Periodic flooding had become an increasingly severe problem along sections of major river valleys in the post-Civil War era, as urban population centers grew along the Ohio and other navigable rivers. As early as 1851, engineer Charles Ellet, Jr. prepared a report that recommended building stronger and higher levees and a series of storage reservoirs on the Ohio, Kanawha, Missouri, and upper Mississippi basins to benefit navigation, and control flooding. Congress in 1857 rejected a series of detailed studies associated with the Ellet Plan, and engineers later declared many of the engineering problems posed by Ellet as being unsolvable. His plan was considered controversial and the Corps of Engineers rejected it. One of the main objections was that he proposed building reservoir dams exceeding 100 feet in height over moving streams. Construction of such high dams was a difficult undertaking in the late 1800s, and dam failures (most notably the 1889 collapse of the South Fork Conemaugh River Dam at Johnstown, Pennsylvania) shook public confidence in contemporary dam-building technology.
|Charles Ellet, Jr.,who called for the building of levees and a series of high dams and storage reservoirs along major tributaries of the Mississippi River.
The initial phase of federal involvement in reservoir dam construction came in 1902 with the National Reclamation Act that authorized the Federal Bureau of Reclamation to begin building dams in the western United States to facilitate agricultural irrigation. The first multi-purpose high concrete dam constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was Wilson Dam on the Tennessee River at Sheffield, Alabama. Built between 1918 and 1926, Wilson Dam provides hydroelectric power and extra water to maintain stable navigation pools on the Tennessee River Navigation System.