Traveling historic Norris Freeway

By Mike Steely

The highway runs from Rocky Top (Lake City) to Halls Crossroads and, among other landmarks, crosses TVA’s Norris Dam, the agency’s first hydro-electric producer. But Norris Freeway is more than just a road that did not exist before the 1930s and much more than just an access way to the dam.

Bet you didn’t know that the road was originally planned to be a railroad. When the federal government found that too expensive and impractical the road was built. Today the road is a busy Knox County route that starts at Maynardville Highway in Halls and follows gentle hills all the way to Norris Lake.

A long running effort by the city of Norris and various stakeholders is to have the route designated as the Norris Freeway Scenic Byway. The idea has been submitted to the federal government and already approved by the state, complete with a historic marker in Knoxville. 

The application for the designation was presented by Scott Hackler, Norris city manager, along with photos and information supplied by Michael Carberry of the Norris Planning Commission. Carberry, according to Hackler, provided most of the effort to recruit stakeholders. Among those are Senator Lamar Alexander, Lt. Governor Randy McNally, Representative Dennis Powers, the governments of Anderson, Campbell and Knox counties, the City of Rocky Top, Norris Dam State Park, TVA, Anderson County Tourism, the Museum of Appalachia and the Coal Mining Museum.

The town of Norris is the lead in the effort and is awaiting a decision by the federal government. The town was built to house construction workers who worked on the dam. It was a planned community that became a model for others throughout the nation. The town was sold to private owners in 1948.

Knox County Commissioner Charles Busler, who represents part of the area along the route, said the original highway had several cattle crossings including one that still exists in Halls beneath the road. Busler said the old tunnel can be walked through if you know where it begins.

The Norris Project inaugurated one of President Roosevelt’s most ambitious New Deal programs. In addition to the dam, the generously funded TVA agency created a state park and a planned community.

The road heads northwest from Halls, past the large Walmart center. Old Andersonville Pike enters the route just beyond the Cedar Ridge Baptist Church and crosses Bull Run Creek. Just beyond there to the north it passes through Hobert Gap and then intersects with Raccoon Valley Road.

Further on it passes Fairview School and on to the Clayton Industry plant. When Norris Freeway intersects with Andersonville Pike the road passes by the Museum of Appalachia and East Norris Road. You can continue across the Pike or take the Norris Road to the City of Norris.

If you proceed along Norris Freeway you come to the area of Norris Dam, with a state park featuring hiking trails in the hills and along the waters of Clinch River. There’s also a historic water mill, a museum, barn, and visitor’s center. Norris Dam State Park has two campgrounds, the largest of which is across the dam toward Rocky Top (Lake City), where the freeway crosses under I-75 and ends.

Much of the original Norris Freeway is relatively intact, but development pressures increasingly threaten it. The Tennessee State Historic Preservation Office has determined that 18.9 miles of the original 21-mile Norris Freeway is eligible for the National Register of Historic Place and proponents of the designation are awaiting final approval.

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