Just after midnight nearly thirty years ago on November 6, 1977, the Kelly Barnes Dam failed, releasing 176 million gallons of water just above Toccoa Falls College campus in northern Georgia. Thirty-nine people lost their lives. Sadly, twenty of those deaths were children.
I recently finished reading a couple of books about this event and I thought I would try something different and write this morning about this tragedy over a series of blog posts. I know we are in a drought and the thought of a dam failure seems remote, but reading about this tragedy reaffirmed my respect as an engineer in dams and in maintaining the safety of dams. While dams have been around for hundreds of years, they can be hazardous structures where the repercussion of failure may include loss of human life, economic loss, and environmental damage.
Part I – Unseen Danger
Toccoa means beautiful in the Cherokee language and it was a beautiful place to escape the southern heat in the later 1800s. Toccoa was a main railroad station between Atlanta, GA and Greenville, SC. A small power company called Tococoa Falls Light and Power Company built a small rock crib dam ten to fifteen feet high upstream of Toccoa Falls. A thirty inch spiral riveted pipe connected the reservoir to the turbines downstream.
In 1910, with a $10 down payment and IOU for $24,990, the property which included an existing inn and the dam was bought for the purpose of a bible college. The college asked a company to enlarge the dam in the middle of the 1930s, in a need for more power. Rather than removing the rock crib dam, the college built the new dam on top of it. After the dam failure in 1977, no one was able to find any drawings, specifications, or procedures for the dam. Some partial records did indicate that college students helped to build the dam by operating some of the equipment. The construction was finished in 1948. The new dam had a height of forty feet and had a width of four hundred feet.
Over the years, trees and shrubbery grew on the dam. The only maintenance the dam received was occasional brush clearing. It is important to note that State or federal government officials were not required to inspect the dam, because no laws required inspection of privately owned dams at the time of the dam failure.
Tomorrow….Part II – A Dark and Stormy Night