Abandoned Hydro Power site in Tennessee


Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee
Date added: October 10, 2023 Categories: Tennessee Power Plant Hydroelectric Power
1929 Burgess Falls Dam, showing floodgates, looking southwest (1989)

The Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station is the kind of local hydroelectric engineering projects typical of the kind being constructed on Tennessee's smaller rivers in the early twentieth century. The engineering is conceptually similar in design to the first hydroelectric station in Tennessee, the now-inundated Loop Plant near Winchester (1901), the massive Great Falls site (1917) in White County, and at the colossal Calderwood site (1930) in Blount County, all of which utilize tunnels augured through solid rock to direct water through a river bend to a powerhouse. The site was a municipally built, owned, and operated facility. It is closely associated with the so-called "Progressive Era" in Tennessee's and America's early twentieth-century history. It was a time when citizens, reacting to a widely held distrust by the voting public concerning the destructive power of monopoly, frequently opted for the alternative of community rather than private ownership of public utilities.

The 1929 dam is intact. Although its component parts; the penstocks, wooden flume, penstock supports, and power houses are deteriorated and in ruins.

Site Description

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station is located in Putnam County (population 47,690), on the Falling Water River, on the Cumberland Plateau in Central Tennessee. It is situated some nine miles south of Cookeville just off Tennessee State Highway 135, and within the boundaries of the Burgess Falls State Natural Area. The dam forms a bridge across the Falling Water River within the Natural Area. The remaining penstock and flume supports and remnants of the 1922 and 1929 powerhouses are reached by following the River Trail downstream from the dam, along the banks of the Falling Water River, past Burgess Falls. Access to the site is gained by a perilous climb down the bluff to the floodplain and then downriver. "Old Access Road" within the Natural Area, intersects the River Trail Loop near the nearly vertical bluff overlooking the Falling Water River.

The Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station is another example of a publicly-owned hydroelectric facility in Tennessee. It was owned and operated by the City of Cookeville, the seat of Putnam County. Cookeville had its first steam-powered generator in 1904. In 1919, the city officials, realizing that more power was in demand, bought Burgess Falls for $6,500. John A. Switzer, Professor of Engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, took a temporary position as City Engineer in 1921 to oversee the construction of the hydroelectric utility. By January 1922, the system began operating by diverting water through a flume to a powerhouse located just below Burgess Falls. The original dam was 310 feet long and twenty-six feet high and consisted of a concrete gravity section and an earthfill section with a concrete core wall. The intake was located close to the left abutment and maneuvered water into a wood stave penstock, which was thirty inches in diameter. The penstock conveyed the water about a half mile (2,631 feet) to the powerhouse. The course of the penstock twice crossed the course of the Falling Water River on suspension bridges and, at one point, went through a tunnel dug into the rock of a bluff. The powerhouse was a concrete structure measuring eighteen feet by twenty feet and contained one turbine manufactured by the Wellman-Seaver-Morgan Company. A nineteen-inch bronze runner developed 650 horsepower under a head of 220 feet, giving the plant a rating of 360 kW. This: facility operated until the flood on June 29, 1928, which washed out the earthen portion of the dam and subsequently inundated and destroyed the powerhouse. A new steel-reinforced-concrete dam and powerhouse were built in 1929 along essentially the same plan (except that in 1929 the penstock arrangement changed slightly so that water was conveyed on the south side of the Falling Water River, and the plant operated continually until 1944. In 1951 its contents were sold for salvage. The current dam (1929) is approximately 370 feet in length and forty feet high. The reservoir is controlled by seven - twenty-two feet by ten feet spillway gates, four of which are presently secured in the open position. There is a low-level sluice and a thirty-inch steel penstock located in the left section of the overflow portion of the dam. The mobile spillway gate motor is non-operative.

The remains of both powerhouses can be seen along the Falling Water River just below Burgess Falls. All that remains are the concrete floor and supporting foundation members, a few mammoth penstock supports and the remnants of a turbine from the 1929 facility. In 1973 the City of Cookeville sold its interests in the property to the State of Tennessee which has developed the domain as a state natural area.

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee 1929 Burgess Falls Dam, as it appears now, looking northeast (1989)
1929 Burgess Falls Dam, as it appears now, looking northeast (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee 1929 Burgess Falls Dam, as it appears now, looking northwest (1989)
1929 Burgess Falls Dam, as it appears now, looking northwest (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee 1929 Burgess Falls Dam as it appears now, showing floodgates, looking northeast (1989)
1929 Burgess Falls Dam as it appears now, showing floodgates, looking northeast (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee 1929 Burgess Falls Dam, showing floodgates, looking upstream, southeast (1989)
1929 Burgess Falls Dam, showing floodgates, looking upstream, southeast (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Penstock remains and sluice gate, Burgess Falls Dam, right bank of the Falling Water River, looking southeast (1989)
Penstock remains and sluice gate, Burgess Falls Dam, right bank of the Falling Water River, looking southeast (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee 1929 Burgess Falls Dam, showing floodgates, looking southwest (1989)
1929 Burgess Falls Dam, showing floodgates, looking southwest (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee 1922 concrete flume supports, along Falling Water River, looking southwest (1989)
1922 concrete flume supports, along Falling Water River, looking southwest (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Flume support structure from 1922 facility,looking across Falling Water River, looking northwest (1989)
Flume support structure from 1922 facility,looking across Falling Water River, looking northwest (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Penstock supports for 1922 facility, along Falling Water River, just below and adjacent to Burgess Falls. Note present use as support for hiking trail steps (1989)
Penstock supports for 1922 facility, along Falling Water River, just below and adjacent to Burgess Falls. Note present use as support for hiking trail steps (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Remains of 1922 hydroelectric facility. Looking northwest (1989)
Remains of 1922 hydroelectric facility. Looking northwest (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Remains of hydro-turbine at the 1929 site, looking southwest (1989)
Remains of hydro-turbine at the 1929 site, looking southwest (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Remains of 1929 hydroelectric station, mammoth penstock support, turbine collar, and assorted machinery and gears, looking southwest (1989)
Remains of 1929 hydroelectric station, mammoth penstock support, turbine collar, and assorted machinery and gears, looking southwest (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Penstock supports for the 1929 hydroelectric station running up the hill, looking southeast (1989)
Penstock supports for the 1929 hydroelectric station running up the hill, looking southeast (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Foundation supports for 1929 hydroelectric facility, looking upstream, northeast (1989)
Foundation supports for 1929 hydroelectric facility, looking upstream, northeast (1989)

Burgess Falls Hydroelectric Station, Cookeville Tennessee Penstock support and broken machine parts of 1929 hydroelectric facility; Looking downstream, southwest (1989)
Penstock support and broken machine parts of 1929 hydroelectric facility; Looking downstream, southwest (1989)