Helen Cable Vance’s family left Swain County in 1944 because their home was destroyed in the name of progress.
Vance, now 95, grew up in the community of Proctor in Swain County. Les Cables and others in the area were forced to sell their property to the government so the Tennessee Valley Authority could build a dam.
âThey moved in there in 1835,â said Vance, a longtime Sylva resident. “We were still living on the same property when we moved there in 1944.”
She was 17 and had just graduated from Proctor High School when the TVA began to make way for the construction of the Fontana Dam. The 480-foot-high, 2,365-foot-wide dam on the Little Tennessee River was built to bring electricity to the area, aid the war effort, and alleviate flooding caused by deforestation. Construction began in 1942.
News of the dam made an already uncertain time more difficult.
âWorld War II had just started in 1941,â Vance said. âWe knew a smaller dam was going to be built, but because of the war they rushed it. We had that, and we knew we were going to have to move too. And then all the boys went on duty. So it was a bit of a rough time for us. No one knew where the others were going, and it had to be done so quickly. “
When the dam was completed, the area was inundated, covering farms, schools and communities with a 10,230 acre lake used to generate electricity.
Les Cables and others moved to Jackson and other North Carolina counties; others have spread across the country.
Twenty-seven family cemeteries that were not victims of the flood were left to the action of time and nature until Vance and other members of the displaced families lobbied for access in order to save them from the elements.
âIn 1976, there was a renewed sense of heritage with our nation’s bicentennial,â said Henry Chambers, president of the North Shore Cemetery Historical Association. âA meeting was organized for former residents, workers and people associated with the North Shore. “
The association was created in 1978 to maintain cemeteries. Vance was one of the founders.
His family is buried in Cable I Cemetery, one of two leaflets where his relatives were buried.
âWe had a family reunion and we were talking about cemeteries,â she said. “My first cousins ââhad not returned to this cemetery since our grandfather’s death in 1939.”
They decided to have a decorating day at Cable’s cemeteries and then agreed to clean up all the backcountry cemeteries along the lake. They used their own boats to cross Lake Fontana and climbed the mountain to clear cemeteries overgrown with weeds, trees, and undead.
They also fought the state and the park system that wanted to let the properties alone be reclaimed by nature.
âWe thought, ‘Well, we’re not going to let that happen,’ Vance said.
The property sales contracts promised families continued access to cemeteries and the right to be buried there if they wished, but access was blocked, leading the families to petition the government. They won.
Unfortunately, several sites have been lost in time or made inaccessible.
âAlthough we know the general area, it is extremely difficult to access it, especially since the hemlocks are dead and the fallen trees make access even more difficult,â Chambers said. âThere are always problems, especially with bears and pigs knocking over stones, uprooting cemeteries and increasing natural erosion. “
Maintaining burial sites is important for historical and genealogical purposes for members of these families and others interested in history, Vance said.
âFor us, they are sacred,â she said. âI have a brother buried there. I can’t tell you how many aunts and uncles, and four groups of grandparents buried in this same cemetery.