One Last Hurrah...
Well, not forever, but it will probably be a while before we make another quest. Jan has just started work again, we have David and Rebecca's wedding coming up, and its almost "prime time" for vacationers, which means crowds. We like to do most of our travelling in the off season, although we do miss the seasonal things (like the train museum in Cowan... we might sneak back to Tims Ford one weekend just to get that).
But, we couldn't have asked for a better trip! Recent heavy rains in eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and eastern Tennessee had swollen the Cumberland River and the Tennessee River to the point where they had to spill, that is, open the floodgates. We have never been able to catch a dam spilling up to now, so we were hoping we could change that. This trip was planned several weeks in advance, so it would be just a lucky coincidence if we succeeded. So...
Friday, March 22, 2002
We loaded up and departed Lawrenceville about 11:00 AM, and made the usual circuit around Atlanta: GA 316 to I-85 to I-285 to I-75 headed north. We figured we had two options, one going north out of Chattanooga sort of like when we went to Cumberland Mountain State Park, or west out I-24. The north route would have given us the option of maybe catching Chickamauga Dam spilling, but the high water on the Tennessee had pretty much moved past Chattanooga. So we went west, planning to stop at Nickjack Dam in case it was spilling. We came to the north side of the dam, just a few miles off of the interstate, only to find that access to the lock has been cut off, almost certainly in response to 9/11. We debated about trying to get to the south side, but decided to press on. So, we got back on I-24, climbed and descended Monteagle Mountain, and took the TN 53 exit and headed due north. Passing through Woodbury, we took a right on US 70 in Liberty, and shortly took a left on to TN 96, which would take us to Center Hill Dam and the park. It was a pretty drive through some hilly country, not very tall but a lot of up and down. We got to the dam about 3:30 ET, approaching from the back side. TN 96 crosses the dam, making a 90 degree turn to the west at the northern end to a parking and observation area. If we didn't get to see anything else, this alone would have been worth the trip.
Center Hill Dam is a Corps of Engineers project on the Caney Fork River, downstream of Great Falls Dam. It is a 240 feet tall by 2,160 feet long gravity dam, with eight tainter floodgates and an integral power house. Normal pool of Center Hill Lake is about 653 MSL, but the last info we had gotten before disconnecting from the web stated that the lake was just over 660 MSL. All gates were spilling, and the afternoon sun was falling perfectly on the dam, which faces northwest. What a shot! From that point we could see a parking lot at the base of the dam, close to the powerhouse, and it didn't appear to be gated. So, we crossed back over the dam and descended to the park. The Corps maintains a campground there, but it was closed, hopefully just for the off season. The road to the power house was open, so we got to the base of the dam and got some fantastic shots! Hope they all turn out. We spent almost an hour there just admiring the view, before we tore ourselves away, and drove the few miles to the park.
This was the first time we had made it to a Corps project on a weekday, so we stopped by the Resource Manager's office to get the bad news. At one time you could get tours of most of the Corps powerhouses on any weekday, or at least get to a visitor's "galley" where you could overlook the generators. Sure enough, the Corps and just about everyone else are still at a very high security level, so no tours. And as we were to discover, at many of the dams access to the dam itself is very limited. We counted ourselves fortunate that we were able to get to the base of Center Hill. Still, the folks were hopeful that in the not too distant future the security level would fall to the point where you might at least be able to schedule a tour. We doubt they will ever go back to the "open house" policy.
The "cabins" at Edgar Evins are not what we would call cabins. They are more like condos, and (gasp!) no fireplace! Still, they were very nice accommodations, and affordable at 65 bucks a night. AND, we were taking advantage of the Tennessee State Parks special, stay one night and get the next night free, for the third time. (It expired end of March... shucks!) We unloaded, grilled some steaks, and settled in for the night, making some preliminary plans for the next day.
Saturday, March 23, 2002
We loaded up and struck out about 10:00 AM local time. We had planned to head north and bag Cordelle Hull Dam on the Cumberland River, and maybe catch it spilling. We took TN96, crossed I-40, and intersected with US70N... apparently US70 is split into northern and southern routes? Anyway, we headed west, and found Horseshoe Bend Lane. We wound our way in, eventually getting to the east end of the dam. The west end abuts a rock cliff, and the switchyard is on the top of the cliff, some 250 feet up. The access road to the dam was barricaded, but we were able to get some decent photos at a fishing area just below the dam. Cordelle Hull has a lock, 75 by 397 feet, but most navigation had been suspended on the Cumberland due to high water. In fact, we had heard that earlier in the week, an 11 barge tow coming out of the lock at Cheatham Lake (well west of Nashville) got caught in heavy current, forced to the bank, and broke apart. Some of the barges capsized, and all of them ended up resting against the dam. Fortunately, none were carrying anything noxious, just sand and suchlike. Update! This was a pretty serious event... see the ACOE's News Release here.
