Along with other members and volunteers of the Cherokee Ridge Alpine Trail Association (CRATA), I am increasingly excited about the information to be showcased at the Smith Mountain Outdoor Environmental Education Center. Many of the graphic panels and kiosks will describe the nature around us, but CRATA also wants to dedicate space to the fascinating history of the Lake Martin area, including Smith Mountain and how the historic fire tower came to be.
When viewed from Sandy Creek on Lake Martin, the jagged peak of Smith Mountain looks like an ancient volcano. In terms of feet above sea level, it hardly qualifies as a mountain, but it dominates the local landscape, is the tallest elevation on Lake Martin and would have looked even more impressive before Martin Dam backed up the water around it.
Smith Mountain lies across the Tallapoosa River from the site of Okfuskee, an important Muscogee Creek town that once lent its name to the upper Tallapoosa River and was home to Menawa, the famous Redstick warrior chief at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
According to one local source claiming roots to Okfuskee, the Creeks knew Smith Mountain as cvto-yekce (pronounced chuto-yek-che). That literally means rock-strong, or as we would say, strong rock.
The name Strong Rock is no mystery when viewing the hard, strong quartzite outcroppings that form part of a geologic feature known as the Devil’s Backbone, which shows itself periodically from the northeast corner of Tallapoosa County all the way to Cherokee Bluffs at Martin Dam and beyond into Elmore County. When viewed from the restored fire tower atop Smith Mountain, it is not difficult to imagine the exposed, undulating rock outcroppings as the fossilized backbone of some horrific creature. Today, we give the mountain a less descriptive name for the family that once owned the property after the Creeks were removed.
Before Martin Dam was completed in 1926, all the land within the future reservoir and most of the shoreline was completely cleared. Much of the surrounding land was heavily eroded from poor agricultural practices and the clearing of almost all merchantable timber. Viewing old aerial photos from that era, it is amazing to see just how little forestland was left.
As soon as it was impounded, Lake Martin began filling up with eroded soil. In just two years, eroded soil from Sandy Creek created a deposit that measured 465 yards long, 65 yards wide and 45 feet deep. Similar deposits were dumped into the lake by every creek emptying into it. In the upper reaches of the lake, below Irwin Shoals, the siltation was even worse. Alabama Power Company officials became concerned that continued siltation could greatly shorten the usable life of its hydroelectric plant.
To counter this problem, Alabama Power Company joined the efforts of Alabama Extension, the Soil Conservation Service and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to restore the forests and reclaim eroded land. Millions of trees were planted, as were countless sprigs of kudzu. We may curse kudzu today, but it covered steep, gullied slopes, stopping erosion where nothing else would grow and, along with pine trees, kudzu helped to save Lake Martin.
With such a large investment of money and land in trees, a fire could have been devastating; hence began the construction of a six-tower fire detection network, with Smith Mountain being the location of the first tower and the district office of the Alabama Division of Forestry (later the Alabama Forestry Commission).
Boys from the Dadeville CCC camp built a ranger station, cistern, filling station/shop, map tables, picnic area and other amenities at Smith Mountain. The signature rockwork of the CCC is still evident on Smith Mountain today. The Smith Mountain tower officially opened April 10, 1939, in a grand ceremony that featured a fish fry by the Kiwanis Club.
There are many interesting, sometimes bizarre stories surrounding the operation of the tower and ranger station, not all of which have to do with fire fighting. Stay tuned for more.
When the Smith Mountain Environmental Education Center is completed, you will be glad that you donated. All those who contribute $100 or more will have their names memorialized on a cast metal plaque. Your grandchildren will point to your name with pride. To donate, make your tax-deductible gift payable to CRATA-Smith Mountain Restoration and send to Jimmy K. Lanier, CRATA, P.O. Box 240503, Eclectic, AL 36024.