By Ginny Wray
Robert L. Hamby jokes that he invested in Philpott Dam.
No, he isn’t referring to the hours he spent helping build at the dam nearly 70 years ago. He is talking about the quarter he put in the first bucket of concrete ever poured for the dam.
And it wasn’t just Philpott Dam north of Bassett. Hamby put 25 cents in the concrete of several dams he worked on during a lifelong career as an ironworker.
Why? “I was young and dumb,” he said recently, laughing.
His wife, Dorothy, puts it differently. He was leaving something precious, she said, adding, “He was leaving his mark.”
The 65th anniversary of Philpott Dam and Powerhouse was marked in September, and Hamby was there nearly from the start. Now he is nearing his 90th birthday and his eye sight is not what it once was, but he still can pick himself out in a photograph walking mid-air on the conveyor system he helped install and remember the work he did there.
Hamby was born in Nashville, Tenn., the son of an ironworker who traveled across the United States to work on such famous projects as the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam. His family traveled with him, and his son learned the trade.
In 1949, after finishing high school and working on construction sites outside Atlanta and Macon, Ga., the younger Hamby joined a dam project in Cartersville, Ga
“The cable system for Philpott came out of Georgia, and I was hired with it,” along with Joe Hylton, who originally was from Wilmington, N.C., Hamby said. Later, two or three other men from Arkansas joined the group.
They started working at 8 a.m. six days a week and “worked until whenever,” Hamby said. At first he lived in a room atop Russell’s Grill in North Bassett and was paid the union scale of $2 an hour with double pay for overtime, he added.
The men’s first job at Philpott was to erect 125-foot tall towers and put up a cable system that carried buckets of cement and equipment across the Smith River. It was dangerous work high off the ground, Hamby recalled, estimating it took them about a month to create the cable system.
According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers notes from 1950 on file at the Bassett Historical Society, the main 3-inch diameter cable was suspended on a 17,000-foot span. The entire assembly was designed to handle a safe working load of 20 tons.
It was electronically operated and controlled in the head tower. According to the Corps of Engineers, the operator and signalman in a cofferdam — a timber structure filled with compacted earth that kept water from the construction site — could not see each other. They communicated by phones and bells.
Hamby remembers pinching prongs together to sound the bells in the operator’s room in the head tower in a prearranged sequence to indicate that path of the buckets of concrete. A certain number of bells meant the bucket was to go up, another number meant it was to go down and so on, he said.
According to the Corps of Engineers information, concrete was purchased elsewhere and shipped by rail to a facility in South Bassett. It was stored in silos.
When it was needed, the mixed concrete was dumped into a railroad hopper car and transferred to the 8-foot bucket suspended from the cableway. The bucket moved along the cable until the concrete was deposited in the blocks, or sections of the dam.
Hamby said each bucket held eight yards of concrete, and they poured several hundred yards in each 8- to 10-hour work day. According to the Corps of Engineers, the project would require 265,000 barrels of cement. That would equal about 1,060 carloads or 20 trainloads of cement and 610 tons of sand and crushed stone.
“The tonnage would fill a fleet of 10-ton trucks 231 miles long if parked bumper to bumper if all hauled at once,” the corps’ notes added.
The first concrete for the dam was poured at 6:50 p.m. March 13, 1950, according to the Martinsville Bulletin. About 16 tons of concrete were poured into the bed of the river as the work began.
“Before midnight, 2 1/2 feet of concrete was within the forms for the first monolith to be constructed. The dam was to consist of 22 upright sections (monoliths) and be 920 feet wide and 219 feet high,” the Bulletin stated.
The July 18, 1967, Martinsville Bulletin described the construction scene:
“Watching the various phases of construction was fascinating. It went on day and night, winter and summer. During hot weather, huge refrigerators kept the concrete at a constant temperature. During the winter, the concrete was heated as it was being mixed. And there was always a big crowd there to watch the concrete being moved in huge buckets by electrically controlled cables in the spot where workers were putting it into prefabricated forms. It was quite a sight watching this monstrous gorge being tamed by man.”
The Philpott Dam project was authorized by Congress in 1944 to generate power and to halt flooding that had plagued the Bassett area. After work on it began in 1949, the dam provided flood control by 1951 and in 1953, the dam and all three generators in its powerhouse were operating, according to Bassett Historical Center files. At that time, it had a combined capacity of 14,000 kilowatt of electricity.
The nearly $14 million cost included the dam, powerhouse, site clearing, relocations and land in the reservoir created by the dam. About 400 people work to construct the concrete gravity dam.
Hamby worked on the Philpott Dam from 1949 until “Uncle Sam came and got me” in October 1950, he said. He went into the Army and served in Korea from February 1951 to June 1952.
He left behind his wife, the former Dorothy Turner, whom he had married in December 1950. A graduate of Bassett High School, she lived with her mother in Bassett and worked at Stone Mercantile while he was overseas. After that, she traveled with him and worked until their two daughters were born.
After Hamby got out of the service, he took a job at a DuPont plant in Aiken S.C. After about three years, Hamby took to the road again, working on projects in Gainesville, Ga., Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arkansas before he returned to Henry County to work on construction jobs at the DuPont plant.
“I wound up on Smith Mountain Lake, working on the dam,” he said, and stayed for 10 years. He was part of a group kept on by the contractor after that dam was built and was going to work on a dam on the New River until it was halted by an environmental issue.
Hamby then joined Martin Processing, working as a maintenance mechanic for 15 years until he retired at age 60. That job meant he could be home with two daughters, who were in high school and “needed Daddy at home,” he said. Martin Processing was the predecessor to Eastman in Fieldale.
Of all the places Hamby has lived and worked, his favorite is “right here” in Henry County, he said. “I like it here better than anywhere I’ve ever been,” he added.
Now, Hamby and his wife live in the home they built in the Reed Creek area. Their daughter, Lisa Mathis, lives next door; their other daughter, Terry Kendrick, was killed in an auto accident in 1996. The Hambys have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren
Hamby said he is proud of the work he did at Philpott Dam, but he did not elaborate. Dorothy did.
“He put his body and soul in it,” she said proudly. Along with his 25 cents.