In Search of Utopia in East Tennessee

History of Norris and its founder
Arthur Ernest Morgan


Lesson for eighth-graders at
Norris Middle School

9 & 11 January 2018

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According to the City of Norris web site, “The City of Norris has been called a planned community, a model town, a garden city, and even a utopia.”   That’s because Norris was all those things to its founder, Arthur Ernest Morgan.  He was the latest in a line of visionaries to come to East Tennessee in search of utopia. 

Tennesseans remember him as the first Chairman and Chief Engineer of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), but that was just one of many achievements in his illustrious career.  To appreciate the history of Norris, you must understand the life of Arthur Morgan, who was one of the most influential and controversial figures of the 20th Century. 

Eighth-graders at Norris Middle School learned that through Morgan, their heritage is linked to that of George Washington, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, the Seneca Indian Nation, Johnny Cash, the education system in India, and the Inca Empire.


Foremost, Arthur Morgan was the father of modern flood control dams.  He pioneered the first use of reservoirs to control flooding after the 1913 flood of the Great Miami River in Dayton, Ohio, at a time when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers viewed reservoirs as providing insignificant value in reducing flooding according to its “levees only” policy.   

In 1921, Morgan accepted the presidency of tiny Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, where he revitalized the college with a cooperative education program saying, “The world needs more engineers able to talk about things besides engineering and baseball.”  Morgan's purpose was wholeness; his aim was the creation of broadly educated, technically proficient, socially conscious professionals who would act as agents of human betterment in society.   

Barry Thacker, PE, Larry Beeman
(Norris City Councilman), and Carol Moore

He published the periodical, Antioch Notes, to share his philosophy on education and social development, building a subscriber list of 20,000 that included Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Morgan said that Humankind was a small community animal.  All the cherished human values—honesty, morality, responsibility, ethics, and kindness—originate and are fostered in intimate, face-to-face relationships such as you find in small communities.  Members of such communities have a duty to replenish those cherished human values in both their small communities and in larger metropolitan areas where cherished human values are often lacking.  He viewed small communities as where experimental, utopian ideas could be tested as a means for society to evolve.  

While at Antioch College, Morgan also served as chief engineer during design of the Muskingum River flood control dams in Ohio.  That is until 1933 during the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt told him, “I like your vision” and selected Morgan to lead the Tennessee Valley Authority.  Morgan accepted on condition that hiring would be based on merit with no political appointments. 

A primary objective of the TVA Act was, “To improve the navigability and to provide for the flood control of the Tennessee River. Dams built to address flooding and to provide for navigation, would also allow the Tennessee Valley to be electrified from hydroelectric power plants built with the dams.   

Morgan saw the Tennessee Valley as, “The first place in America where we can sit down and design a civilization.”  For him, the City of Norris would fulfill his lifelong dream of building an experimental utopian community during construction of Norris Dam.  He named the town and the dam to honor Sen. George Norris, who sponsored the TVA bill.   

Morgan recruited former associates who were educated in his “Conclusive Engineering Analysis” method for important roles within TVA.  They then recruited the best and the brightest by selling them on Morgan’s vision for the Tennessee Valley.  An example is the hiring of land planner Earle S. Draper, who based the design for the City of Norris on the English garden city movement of the 1890s with winding roads following the contour of the terrain and open green spaces.

Although Morgan recommended the appointment of the other two TVA directors—Harcourt Morgan (no relation) and David Lilienthal—they initially opposed his plan to build the City of Norris to house workers building Norris Dam.  They called Morgan’s community and social development endeavors akin to “basket weaving.”      

But Morgan was appalled by the 126 deaths that occurred during construction of Hoover Dam, which he attributed largely to fatigue.  He told the other TVA directors that a high fatality rate during construction of Norris Dam would embarrass the Roosevelt administration, so they approved his plan to build the City of Norris.  Yes, the City of Norris was built to house workers building Norris Dam, but if not for Hoover Dam, there would be no City of Norris.

Did Morgan post “Help Wanted” ads to recruit the workforce to build Norris Dam?  No, he was not going to populate his experimental utopian community with random people hired using “Help Wanted” signs.  Instead, he sent recruiters to small communities to recruit workers with high moral character and “cherished human values” willing to relocate to Norris.  He allowed no saloons, gambling houses, or brothels in the City of Norris, saying that a sober, healthy, and well-trained workforce is a safer workforce. 

