars postulate that De Soto reached the Chiefdom of Coosa in the Murray-Gordon county line area, headquartered just north of the present-day dam, on July 16.
“The Spanish spent over a month at a rich fortified town between two streams. Spanish accounts from the De Soto and Tristan de Luna expeditions, and 16th century Spanish artifacts, indicate this was the location of Coosa,” a historical marker at Carters Lake states.
The two streams may have been the Coosawattee, which is formed by the confluence of the Ellijay and Cartecay rivers in the town of Ellijay, and flows into Carters Lake and out again below the reregulation lake. The Coosawattee and Conasauga (the border between Whitfield and Murray counties) form the Oostanaula River, which then joins the Etowah out of Rome to form the Coosa River that flows into Alabama — another of the nine eventual southeastern states De Soto is alleged to have visited.
A former ranger at Carters Lake, Jeff Pobliego, told a reporter several years ago that a farmer in Rome had unearthed an old sword while plowing a field that was verified to be Spanish, lending credence to the Spaniards’ presence in northwest Georgia hundreds of years ago.
— Partial source: Georgia Historical Society
The Carters Lake – Deliverance connection
Although Deliverance was filmed on the Chattooga and Tallulah rivers in nearby Rabun County, it is widely believed that author James Dickey drew his inspiration for the story from a personal experience on the Coosawattee. In a recent interview with the author, Dickey responded to the rumor.
“Deliverance was inspired,” he said, “by my experiences on four or five different rivers, including the Coosawattee, Chattooga and Chattahoochee.”
Asked whether he had endured any experiences like those immortalized by Deliverance, Dickey coyly replied, “I can’t say. The statute of limitations hasn’t expired yet.”
Claude Terry, an acquaintance of Dickey’s who was a stuntman and technical adviser for the movie’s canoeing scenes, is familiar with the story’s origins.
“It was rough in the mountains,” he says, “20 or 30 years ago. You could get killed at the drop of a hat. But today, people have forgotten that.”
According to Terry, Dickey and two friends (Lewis King and Al Braselton) organized a canoe trip down the Coosawattee. While Dickey and Braselton canoed the river, King was to drive to a point downstream and pick them up.
“King,” Terry says, “found a rugged, remote logging road that seemed to head toward the river. When he stopped to check a map, he was suddenly confronted by a man and his son, both armed, who demanded to know what he was doing there.”
King reportedly explained his presence to the men, but they apparently suspected he might be a revenue officer (“revenoor”). The father told his son to take his shotgun and accompany King to the river. He was told to return “alone” if no one came down the river to confirm King’s story and prove that his presence was innocent.
“Afraid that Dickey and Braselton might already have passed downstream,” Terry says, “King sweated bullets until, an hour or two later, they rounded a bend in the river.”
Satisfied now that they posed no threat, the boy helped King, Dickey and Braselton carry their canoe and gear to the pickup truck. The older man told them to go on their way, wishing them well. This sobering encounter proved to be the seed which, implanted in Dickey’s fertile imagination, yielded Deliverance.
— Source: From Deliverance and the Coosawattee
(gapaddle.com/deliverance-and-the-coosawattee/) by William Gatling,
June 30, 2010, based on an article from North Georgia Journal,
Summer, 1995, now georgiabackroads.com).