Cordelle Hull was not spilling, but was generating full tilt, as were all the dams we visited on this trip. Hope they were able to throttle back some of the coal plants!
While at the park office, we had noticed a large cooling tower off to the northeast. We asked a park ranger about it, and he informed us it was at the site of what would have been the Hartsville Nuclear Plant, some 50 miles away as the crow flies. Well, we were already over halfway there, so we came back out to US 70N and headed west. We weren't sure exactly where it was, but figured it had to be on the Cumberland River. We continued through Carthage, then caught a glimpse of the tower to the north of us. We backtracked, crossed the river, and headed west on TN 25, headed towards the community of Hartsville (good place for the Hartsville Nuclear Plant!). The tower soon came into full view, and very soon we saw the TVA sign. We turned into the approach road, right beside a natural gas pipeline compression station... made us wonder if they were considering changing the plant from Nuclear to Gas-fired, as they are considering at Bellefonte. The gate was open, but we decided not to go in... we could see enough from there to bring tears to our eyes.
As we have stated elsewhere, coal fired power plants are killing the environment with pollutants like sulfur dioxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, heavy metals, and other by products of burning coal. Nuclear plants don't emit anything except heat. So, everytime we see a Nuclear Plant that might have been, it makes us very sad. This one in particular. There was one cooling tower that had been completed, but the only thing that will ever come out of it is the light from the marker strobes. We could see where other structures had been started, but now were just a lot of rusted rebar sticking up in the air. And the transmission towers with no wires on them really brought it home. How much coal could have been left in the ground if they had finished this plant? If memory serves, this would have been a 4 unit Boiling Water reactor plant, similar to Browns Ferry, and good for almost 4000 Megawatts. Now, TVA maintains offices and storage areas there. Interestingly, one of the offices is an "Investment Recovery" office.
Having been thoroughly depressed there, we decided to try to bag Old Hickory Dam, in Nashville but now only about 20 miles away. Ironically, on the way we would pass close by TVA's Gallatin Steam Plant... a coal burner. As we have said before, all power plants are interesting, and the plants themselves have nothing to do with the decisions made by the powers that be, so we detoured to get a few pictures. We had continued on TN 25 towards Nashville, through Gallatin, so once we got into Gallatin we began looking for "Steam Plant Road". We missed it, so we took US 31E (another split route?) to TN 109 to loop around Gallatin, and (we hoped) eventually hit Steam Plant Road. We did, and soon found the plant.
Surprisingly, at the main gate, which was open, there was a security camera, but no guard. We drove into the main parking lot, got out and immediately deployed a camera, so that anyone watching would know why we were there, and looked around and took a few shots of the plant and switchyard. There were rails all over the place, and we saw what might have been a small switch engine, but all of the rail facilities looked like they saw very little use. With the plant being right on the Cumberland River, we figured they must bring the coal in by barge. At full capacity, this plant burns almost 400 tons AN HOUR to produce about 988 Megawatts.
Right by the main entrance there were four combustion turbine units that looked brand new. Our "Dams and Power Plants" pamphlet stated that Gallatin had four units capable of 352 Megawatts installed in 1975, but we found a report on the TVA web page that said several new units were added in 2000. These units are used strictly for peaking operations, because they are very expensive to operate.
On to Old Hickory. The Caney Fork River, up well over its banks due to the spilling at Center Hill Dam, joins the Cumberland River downstream of Cordelle Hull Dam, so we were hopeful that Old Hickory would be spilling. We backtracked on 109 to 31E and headed west. We were soon in Hendersonville, a Nashville suburb, and started looking for signs. We found one and hung a left, but some idiot in front of us was concentrating more on dialing his cellphone than driving. In trying to get around him, we missed the immediate right we should have taken. We eventually found the river, at a Corps park entitled "Lock Number 3". No sign of the dam, but we stopped there and ate lunch. We noticed on the map several places labeled "Old Lock and Dam Number X (historic)", but at this site there was nothing explaining what it was all about. So we decided to concentrate on getting the Dam and getting the hell out of Nashville. I mean, if we had wanted to play in traffic, we could have stayed home!
Perseverance Pays Off
After lunch, we went back to 31E and tried again. This time, we saw see the sign for the immediate right, but we weren't in the turn lane. So, we went and made the first left that we could, and came back, eventually to get on Rockland Road, turned left onto Power Plant Road, and soon passed by a closed Corps Visitor's Center... and encountered a barricade. (Expletives Deleted!!) We backtracked and found a park that had a view of the back side of the dam, but that was it. From the amount of trash collected at the floodgates, we figured they had to be spilling. It was here that we encountered the one glitch of this trip. Pat had slung the camera bag over his shoulder, and didn't check to make sure it was closed (Shame on me!). When we got back to van and unslung it, the 80-320 zoom lens bounced off of the pavement. It still appeared to work, we'll find out for sure when we get the pictures back. You see quite a few lenses listed at KEH that state "filter ring dented"... now we have one!
