Electricity was first produced at Kentucky Dam on Sept. 4, 1944 -- 75 years ago tomorrow. Generators went online two weeks later. And 13 months after that -- Oct. 10, 1945 -- President Harry S. Truman dedicated the dam before a crowd estimated at 15,000 to 20,000. It was the only time a sitting president has visited Marshall County.
Sept. 4 will likely pass without notice this year. Few western Kentuckians know the significance of the date or what it means to this region. If you're younger than 80, you may not know why the dam was built on the lower Tennessee River between Marshall and Livingston counties. It may have never occurred to you what the dam's construction did for this county and environs. Before the dam, this county was a poverty-stricken farming community. Thousands were leaving to find work in automobile factories in Detroit and Flint, Michigan and the chemical industries or steel mills in Akron and Cleveland, Ohio.
Before the dam, electric power didn't exist on farms in western Kentucky meaning there were no electric lights, electric refrigerators or kitchen ranges, running water or indoor plumbing. Farm families lit their homes and barns with kerosene lamps and lanterns. Many kept their food fresh by lowering it into their well or cistern until meal time. More prosperous families used ice boxes in which food was kept cool by a 50-to-100-pound block of ice that had to be replaced every second or third day. In winter, homes were heated by a wood burning fireplace or a potbellied coal stove. Neither television nor the Internet existed though some families had a battery-powered radio.
Enter the Tennessee Valley Authority -- the New Deal federal agency that built a series of 16 dams including Kentucky Dam. Kentucky Dam had three objectives -- enhanced navigation, flood control, and generation of hydroelectric power. After operations at the dam began, it took another three to five years before rural electric cooperatives, created under the Rural Electrification Act passed in 1936, extended electric power lines to all farm communities.
The backstory of the lower Tennessee River Valley leading to construction of Kentucky Dam -- built between July 1, 1938 and Aug. 30, 1944 -- is a long, complicated and intertwined series of events reaching back to the Civil War era. And without the vision, investment of money, time and political prowess of one man, it's likely it wouldn't have been built at the old Gilbertsville townsite. The late Calvert City native, Luther Draffen, was that man; "he was the Father of Kentucky Dam." Though he didn't do it alone, he was THE driving force. He solicited and received help from a litany of heavy hitters of that era such as U.S. Senator Alben Barkley of Paducah, later elected vice president of the United States. And there were others -- L.J. Hortin, a college journalism professor in Murray, Hecht Lackey, a broadcasting executive from Paducah, Congressmen Voris Gregory and Noble Gregory of Mayfield, Senators Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee and George Norris of Nebraska. Draffen also led the powerful Lower Tennessee Valley Association, made up of about 40 business leaders from western Kentucky, northwest Tennessee, southeast Missouri and southern Illinois. LTVA's single goal was to "bring prosperity to this region," known as "the Valley." Electrification was crucial for the Valley's people to prosper.
In an early 1980s interview, the late Charles Hall, whom Draffen recruited to assist him in persuading industries to locate here, recalled his mentor's vision for a hydroelectric dam.
"At one time, Mr. Draffen generated enough interest in LTVA's project that he was able to gather some members of Congress and some TVA engineers together for a meeting on a hillside near Gilbertsville overlooking the possible (dam) site," Hall said. "These men sat in the edge of a plum thicket and drew plans in the dirt with a pointed stick for a dam across the Tennessee River."
Draffen was a quintessential businessman and behind-the-scenes political leader of the mid-20th century.His leadership not only pushed this region from poverty to affluence in a single generation, it also changed the very face of the land. The results of his work have impacted millions of people for the better; continue to impact people today and will affect the lives of yet unborn thousands. Even so, he always maintained humility often saying "providence had a way" or "nothing came by itself."
Draffen wasn't the first person to envision damming the lower Tennessee River. Efforts to tame the river, especially for navigation and flood control, began as early as 1864. What Draffen did understand was that electrifying "the Valley" was the only way to alleviate poverty, and building a hydroelectric power dam would achieve that goal. In 1928, Draffen made 48 trips to Louisville at his own expense trying to persuade Kentucky Utilities (KU) to provide electricity to this region. KU provided electric power to Paducah, but refused to extend its lines into rural communities saying, "there wasn't sufficient need." Draffen was disappointed but sought another source persuading Ellie Norman and Lawrence Solomon, who owned Norman Milling Company, to install a generator. It provided electricity for a few blocks in Calvert City, which was progress, but it didn't provide the vast quantities of electric energy needed for economic development.
Groundwork that led to construction of Kentucky Dam started June 5, 1920 when Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a 10-year survey of the Tennessee River Valley -- the most comprehensive study ever made of any river basin in the United States. The Corps reported two years early and recommended a flood control, navigation and power dam at Aurora Landing in southeastern Marshall County. The Corps' recommendation stimulated excitement and prompted formation of Aurora Dam Clubs in Marshall, Calloway and Graves counties.
