The Tennessee Valley Authority was formed in 1933 as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation, which among many other things, authorized immediate construction of the Norris Dam. It was the first of 29 dams, begun in 1933, and completed in 1936. The Dam is located on the Clinch River about twenty miles north of Knoxville. It was named in honor of Nebraska Senator George Norris who was a longtime supporter of government-owned electric generation and the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The construction of the Norris Dam and its reservoir required the purchase of more than 152,00 acres of land and displaced almost 3,000 families. Many of these families were subsistence farmers, trying to scratch a living out of thin, depleted soil, and living in extreme poverty. Nearly 10,000 men and women were hired to work in various clearing and building projects. This large number of jobs was most welcome during the Great Depression when multitudes of people were out of work. Lorena Hickok, writing on June 6, 1933, called Norris “A Promised Land, bathed in golden sunlight, is rising out of the grey shadows of want and squalor and wretchedness here in the Tennessee Valley…”
The town of Norris was a planned community, originally intended as a showcase for rural electrification, decentralized industry, and town planning. The houses were constructed of native stone and timber, with twelve different designs all of which include a porch and fireplace. Homes do not always face the street. It was designed with winding roads that follow the natural contours of the land, and was built around a green commons while the town itself is surrounded by a rural greenbelt. Across the street from the Commons is the Norris Public School, which was the center of community life. Classes were offered, not just for children, but also for adults whether they lived in town, or were farmers in the surrounding communities.
The town was used to house of workers and their families during the construction of the dam, while the soon to be flooded inhabitants of the area had to find other places to live, which often were just as impoverished as their original homes. During the 1930’s, TVA officials excluded African-Americans from the town, even though the area had been integrated for years with white and black families living and working together trying to scrape a living from the earth. The NAACP complained repeatedly, with minimal success, about racial discrimination by the TVA in their hiring, housing and job training practices. Today, Norris’ population of just under 1,500 people is 98.4% white.