Workers and their families lived in permanent two-bedroom houses, ate in dining halls, and worshipped together in non-denominational Sunday services in a community center.  All workers were required to attend safety training classes, but Morgan also provided classes on a variety of subjects so workers could learn new job skills. 

Norris School became the first school in the world to be fully electrified with lights turned on by an automated electric-eye.  He provided mobile libraries so workers and their families could advance.  Many workers who came to Norris as unskilled laborers became lifelong, skilled TVA employees from the training they received. 

To reduce fatigue and provide more jobs during the Great Depression, laborers worked four, 6-hour shifts per week.  Absenteeism was low; morale was high; and efficiency such that Norris Dam—which Army engineers had estimated would take four years to build—was completed in less than two and a half years.

Morgan said that utopian writers who were one step ahead of the crowd were leaders, while those who were two steps ahead were visionaries.  But if utopian writers got too far ahead of the crowd, they would be considered fanatics.  Fortunately for Morgan, Tennesseans had a unique way of keeping his feet planted in reality as illustrated by the letter sent to him by Tennessee Senator Nathan Bachman that said, ““I do resent, on the behalf of my people, the suggestion that we are in need of a new cultural civilization, which you continuously advocate in your addresses.  A people whose forbearers went with Sevier to Kings Mountain, destroyed Ferguson and forever broke the yoke of British domination in this country, and later under Jackson annihilated Packenham at New Orleans are surely in no need of intellectual or sociological admonitions in the pursuance of their welfare.  They are of a breed that helped make these United States and will help save them in their hour of travail.” 

Norris was the first of 21 tributary dams whose reservoirs stored flood waters during wet seasons of the year and then discharged that water to augment flow on the Tennessee River during dry seasons of the year.  Nine dams on the Tennessee River were equipped with locks to make it navigable for the first time in history. 

Fontana Dam was key to the flood control and navigation plan Morgan developed for the Tennessee River according to his “Conclusive Engineering Analysis” method, but the other TVA directors vetoed its construction due to conflicts with the Aluminum Company of America, which owned the land where the dam and reservoir were proposed.  Understanding the necessity of Fontana Dam, Morgan continued negotiations to get it built, which the other directors saw as insubordination.  He also disagreed with the other directors over how power generated at the dams should be distributed.  Should electricity be sold to private utilities for distribution or should TVA become a public utility with its own distribution system?  Morgan's refusal to allow political appointments within TVA infuriated many elected officials.

The conflict between the TVA directors resulted in Morgan being fired by President Roosevelt in 1938, but the experts he hired and trained according to his “Conclusive Engineering Analysis” method remained.  In a feat seldom accomplished, before or since, TVA succeeded in completing its first generation of dams within 1% of original budget estimates.  During World War II, TVA became a true arsenal for democracy.             

Although FDR fired Morgan in part due his stance over building Fontana Dam, the Truman Committee insisted on construction of Fontana Dam to meet the needs of the war effort a few years later.  Truman’s work on that committee got him selected as Roosevelt’s vice-presidential running mate during the 1944 election with Truman becoming president upon Roosevelt’s death in 1945.     

When Arthur Morgan was in his 90s, he was invited to a TVA Board meeting where he was told by the Board that most of Morgan’s community enrichment projects had been revived after Harcourt Morgan and David Lilienthal left, and were still going strong.  That explains why TVA’s current Mission Statement has Arthur Morgan’s fingerprints all over it.    

After leaving TVA, Morgan returned as a trustee and lecturer at Antioch College and became a world-renowned leader in education.  He was already world-renowned as a flood control expert and served as a consultant on flood control projects worldwide. 

In 1940, Morgan founded Community Service Inc. (now The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions) to “promote interest and understanding in the need to consciously develop the full possibilities of community life in small towns, rural areas and cities.”  Morgan saw the strong and democratic small community as both the seedbed of virtues and an antidote to the ills of globalization.

