Construction of Logan Martin Dam began in 1960 and quickly took on the monumental scale of an ancient wonder. Photos from Alabama Power’s Archive show hard-hatted workers dwarfed by gigantic intake pipes and turbine housings. Against the dam’s massive flanking earthworks, trucks and cranes seem like toys in a sandbox. Even a half-century later, these images can inspire awe at what it took to tame a river and turn pent-up water into electricity.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the dam’s 1964 completion. In May, locals celebrated the milestone at Lakefest, an annual festival and boat show at Pell City’s Lakeside Park. Named for former Alabama Attorney General Logan Martin (brother of longtime Alabama Power President Thomas Martin, for whom Lake Martin is named), the dam created a 48.5-mile-long reservoir 460 feet above sea level (465 in summer), with 275 miles of shoreline and an area of 15,263 acres. The dam is 459 river miles above Mobile. Its concrete section, longer than two football fields [612 feet], houses three turbines powering AC generators that produce more than 400 million kilowatt-hours per year.
Beyond hydropower, the dam provides flood control, economic development, irrigation and drinking water, fish and wildlife habitat, and recreation. Flowing under the Interstate 20 bridge east of Pell City, the lake is a liquid interlude on the drive between Birmingham and Atlanta.
Motorists crossing that causeway have been known to feel a pang of envy at the sight of a fast-moving water-skier or a fisherman angling for bass.
Logan Martin was part of the second great phase of hydroelectric dam-building in Alabama. The first era, starting with Lay Dam (completed in 1914) and ending with Thurlow Dam (1930), gave us Lay, Jordan, Mitchell, and Martin lakes, among others. But after the early dams were built on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, the Great Depression and World War II intervened.
The damming of the entire Coosa River had long been envisioned (in the 1870s, the first of many surveys authorized by Congress recommended no less than 34 dams and locks for the river). Finally, in June 1954, President Eisenhower signed into law legislation the U.S. House and Senate had approved almost unanimously, authorizing the transformation of the upper Coosa as proposed by Alabama Power. Logan Martin Dam was the second dam built under the project, which included the construction of Weiss, Henry, and Bouldin dams and the redevelopment of Lay Dam to increase its generating capacity.
A half-century is a long time, but older locals remember what the area was like before the waters rose. “I had family here and came here as a boy,” said Mike Riley, president of the Logan Martin Lake Protection Association. “This was a largely rural, agricultural community. The Coosa was a fast-moving river, not something you’d just jump into.”
It had flooded for generations, as noted by Native Americans who lived on the Coosa and observed that every 15 or 20 years the Coosa “overflow[s] the banks, and spreads itself for five and six miles in width.” [From “Rivers of History” by Harvey Jackson, p.2]
To clear the way for the lake, Alabama Power had to compensate people for property, cut down thousands of trees, and relocate more than 2,000 graves. The lake inundated the village of Easonville, established in 1821.
“I was a teenager when the lake came,” said Pell City resident Vicki Davis Mize. “We lived in Easonville, on what is now Harmons Island. My mother’s store was covered by the water but my father’s church was moved to higher ground.” This structure, Coosa Valley Baptist Church, now stands beside Highway 231.
“A lot of us were very sad to lose our homes,” Mize said. “But farmers who were struggling were better off after selling land to the power company.”
“From a P.R. standpoint, Logan Martin was a much easier sell than the earlier lakes,” said Harvey Jackson, a professor emeritus of history at Jacksonville State University who has written extensively on Alabama waterways. “By then, Alabama Power knew how to hash out the problems. People knew lakefront property was valuable and the lake benefited from its proximity to Birmingham. Because of the dams, the Coosa today is really more of an elongated lake than a river. They were built for electricity but have turned out to be one of the greatest recreational assets the state has.”
Pell City resident Carol Pappas has lived on Logan Martin for about 30 years. “The lake had the effect of growing the surrounding towns – Pell City, Talladega, Lincoln, Riverside, and others – and improving the local economy and housing. We have a lot of people in Georgia with lake homes here,” she said.
“I never pitched the community without highlighting the lake,” noted former Pell City Mayor Guin Robinson. “I can’t tell you how many lake cruises we’ve had with visitors thinking of relocating. You’re not just relocating a business, you’re moving families.”
Robinson and others say the higher quality of life and lower electrical rates fostered by the lake and dam helped attract the Honda plant to Lincoln. “People recognize that the town and the region would not be what they are today without Lake Logan Martin,” he said.
Pappas agrees. “The quality of life of lakeside living is extremely positive – it’s like being on vacation all the time.”
“If you’ve spent time on a lake, you know it’s therapy,” Robinson said. “It has a way of calling you home.”