We consulted the map (Delorme Tennessee Gazetteer, we had left the laptop at the park), went back to 31E and the traffic, headed southwest into Nashville, and started looking for TN 45. We finally got there, hung a left, crossed the river which had turned a 180 degree bend, and saw a sign. We ended up on Swinging Bridge Road, following the signs. The first sign led us to another barricaded road with no views of the downstream side, but at the second one we got lucky. The lock was on the same side as we were, but we found a place on the bank where you could just see over the lock.
Old Hickory Dam is another Corps project. We haven't found the specs for it yet, but the water management page indicates it can generate 100 Megawatts. As mentioned before, it has a lock, 75 by 400 feet, so forming part of the navigation channel on the Cumberland River. Like TVA's Nickjack and the Corps' Cordelle Hull, the bottom of the floodgates are basically at river level. So, instead of a nice torrent of water like we saw at Center Hill, you basically just see a lot of muddy turbulence when the dam is "spilling". And it was here we found our entertainment for the day. Jan saw a heron that had lit on a log caught in an eddy, and it looked almost like the bird was rolling the log... every time he pulled his wings in he had to deploy them again to maintain his balance. Finally everything stabilized until the log got caught in the (substantial) current. He just rode the log aways downstream, then flew back, found another log, and repeated the process. It was pretty funny to watch. We had noticed that a lot of trash had collected at the lower lock gate, in the relatively quiet water outside of the rush from the floodgates. While watching the bird, we noticed that they had opened the gate, and had apparently opened the lock fill valve. This had the effect of washing all of the crap away from the lock into the mainstream... to go mingle with the barges at Cheatham Dam, we guess!
By now it was approaching 5:00 PM, so we decided to head straight back to the park. We worked our way back out to TN 45, which turned south, and headed for I-40. There we turned east and headed back to the park at 70 MPH. We were soon at the TN 96 exit, and from there just had a few miles to go. We got back to the "cabin" at about 6:00 PM, so we had plenty of time to bake our potatoes and grill our steaks (again?? Yippee!!!) before calling it a night.
Sunday, March 24, 2002
Well, shucks, time to go. We got the van packed, checked out, and headed home. We had decided to go back the way we came, and take a detour off of I-24 to explore a little and catch the south side of Nickajack Dam. We crossed Center Hill Dam and stopped to admire it one more time... they were still spilling! Now we have an excuse to go back, since we never got a picture of the dam NOT spilling. One the way back to Woodbury there was a house that Jan had noticed on the way up that she wanted a picture of, so we managed to grab one shot as we drove by... and noticed that apparently a major wreck had occurred in the curve there in between our transit times! Turns out a big truck had lost it there and made a mess not too long after we had been by there the first time. We pressed on to I-24 and headed east, getting off at Monteagle as planned, and found TN 156. This road wanders around, staying on top of the mountain, until it gets to South Pittsburg, TN. It then, literally, drops into South Pittsburgh, falling 1000 feet in about a mile. The road was in good shape, though... we've seen a LOT worse. We followed 156 through town, and soon crossed the Tennessee River. We had seen this strange looking blue arch from I-24 a couple of times now, and couldn't figure out what it was. Now we know... it is the 156 Bridge. We soon found the approach to Nickajack Dam, so we went in, got some good shots, and decided to eat lunch while we were there. Then we continued on.
I always think of I-24 as a Tennessee Freeway, as it terminates at I-75 in Chattanooga, and goes to Nashville from there (it actually goes through Nashville, and deadends into I-57 near Marion, Ohio). But it dips into Dade County, GA long enough to intersect with I-59. And, right before we crossed back into TN, traffic stopped dead still! We were about a mile from the next exit, so we worked our way to it, bailed off the freeway and immediately hit another logjam. We hung a quick u-turn, and made our way back to I-24 west to I-59. We would be going out of the way, but ANYTHING is better than sitting in traffic. We went down to Valley Head, AL, and made our way up to Mentone, home of Desoto State Park. We then did the usual Mentone/Menlo/Summerville route to US 27 south, to GA 140 east eventually to I-75 south. We found out later that they had a lane closed at Tiftonia, which was almost to Chattanooga, so we probably saved ourselves quite a bit of time vs waiting it out.
We got back home at almost 6:00 PM. We unpacked the van immediately because we knew if we sat down, we wouldn't get back up! Then we recounted: 3 new dams, better pix of an old dam, a steam plant, and we paid our respects at an almost nuke plant. Not too bad!
Pix will be up soon!