Nickajack, Chickamauga dams opening for public tours for first time since 9/11

Chattanooga Times/Free Press

July 04–Nickajack Dam’s lock on the Tennessee River will be the first of two local dams to open for a public tour for the first time since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District and Tennessee Valley Authority extended the invite for a free tour on July 15 of the Nickajack lock, followed by tours of the Chickamauga lock the week after.

It’s not that members of the public have been completely barred for the last 15 years, but for anyone who doesn’t have a boat or a friend who has a boat, the only way to see inside a dam’s lock was to pass through it.

All openings for tours at Nickajack already have been filled and only a few slots remain open for tours at Chickamauga. Personal information collected during the registration process is used for security background checks, federal officials said.

Chickamauga’s tours will include the lock and power plant, while visitors at Nickajack will tour only the lock.

In the spring of 2015, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials announced they were working to open the lock at Nickajack Dam to the public along with a few others on the Tennessee River. Officials at the time were reviewing how much work there would be in reopening the facilities to the public while maintaining security required in the post-9/11 age.

Nickajack was opened in 1967 and has a lock that measures 110 by 600 feet, a massive structure that can hold as many as nine modern barges, according to the Corps’ online histories of the facilities. The Tennessee River downstream of Nickajack is the Guntersville Lake reservoir.

At the Chickamauga Dam, the oldest of the two dams local people can tour near Chattanooga, construction of a long-awaited new lock has been underway for the past couple of years and they just got $37 million in new funding for the work this year, the Times Free Press has reported.

The new lock will replace the aging, smaller lock at Chickamauga Dam, which was built in 1940 but suffers from problems with “concrete growth” in its rock foundation. The bigger lock — 110 feet wide and 600 feet long — will be able to handle at least six barges at a time, compared with only a single barge that can now fit in the existing 60-by-360-foot lock.

The project is being done within a cofferdam, a temporary enclosure pumped dry to allow contruction below the waterline.

On the rear side of the cofferdam is a portion of the new lock wall that was incorporated into the enclosure so that the existing lock could remain open to navigation, according to federal officials. A traditional cofferdam would have blocked access to the downstream end of the existing lock, effectively closing the lock to commercial navigation.

Other federal dam sites — operated by TVA and/or the Corps — in Tennessee and the surrounding Chattanooga region that have been opened or are scheduled for tours include Old Hickory Dam, Percy Priest Dam, Center Hill Dam, Norris Dam, Great Falls Dam, Wilson Lock, Cordell Hull Dam and Cheatham Navigation Lock.

Dams immediately around Chattanooga were built by TVA.

Last year was the 80th anniversary of the Unified Plan of the Development of the Tennessee River, which outlined TVA’s management approach to the Tennessee River system, according to the federal agency. Under the plan, TVA was created to provide flood control, improve navigation and provide affordable electricity to the people of the Tennessee Valley.

Since Norris was the first TVA-constructed and first TVA-built project to operate, it hosted TVA’s kick-off in 2016 of a yearlong recognition of the dams the federal utility built. The last dam TVA built was the one at Tellico, opened in 1979.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Waterways Council, Inc.