NASHVILLE, Tenn. (June 29, 2018) – Community leaders and citizens celebrated the 50th Anniversary of J. Percy Priest Dam and Reservoir today, acknowledging the project’s positive impact on the region since President Lyndon B. Johnson dedicated it as a perfect example of the new conservation 50 years ago.
When President Johnson dedicated the dam and lake June 29, 1968, he highlighted the reservoir’s easy access to half a million people for boating, camping, hiking and swimming, and stressed how the lake would reduce flooding, supply water, create hydroelectric power, and provide recreation within 10 miles of downtown Music City.
Fifty years later to the day after Johnson addressed more than 4,000 people on the shoreline, Nashville Mayor David Briley stood with the dam as a backdrop and noted that nearly two million citizens continue to enjoy the many benefits the lake provides, those which his own grandfather Beverly Briley championed as the first mayor of Metro Nashville when the Corps of Engineers constructed the dam in the 1960s.
“It’s a privilege and an honor for me every day to be mayor, but especially today to commemorate something my grandfather did 50 years ago,” Briley said. “Certainly it’s a different time. The 19,000 acres of land and 14,000 acres of water continue to be a critical part of our community, a critical part of the economic and quality of life here in Middle Tennessee. We also get hydroelectric power from here, which is an important thing for us all to remember as we go about our daily lives.”
Briley added that his father passed away four years ago, and his fondest memories of him were fishing at J. Percy Priest Lake.
“I know there are a lot of parents who spend time with their kids here, and that quality time together, whether you are fishing or riding your bikes, just hanging out, is really an important part of how we live in our region and the quality of life here,” Briley added.
When the Corps of Engineers acquired land for the J. Percy Priest Dam and Reservoir project in the 1960s, citizens were impacted and displaced from their homes and farms along the Stones River in preparation for the lake.
La Vergne Mayor Dennis Waldron, who attended the event on his birthday, said his family farm and areas he once played as a child are under water today, and that the Stones River used to be just 50 feet from his back porch.
“I personally watched the Corps build the dam and clear the land, and they did take my family’s farm for the reservoir.” Waldron said. “They raised roads, built bridges, built boat ramps, built marinas. My family home is where the lake is now and sits about 30 feet deep in water.”
Waldron said he grew up near Hamilton Creek and the lake was his playground, and he looks forward to another lifetime of memories at J. Percy Priest Lake.
Smyrna Mayor Mary Esther Reed, distinguished educator and small business owner, said her family lived in the town of Old Jefferson when the Corps of Engineers constructed the dam.
The Corps relocated its citizens for the impending waters, but when the Corps dammed up the Stones River, the water never reached the projected level, and the site of Old Jefferson remains abandoned and in the dry today.
“It was projected to flood more than 30,000 acres of land in the Nashville area, including most of Old Jefferson,” she said. “My father’s family was one of the families affected and had to relocate. They chose Smyrna as their new home.”
Reed said the lake changed the life and direction for the better for her family, and the project provides recreation opportunities, economic impact and drinking water for Smyrna’s citizens.
“Many of Smyrna’s local businesses thrive due to the lake,” she said.
The dam is visible from Interstate 40 and is located between miles six and seven of the Stones River. The 2,716-foot long structure stands 130 feet high and its hydropower unit can produce 28,000 kilowatts of hydroelectricity per hour.
State Rep. Darren Jernigan, Tennessee District 60, filled in for Nashville Metro District 14 Councilman Kevin Rhoten and recalled growing up with the dam and lake, which has meant a lot to the community.
“It’s a major landmark… you drive by at night and it’s lit up and the water is going,” Jernigan said. “It is stunningly beautiful. It’s marvelous engineering.”
The project honors Congressman James Percy Priest, who was a high school teacher, coach and reporter/editor for the Nashville Tennessean before he was elected to Congress. He represented Nashville and Davidson County from 1940 until his death in 1956. Congress officially changed the project name from Stewart's Ferry to J. Percy Priest July 2, 1958. The project’s groundbreaking took place June 29, 1963.
Rebecca Stubbs, biographer and author of the book “J. Percy Priest and his Amazing Race: A Biography,” attended and provided her insight on the namesake of the dam and reservoir. She spent 15 years researching and writing the book published in 2009 so his life might inspire and give hope to others.
She said as a Tennessean reporter, Priest wrote about soil erosion and farm conservation, and he covered the electrification of rural Tennessee.
“He saw the damage that flooding caused to farms, towns and cities. His column called ‘Going Places’ described areas of interest across the state, recommending camping and day trips much like a Tennessee Crossroads,” Stubbs said.
As a Congressman Stubbs said Priest never stopped working for the improvement of the waterways in the region and he served as a strong supporter of the Tennessee Valley Authority and developing dams and reservoirs along the Cumberland River.
“But his most fervent desire was that the river be made navigable, that reservoirs would be built for storm water protection, and that the powerful forces coursing through the waters be harnessed into affordable electricity,” Stubbs said. “He would have been very happy when the Corps initially built not only the Priest Project, but also five more dams along the Cumberland River.”
She said the lakes and waterways would have appealed to Priest’s love of nature, to his free and adventurous spirit.
Today, J. Percy Priest Lake supplies an estimated $132 million of recreational economic impacts annually to local communities. The urban population has helped the lake achieve nationwide recognition as it is consistently ranked in the top 10 most visited Corps of Engineers lakes in the country.
The Nashville District operates three campgrounds, six picnic areas, 15 launch ramps, while maintaining lease agreements with five marinas, four local municipalities for greenways, ball fields, and parks, the YMCA, and the state of Tennessee for wildlife management areas, the Stones River Hunter Education Center, and Long Hunter State Park.
Maj. Justin Toole, Nashville District deputy commander, said President Johnson’s vision of reducing flooding, providing water, creating hydropower, and recreation has come to fruition over the past 50 years.
Toole said he is happy to report that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continues to move forward with the president’s vision, operating the project for the benefit of the region and nation.
“It’s providing water to the communities and municipalities and citizens in the area. It’s also holding back water. We had historic rains back in February in this region. It was the third wettest February on the books. You’d have to go back 100 years to find a wetter February. And there was no flooding downstream from here in Nashville or Clarksville.”
The major recognized the service of so many Corps of Engineers’ employees and volunteers over the past five decades who maintained and managed the project, along with community partners and stakeholders that contributed to the success of J. Percy Priest Dam and Reservoir.
“Together we made these first 50 years great,” Toole said.
To culminate the anniversary celebration, Toole and Harriett Priest, daughter of J. Percy Priest, unveiled a commemoration plaque to be permanently displayed at the project.
Harriett said it was a proud moment and honor to be a part of the ceremony celebrating the project that honors the legacy of her father.
“It did bring back memories of 50 years ago and how much daddy meant to so many people, and especially to me,” she said. “Someone asked my mother why they didn’t allow people to build houses right up to the water. And she said daddy wouldn’t have wanted it that way because he wanted everyone to get to enjoy the lake and the dam.”
She added that the celebration of the project was very special and made her smile.
(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at http://www.lrn.usace.army.mil, on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/nashvillecorps, and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/nashvillecorps. The public can also follow J. Percy Priest Lake on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jpercypriestlake.)