GHOST TOWNS RESURFACE AS TVA LAKE IS DRAINED

GHOST TOWNS RESURFACE AS TVA LAKE IS DRAINED

On a boat in the middle of Fontana Lake, Helen Vance looks over the still, green water and sees the ghosts of towns and roads that died 48 years ago.

Ms. Vance's childhood isn't just submerged in memory. Until this summer, it was submerged under water."This here was a little place called Ritter," she said, pointing into the lake's depths. "There was a train stop there, and school buses used to run through here."

Ms. Vance grew up in one of the mountain villages that were destroyed when the Tennessee Valley Authority began building Fontana Dam in 1942. The communities were bulldozed and flooded under the huge 10,640-acre reservoir now known as Fontana Lake.

The TVA is lowering the water in the reservoir for routine repairs on the 480-foot dam on the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, about 7 miles from the Tennessee border.

As the lake is drained, artifacts of the mining and logging towns that sprang up in the late 1800s are emerging on the newly exposed lake bottom.

The dry, cracked ground is dotted with the skeletons of once-bustling communities: the stone foundation of a house, a steel pipe used to transport water, the stumps of trees that were cut down when the dam was built.

And hidden in the mud lie smaller, more personal remnants of the mountaineers' lives: a yellow marble, a chipped piece of crockery decorated with a faded flower pattern, a Duke's mayonnaise jar, a broken flower pot with greenery growing in it.

The artifacts have given Ms. Vance and others a chance to connect with their roots, and local historians a new glimpse into the North Carolina mountains' lurch into modern industrial life.

"It's the damn greatest story on Earth, the pioneer heritage of western North Carolina," said Lance Holland, special projects director for the Fontana Village Resort and a local history buff. "When the lake drains, it's like an archaeological dig out in the desert, with just the bare bones left."

From about 1890 until 1942, about 7,000 people lived in towns such as Proctor, Bushnell, Welch, Tuskeegee, Judson, Brock and Japan in Graham and Swain counties.

They were miners and loggers, working for the big companies that had come down from the North. Ms. Vance's town of Proctor was a bustling place, with a school and a movie theater, a railroad and a new state highway - N.C. 288.

When World War II broke out, the United States needed electricity to make aluminum for the war effort. The TVA, formed in 1933 as part of the New Deal, stepped in to build a dam at the Little Tennessee River. And everything, including the highway, was flooded.

Ms. Vance remembers the day she and her father dismantled their house, plank by plank. "It was the saddest day of my life." she said.

She is still hoping for a road to the isolated cemeteries, which are not under water but are accessible only by boat, where her brother, grandparents and great-grandparents are buried.

But even Ms. Vance's lingering bitterness over what she calls "The Road to Nowhere" can't take away her joy at seeing the homestead that has been in her family since 1835.

The TVA usually lowers the water in the lake every five years for dam maintenance, said Ian McLeod, a TVA spokesman.