The project went to Congress on March 24, 1930, and on May 28, 1931, Southern Utilities, Inc. was granted a temporary permit to build the dam. But on May 18, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Tennessee Valley Authority Act into law. That changed the picture. TVA opposed Southern Utilities' plan, and the company's permit was allowed to expire. Aurora Dam Clubs morphed into the LTVA with Warren Swann of Murray as president, Draffen, vice president and Hortin as secretary. In 1935, Congress authorized TVA to build dams for a nine-foot channel from Paducah to Knoxville, Tennessee. 'It was key legislation," Draffen said in a 1973 interview. "Without that, there was doubt TVA would ever build a dam on the lower Tennessee River."
In March 1936, TVA rejected Aurora Landing and recommended Gilbertsville as the preferred site.Then began what Draffen and Hortin called "the most frustrating, most difficult problem of the entire effort" in the form of TVA stalling and opposition from private interests.
Hortin explained that TVA had moved in but wasn't ready to build the dam. "All the while the nation's economic condition pressed hard on the people. There was hunger, people couldn't get work, and the outlook was grim," he said. Draffen and Hortin remembered how TVA would say, "Someday we'll build it."
"We wanted them to get it started," Hortin said."TVA was being called socialism, and a lot of unprintable things. But LTVA stayed out of that type rhetoric and petty politics. Our argument was pretty mercenary. We contended that TVA was building dams for other states, it was federal tax money being spent, and here we were at the heart of all this water thing, and our dam wasn't being built!"
In January 1937, fate took a hand as nature demonstrated the need for a dam. Rain fell for 19 days without let up. The Tennessee and Ohio rivers and their tributaries overflowed their banks to the extent people had never seen. Multimillions of dollars were lost in farmlands, homes and businesses.
Months after floodwaters abated, a crucial piece of legislation passed Congress on Feb. 16, 1938. Hortin received a telegram from Senator Barkley reading: "Just retained, Gilbertsville, whole TVA appropriation."That bill meant TVA's appropriation wouldn't be cut. Still TVA wouldn't use the word, 'construction.' Draffen was on a train bound for Washington to lobby for the bill when he received the news. He continued his journey and thanked each legislator who voted for it. LTVA's lobbying bore fruit on July 1, 1938 when Congress appropriated $2.613 million for construction of the dam. Its total cost was $116.2 million. "On that day the word construction was used for the first time," Hortin said. "It was key; we had our dam!"
At the height of construction, 5,000 men from several states came here to work on the dam. The economy boomed, and housing was needed for the influx of workers. TVA floated homes down the river to Gilbertsville from its worker village at Pickwick Dam and built a self-contained community with schools, administration offices, medical clinic and recreational facilities. That community, just south of the old Gilbertsville townsite, became known as "The Village."
Lost in the name of progress were the Kentucky towns of Birmingham in Marshall County, which was inundated, and Star Lime Works in Lyon County which dissolved its charter in 1945 because much of its land was under Kentucky Lake, including Star Quarry that fed its lime plant. The rock for Kentucky Dam came from Star Quarry. Today the quarry is a popular site for boating parties on Kentucky Lake.Gilbertsville relocated about two miles to the west but it also dissolved its charter in 1975.
After the construction was completed, Draffen and Hall ramped up their efforts to entice industry to locate here. On Draffen's behalf, Hall wrote more than 1,000 letters touting the amenities Calvert City offered -- cheap electricity, river, rail and highway transportation. Draffen and Hall reaped success in 1948 when the Pennsylvania Salt Manufacturing Company, now Arkema, announced it would build a plant near Altona. It opened in July 1949. Pittsburgh Metallurgical Company, now Calvert City Metals & Alloys, opened in November 1949. Industrialization was under way. Predictions were that Calvert City's population would balloon from less than 300 to 10,000 by 1960. It didn't happen. But, industrialization continued with National Carbide of Air Reduction, now Carbide Industries, opening in January 1953 followed by BFGoodrich Chemical Company, now Lubrizol, and West Lake Chemicals. American Aniline and Extract Company, now Estron, opened in 1954; Airco Chemical Company, which later became Air Products and Chemicals, now Evonik, and General Aniline and Film Corporation, now Ashland, opened in 1956. Other spun off companies include Wacker, Cymetech and many support businesses.
A few industries Draffen and Hall courted didn't locate at Calvert City. Hall said General Tire, now gone, opted for Mayfield. Then there was Great Lakes Carbon Corporation owned by George Skakel, father of Ethel Kennedy. In a mid-1980s interview, the late Grand Rivers Mayor John Henry O'Bryan, said Luther Draffen brought George Skakel to Grand Rivers to buy land for a plant. Great Lakes Carbon bought more than 1,200 acres a little northeast of Grand Rivers from TVA and three private landowners. But in a letter to Hall dated April 3, 1952, Skakel said he regretted "the company had reluctantly decided to abandon its development plans." Skakel held out hope that Great Lakes Carbon might follow through and build the plant later. But on Oct. 3, 1955, George Skakel and his wife, Ann, were killed when their refurbished World War II B-29 crashed near Union City, Okla.
Perhaps the most significant impact on Marshall County's people, resulting from production of hydroelectric energy at the dam, is seen in their standard of living. In 2015, earnings in all industries averaged nearly $55,000 annually. Travel and recreation -- much of it related to Kentucky Lake created by the dam -- added $74 million to the county's economy last year.