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About 30 minutes south of Knoxville, nestled in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, Tellico Lake is the lake that almost wasn't. Extending 33 miles along the Little Tennessee River, the lake has become an asset for commerce and recreation.
Construction on Tellico Dam began in 1967, but Tellico Lake or Reservoir wasn't completed until 1979. The reservoir was planned as an extension of Fort Loudoun Lake and is linked directly by canal. In 1973 when the dam was substantially completed, David Etnier discovered snail darters, a small endangered fish, in the waters of the section of the Little Tennessee River affected by the dam. Under the protection of the Endangered Species Act, construction of the dam was halted. Although over $100 million had already been spent on the dam, the Supreme Court ruled the snail darter must be protected and the dam should not be completed.
Proponents of Tellico Reservoir rallied and drafted an amendment to the Endangered Species Act that would allow exemptions to be granted by a committee of cabinet level members. When the amendment passed by Congress in 1978 it seemed like a sure victory for Tellico Lake. The country was having a hard time understanding how a three inch fish could stop a $100 million project, but when Tellico Reservoir went before what was being called the "God Committee" its exemption was denied. In 1979 Congress unanimously denied the lake's exemption stating that it was an ill-conceived project from the start. Once again proponents of the reservoir banded together, and after several more rejections, the exemption was passed by Congress and President Carter. Tellico Lake was filled later that year.
One of the last major reservoirs built by the Tennessee Valley Authority, Tellico Lake is part of a network of dams and reservoirs intended to protect Chattanooga from flooding and improve navigation on the Tennessee River. The canal that links Tellico Lake to Fort Loudoun Lake lets barges enter the Little Tennessee River without having to pass through a lock increasing commercial barge traffic. The same canal diverts water to Fort Loudoun Lake to generate hydroelectric power. The lakes are separated by just a mile.
The shoreline of Tellico Lake is mostly undeveloped, but there are several recreation facilities including public boat ramps, campgrounds and hiking trails. There is good fishing for trout and largemouth bass, and the lake is stocked with walleye and rainbow trout. With over 15,000 acres of water to explore, boaters will find plenty of room to move around, and the sailing is exceptional. Tellico Lake and the other reservoirs in the chain opened the waters of North America to "Great Loop Cruising." Tellico Lake's water levels fluctuate about six feet a year with the highest elevations from May through November.
In addition to exploring the shores of Tellico Lake, visitors will find lots of wildlife and adventure at the nearby Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With over 800 miles of maintained trails and one of the best collections of log buildings in the Eastern United States, it's easy to see what makes the park the most visited park in the nation.
History buffs will also find lots to explore at Tellico Lake. When the lake was filled it flooded the area where 18th century British Fort Loudoun was. The fort was moved, raised 17 feet and reconstructed. Visitors to the lake can tour some of the reconstructed buildings. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is also nearby. Born in 1776 the son of a fur trader and a Cherokee chief's daughter, Sequoyah developed the written Cherokee language.
With its rich if slightly troubled history, beautiful water and diverse wildlife, Tellico Lake is a great Eastern Tennessee getaway.
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