They made their way down the cut earth of the hillside along a path that switched back on itself as it descended the steep bank. Near the bottom they came to the wall of the cofferdam, and Clark led them up a set of wooden stairs on one end.

“This,” Clark said, spreading his arms wide like a ringmaster, palms up, “is the works.”

Nathan nodded, his eyes scanning over the immensity. Men moved everywhere, in constant activity. The blue flicker of acetylene sparked here and there as the rebar was amassed into the skeleton for the concrete. At the far end, they were pouring the last of the foundations. Men in hardhats and gray-stained hip waders slogged through the slurry of rock and cement, working it down into the gaps with shovels. Others were loading wheelbarrows and hustling them down planks that had been laid out to lead to the outer edges. A foreman down in the pit yelled for more, and the driver yanked a lever at the back of the truck, releasing a torrent of wet cement. The truck pulled out of the way so the next could back in. A couple men with hoses began washing the truck’s apparatus, brown-green river water rinsing the gray off the chute until the burnished metal shone. Another yell, another drop, and the second truck advanced. Nathan counted twenty trucks in the line, and more were arriving, the cylindrical beds turning and turning to keep their loads from setting up too soon.

A rudimentary guardrail had been pieced together from scrap, and Nathan placed his hands on it, leaning out to look down to where the river pierced the base of the structure. It didn’t have the broad expanse of the Mississippi, but it wasn’t small by any estimating. He made a few attempts at calculating the weight of force of the water sliding past, but abandoned the effort, his concentration quailing at the thought of resisting such a constant, overwhelming force. He had an idea how it was done. They wouldn’t have fought the river all at once. They’d have diverted it, taken it on piece by piece. First they would have built the cofferdam that he and Clark stood upon. In the temporary workspace it provided, they’d have built the floodgates in place, wide open. When those were complete the workers would remove the diversion channel and simply let the water run through the open floodgates, a bull charging past as the matador waved his cape. The river would run until the main wall of the dam was complete. Only then, when they were ready, would they drop the gates, and the water would begin to rise on the upriver side.

“Here’s what you electrical boys will be interested in,” Clark said, and Nathan turned to see him pointing back up to where the road came down out of the hills. A convoy of trucks was arriving with large crates strapped to their flat beds. On two of the trucks, tarps covered loads nearly as large as the cabins on the hillside.

“Turbines?” Nathan asked, shielding his eyes for a better look.

“Had them cast up in Pittsburgh,” Clark said. “Maufrais has been waiting three weeks for them to arrive.” He pointed to a small mountain of crates that had been unloaded. “Those will be the water wheels. The foundations are already poured for them on the other end. When this dam is finished, they’ll make enough electricity to power every house and farm in the valley.”

Photograph by Alrinthea Carter

The big trucks were now threading their way into the encampment of worker houses and offices on the far bank. Nathan turned on his heel, taking it all in, found more buildings back in the trees.

“It’s like a city,” Nathan said.

“Damn near is. There’s something like two thousand men on payroll. This dam was a godsend. Electricity will be nice, but it’s the jobs we mostly needed around here.”

Nathan scrutinized his guide anew. “You a local?”

Clark pointed his chin up the valley. “Grew up just over the ridge. And if I’m telling true, when I left for university, I never thought I’d be coming back. But here I am.”

“You have electricity at your place now?”

“My parents’ place. Not yet. My mother has been itching for it, though. She’s made a down payment on a clothes washing machine, and the electric lines haven’t made it any farther than the McKims’ farm just south of town.”

“It must have been a shock, coming back to live without it.”

“Like wearing clothes for a spell when all you’ve known is running around buck naked.” He winked at Nathan. “And then going back to being naked again.”

Nathan couldn’t help but grin at the young man.


Mark Barr will be at M. Judson Booksellers for Book and a Beer on Friday, October 25, accompanied by fellow Appalachian writer Caleb Johnson. Barr’s novel Watershed is part of the Cold Mountain Fund Book Series, a partnership between Hub City Press and Cold Mountain author Charles Frazier. For more from Watershed, visit hubcity.org.