Unknown to him at the time, Mahatma Gandhi—often called the Father of India—liked Morgan’s books and articles on education and shared them with his associates.  After India won its independence from Great Britain, Morgan was invited to serve on the Indian Education Commission.

Morgan and Dr. Zakir Husain pushed the commission to recommend establishing rural universities, which became popular and effective.   Dr. Husain was later elected the third president of India, in large part due to the success of the rural universities.

After being elected president, Dr. Husain said, “Much of the credit for the concept of rural universities goes to Arthur Morgan.”   Morgan considered this his greatest achievement. 

In 1955, Sri Viswanathan (Viswan) came to Antioch College to study under Arthur Morgan after graduating from one of the rural universities in India that Morgan advocated.  When he returned home to his rural village in southern India, Viswan established the Mitraniketan School based on Morgan’s philosophy of building cherished human values in an experimental utopian community.  That school still exists today as described at

In 1956, Morgan was asked by a Quaker Friend to meet with Cornelius Seneca, head of the Seneca Nation who told of the Corps of Engineers’ plan to build Kinzua Dam on Seneca land guaranteed by George Washington himself in a 1794 treaty that was to last "so long as the sun rises and the river runs.“   Morgan initially advised the Senecas to accept construction of the dam for the good of downstream communities such as Pittsburgh, so he counseled them on seeking recompense commensurate with their loss.     

But after learning about the Seneca Nation, Morgan agreed to seek an alternative to Kinzua Dam.  In his book, Nowhere was Somewhere, Morgan surmises that the Inca Empire could have been the mythical utopian community described in Sir Thomas More’s classic book, Utopia (which is Greek for nowhere).  Did Morgan see the Seneca Nation as an experimental utopian community in the vein of the Inca Empire?  Would Morgan sit idly by and see the utopian community of the Seneca Nation suffer the same fate as the Inca Empire, which was destroyed by Spanish conquistadors for its gold and silver? No.  

Morgan recruited his longtime associate Barton Jones, who had been site engineer during construction of the City of Norris and Norris Dam, to assist in exploring other options.  They found what they considered a better alternative in the Conewango basin where extreme floodwater would drain to Lake Erie, but otherwise water could be stored for low-water augmentation to the Ohio River.  Morgan even developed a plan for relocating the community flooded by the Conewango reservoir onto higher ground to preserve it, which was an option not available to the Seneca Nation due to the steep terrain around Kinzua Dam.    

Using unit rates published by the Corps of Engineers in its cost-benefit analysis for Kinzua Dam, Morgan demonstrated the superior value of a reservoir in the Conewango basin compared to the one proposed on Seneca land.  Morgan said, “After seeing the prospect of creating $100M in value of low-water augmentation in the Conewango basin, I resigned my association with the Senecas and returned my fee, so I could work for myself without compensation.  If I could create that kind of value to the public, I would have compensated my country for the privilege of citizenship.” 

Johnny Cash wrote about Morgan’s four-year battle with the Corps of Engineers in his song, As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.  In the end, John F. Kennedy denied the plea of the Senecas, Kinzua Dam was built, George Washington was dishonored, the Seneca Nation was betrayed, Pittsburgh got less than total flood control, and the Ohio River lost its low water augmentation, but Arthur Morgan was made an honorary member of the Seneca Nation. 

Although they were forced to move, the Seneca Nation heeded Morgan’s council regarding seeking recompense commensurate with its loss, which enabled future generations of the Seneca to be educated.  Now it has its own doctors, lawyers, engineers, and Indian chiefs to fight its battles. 

How can you as Norris Middle School students honor Arthur Morgan and keep his dream alive in the City of Norris?  Continue to nurture cherished human values—honesty, morality, responsibility, ethics, and kindness—in intimate, face-to-face relationships.  Embrace education as your Seneca brothers and sisters do to become valued members of society, so you can replenish cherished human values in your community and larger metropolitan areas where cherished human values are often lacking.

US History Teacher Nick Corrigan with Carol Moore,
Larry Beeman and Barry Thacker, PE

We got paid in free range Norris chicken eggs!!
Thanks, Larry Beeman!

A piece of the Berlin Wall sits outside the
Post Office in Norris town square

Thank you Norris Middle School

for inviting us to teach you the history of

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