By Chip Gates, HOBO Historian Eh, what’s that you say? Mitchell Lake Lock and Dam?? If you have ever taken a boat ride to the southern end of the lake, or perhaps even toured the dam itself, you know that there is no lock at Mitchell Dam. However, the inclusion of a lock was certainly contemplated, and not just prior to the dam being built. You might be surprised to find out how recently it was considered.
According to the Coosa-Alabama River Improvement Association, Inc. (www.caria.org), the Coosa River drops 450 feet in elevation between Rome, Georgia, and its confluence with the Tallapoosa River below Wetumpka. That’s the length of one and half football fields. Considering the overall distance covered, that’s not much of a drop, assuming it was on a gradual slope. But as you will see, nature offered up some interesting features along the way.
The following introduction to the Coosa River’s lock history is from the American Canal Society’s Canal Index, and is entitled “Coosa River Navigation.” The Coosa River begins at Rome and flows 284 miles into the Alabama River just above Montgomery. In the 1870’s, the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers began what would have been a far-reaching project to make the Coosa navigable from Rome to Wetumpka. Some 31 locks were planned, 7 were begun, and 5 were actually built. These five enabled steamboats and other more shallow draft vessels to travel from Rome down to the present-day location of a railroad bridge at Riverside, Ala. Most of these locks only had a lift of 10-15 feet, so the dams associated with them were of commensurate height. The last lock in the system, number 31, was started at Wetumpka in 1891. The sidewalls were completed but the dam was never built.
The majority of the dams and locks proposed by the Corps would have been built on the lower half of the river’s length, as there were many shoals and falls in this stretch to be overcome. Some of the names of these locations would have been enough to give any boatman pause: Devil’s Race, the Narrows, Hell’s Gap, Closet, Moccasin’s Reefs, Butting Ram Shoals (adjacent to Gilchrist Island) and the Devil’s Staircase. This last, the worst of the worst, and known for its loud roar, was just above Wetumpka. Not anywhere close to the tumult of the Devil’s Staircase, the future site of Mitchell Dam at a place called Duncan’s Riffle, would probably have warranted a lock and small dam. A riffle, in this case, is a rocky or shallow part of a stream or river with rough water.
In a story found in the September, 2015, issue of Discover St. Clair, Jerry C. Smith presents an interesting assemblage of facts entitled Locks of the Coosa. Well worth taking a look at online, a couple of the photos contained within paint a drastically different picture of how you may have envisioned the locks and steamboats; the former being rather simple wood, concrete and stone affairs, the latter being nothing like the scale and grandeur of those that plied the Mississippi. For our story though, this particular passage from Smith’s story helps to explain why the lock system was never completed. Robert Snetzer, of the Army Corps of Engineers said, “… (The locks) were built with federal funding, and with the delays in funding, the riverboat traffic died out. Truck and railway transportation became more economical, thus the work halted between Greensport and the Alabama (River) because it would not prove profitable.” Still, in the early part of the 20th century when Alabama Power proposed building high dams across the Coosa River, the federal government required that an earthen section be left adjacent to each dam for the construction of a high-lift lock, should Washington later decide to make the entire river navigable. And so the dam was completed, time passed, and while the concerns of pleasure craft owners, skiers and anglers on Lake Mitchell may have included reckless boaters, sudden storms, or running out of gas or sunscreen, towboats pushing 100 foot long barges were not an issue.
But wait! For reasons unknown, many, many years later the Corps undertook a study to determine the most feasible location and design for a lock at Mitchell Dam. Mitchell Dam is located at river mile 37.3, as one travels up from the Alabama River. The water level at full pool drops from 312’ above sea level behind the dam to 251’ below. For a moment let’s disregard that a lock at only Mitchell Dam would serve little to no purpose. Several locks would be needed elsewhere, such as at Lay and Jordan or Bouldin dams. Casting this not-so-trivial matter aside, consider the Corps’ Technical Report HL-84-12, which was submitted in December of1984. First a scale model was constructed that faithfully reproduced starting about 14,500 feet upriver from the dam to 6,500 feet below the dam. Several plans (A & A-1, B, B-1, B-2 & B-3, and C & C-1) were drawn up and studied, all of which placed the lock and its associated structures, guideways and channels some 400-600 feet east of the dam on the Coosa County side. A very substantial amount of dynamiting and excavating would be required to remove the nearby hill for whichever plan was chosen. Such things as navigation conditions for downbound tows leaving the lock and avoiding the Hwy. 22 bridge, or upbound tows making the immediate hard turn to port upon exiting the lock canal were considered. Water velocities during low flow and high flows times, as well as during times of power generation were factored in. Without going into any more of the hundreds and hundreds of tedious details a project of this magnitude would entail, suffice to say the report was exceedingly thorough in typical government fashion.
And the end result of this study? The big hill on the Coosa County side of Mitchell Dam is still there and unspoiled. And we still have to watch for reckless boaters and storms, keep the fuel tank above “E”, and wear plenty of sunscreen. However, sharing the water with anything much larger than a pontoon boat is not now, nor ever likely to be a concern. Truly a blessing, isn’t it? Sometimes you need to remember to be thankful for what you don’t have.