Alcoa Inc. Needed Electricity
The Little Tennessee River and its hydroelectric potential brought the Alcoa Inc. to East Tennessee in the early 1900’s. In that way, the role of electricity has played a major part in the City of Alcoa and all of Blount County.
To produce one pound of aluminum required 10 kilowatts (the amount to burn a 40-watt bulb for 10 days). Thus, Alcoa Inc. created a massive plan for developing the entire watershed of the Little Tennessee River in 1910, and built six major dams over several decades. Cheoah Dam, at 230 feet, the highest in the world at the time it was built in 1919, is located on the Little Tennessee River just upstream from the mouth of the Cheoah River.
Then, Santeelah Dam was constructed in 1926. Located nine miles from the mouth of the Cheoah River, its powerhouse is located three miles above Cheoah Dam. A five-mile conduit transports water to the powerhouse. Calderwood Dam, a 230-foot arch type dam nine miles downstream from Cheoah Dam followed in 1930. A pressure tunnel one-half mile long transports water from the reservoir to the Cheoah powerhouse. By 1937, the combined output of Cheoah, Santeelah and Calderwood at 330,000 horsepower was 265,000 KVA.
Although Alcoa Inc. also built two dams in North Carolina, Chilhowee Dam was the last Alcoa Inc. dam in Tennessee completed in 1957. The project relocated more than three miles of Highway 129, and the lake covers 1,750 acres with a 30-mile shoreline. This dam measures 88 feet high and 1,370 feet long.
In 1941, Alcoa Inc. relinquished approximately 1,500 acres to TVA, which built Fontana Dam. In addition, TVA took over the regulation of the water flow at all of Alcoa Inc.’s facilities on the Little Tennessee River. In return, Alcoa Inc.’s benefits included a better-integrated system, property retention and credit for the electricity generated by the plants. In 1957, some of the transmission lines for this system were transferred to the City of Alcoa’s Blount Electric System, known today as the City of Alcoa Electric Department.
Meanwhile, in 1913, Alcoa Inc. opened its smelter, which would turn alumina into molten aluminum. The first fabricating operation, known as the West Plant, opened in 1920 to produce items ranging from aluminum pie plates and siding to aluminum for patio furniture and pots and pans.
As the United States was on the verge of entering World War II, Alcoa Inc. experienced a 600 percent production increase and a $300 million expansion. By 1942, the North Plant fabricating facility was in operation, making aluminum sheet for the 300,000 airplanes built for the war.
In 1965, the company entered a new market for aluminum – the beverage can. The Tennessee Operations and its sister plant in Evansville, Indiana, were chosen to lead the effort in can sheet production. However, to handle the millions of aluminum cans already being recycled in the U.S., Alcoa Inc. opened a can reclamation facility at Tennessee Operations in 1975.
In 1989, the West Plant was shut down. In 1990, the WWII vintage hotline was replaced with a state-of-the-art, five-stand mill. Tennessee Operations continues to produce molten metal in its smelter, and the company is considered a world benchmark in the production of high quality aluminum can sheet.