Originally built to provide water to the City of Kingsport, the Bays Mountain Dam is still as impressive as ever
Planning for the dam began in 1907 as Kingsport Waterworks started buying the land surrounding the future reservoir.
1916: Construction on the dam began in April 1916. Most of the labor came from Bays Mountain residents. They quarried sandstone from the cliffs below the dam, dragged the stones up to the dam site, and shaped each block before setting it in place. These details (and more) were documented in 1978 when John Quillen, one of the original crew, was interviewed by park staff in an audio recording.
During the first year of construction, they used Jerome Pierce’s horses to haul the huge rocks from the cliff base to the dam site. John called this a “horse engine”. By the fall of 1916, the dam was mostly complete but didn’t have the iconic columns/steps we see today. Was that the original design? We don’t know. But according to John, a crack formed and the dam leaked. So, that winter the workers added 2 “braces”, as John called the columns/steps. Hear John tell the story here:
1917: In the second year of construction they added the rest of the braces and raised the dam 7ft higher. They also replaced the “horse engine” with a steam-powered engine.
In the construction photo showing tall wooden poles, you can see that some braces are in place but others have yet to be added, judging by the wide gap between the braces as compared to the finished product. You can also see the height difference at the top: the workers are lined up on the taller/new portion while the original lower height is visible on the left side of the dam. In the lower left corner you can see the steam engine and pulleys.
After completion in 1917, the reservoir filled and water began to flow down the network of pipes to the city water system below.
Bays Mountain Reservoir served as the Kingsport water supply until 1944 as the city had outgrown the capacity of the lake. Since then the city has pulled their water from the South Holston River, allowing us to enjoy the beauty of this 44-acre lake for years to come.