History and the Little River Dam

Jim Glanville

Tim Logwood, the director of Radford’s Electric Utilities, recently gave me a tour of the Little River Dam. Accompanying me was Jessee Ring, a retired engineer, winemaker and incoming President of the Radford Rotary Club.

The present Little River Dam was built in 1934 during the Great Depression. In early 1932, to stimulate national recovery, Congress created the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC) empowered to sell US Treasury Notes to finance loans to local governments. With relief and employment on everyone’s mind, Radford quickly applied for and obtained its RFC loan.

Walking across the dam above the water rushing out of the control gates was impressive. Perhaps even more impressive was the walk along the tunnel inside the dam beneath its control gates. Being in this rarely seen dark and gloomy space with its incipient stalactites and stalagmites was reminiscent of visiting Dixie Caverns.

In 2014, the dam’s original water-powered hydroelectric turbine was damaged beyond repair by a flood. Since then the dam’s principal purpose has been flood control. With a planned expenditure of $3 million, the Radford government has a custom-built replacement turbine on order and expects it to be installed and running later this year.

Also upcoming for 2019 is getting the dam relicensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The current 30-year FERC license expires in 2019. The city is applying for a new license that it hopes will last 40 years.

Relicensing is an extensive bureaucratic process requiring among other documentation a Virginia endangered fringed mountain snail survey, a mussel survey, a wetlands survey, bathymetry (for silt level) and a recreational use survey.

During relicensing, input to the FERC will come from various outside groups such as the Virginia Department of Fish and Game and Inland Fisheries and the Friends of the New River.

The little Pulaski village of Snowville (population 149) is about eight upriver miles from the dam, but because of the meanders of the Little River only three air miles away. Hereabouts the river is the boundary between Pulaski and Montgomery counties.

Snowville has an interesting and instructive history. Writing in 1931, at the age of 82, resident William Hundley said that around 1850 Snowville was the most prosperous town in all of southwest Virginia.

There were no other manufacturing towns anywhere near and people came from many miles away to get plows, wagons and farming and cooking implements. At the store, they bought sugar, coffee and other home supplies.

There were many early Snowville manufacturing enterprises. A “trip hammer forge” made wrought iron from local ore to produce horseshoes, nails, wagon tires, etc. A linseed oil factory used flax to make the oil. A sawmill took logs from local trees and made them into building lumber.

A carding mill made yarn from sheep’s wool that was used to produce men’s clothing and women’s linsey dresses. A leather factory made boots, shoes and leather goods and employed twenty or more men. Other enterprises were a gristmill, a tannery, a blacksmith shop and a blast foundry that recycled cast iron into plow points, kettles and cooking utensils.

Waterpower for these early Snowville enterprises came from a large log and lumber dam on the Little River. When this first dam was constructed, both steam power and electricity were unknown in Snowville.

In October 1850, the principal assistant engineer of the newly-named Virginia and Tennessee railroad reported to the railroad’s chief engineer that, after “much time” had been expended on the railroad’s planned route, despite passing through a “rough mountain section” it should travel from the conjunction of the north and south forks of the Roanoke River at Lafayette up the mountain to Christiansburg and on to Central Depot (the original name for Radford). The chosen route bypassed Snowville by a dozen miles.

With that railroad engineer’s decision, future growth would come in Christiansburg and Radford. Thus it was steam in the form of locomotives that destined Snowville to become what Wikipedia today calls a “sleepy little community.”

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.

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