History of Campbell County, Tennessee

Time Line


By Dallas Bogan

Reprinted with Permission from Dallas Bogan.  This article was published in the Volunteer Times.

Bogan's historical features now in Volunteer Times

Editor's note: Volunteer Times is honored to present Dallas Bogan as a weekly columnist. Mr Bogan is one of East Tennessee's foremost historical writers.

     The Federal Government, in the late 1940s, deemed it necessary to install an early warning system for Oak Ridge. The solution for this plan was the organization of the 663rd Aircraft Control and to install a radar facility as a warning in case of an enemy attack.

     Construction began in 1950 and was finalized in 1951. And so, the 663rd Aircraft Control and Warning Squadron (AC&W) was conceived and moved into its new facility on Cross Mountain above Briceville in Anderson County, Tennessee.

     The road to this facility was in an atrocious state. Apparently some Air Force person painted a sign which read, "Speed Limit, Eighteen holes per hour." Another read, "Bridge Not Out, Just Going." Major Lockwood, base commander, stated that he was authorized by the United States Government to spend money on the road if needed. It was further stated that a road be built from Vasper to the base, nearly all of it in Campbell County. This never happened.

     The base, after a shaky start, was finally established. To reach the top of Cross Mountain and the radar base, a "bucket system" was used by way of a 10,000-ft. (nearly two miles) tramway. (The radar tower reached a height of nearly 1,000-ft. above the mountain.)

     In February 1958, Guy Easterly, former "LaFollette Press" reporter, wrote a short story concerning the "bucket" transportation. The account goes:

     "The Bucket is swung to a cable, which trails off up the mountain, dotted here and there by steel towers. Between the towers the cable car sways down toward the mountain side, and approaching the tower it rises and sways, and dips as it crosses, giving the feeling of hitting an air pocket.

     "The trip down was interesting but uneventful. It was crew change time now, whereas some ten people had ridden to the top, about twenty-five were going down. When we were pretty well stashed in, like sardines in a can, the thing began to move toward the edge of the cliff, slowly at first and then faster, it seemed, as we swung out over a snowy void. The ceiling was zero. Snow was peppering down on that mountain.

     "The 'bucket' did not fall, and no one jumped or fell from it. We landed safely and were led away to officer quarters and a briefing on the operation of the 663rd AC&W Squadron.

     "Ordinarily when we have ridden such contrivances, we have had to sign release papers, for Army and Navy, but as Major Lockwood explained, for self-assurance, there had been no fatal accidents on the cable car, and release was unnecessary."

     Stationed at the base at this time were 14 officers, 227 airmen and 26 civilians. From January 1, 1958, to June 30, 1958, the payroll was approximately $442,000. This meant a total of $884,000 for the entire year.

     Of the families represented on the base, 61 lived in Lake City, 37 in Clinton, six in Norris and twelve in Campbell County. This large expanse meant that the adjoining communities/cities merchants benefited greatly.

     The estimate for the entire value of the base and property was $3,500,000; the radar equipment itself was valued at $909,000. Food and supplies at the base during fiscal year 1958-59 was estimated at $230,000. Project appropriations expenditures for the upcoming year were set at $516,000, which would include modernization of the tower operations building. A new access road, costing $24,000, was to be built which would run to the operations tower, which at that time was only accessible by cable car. Other new improvements would be the repair of the tramway car at a cost of $13,000; construction of 18 new housing units at a cost of $350,000, and repair of the present roadways and the water system.

     The radar station was believed virtually doomed from the start. It was too high to pick low flying aircraft while lower units picked up too much ground clutter from the surrounding mountains to be operative. Accordingly, such things as drought on the radar was another incident which was a negative approach.

     As for Campbell County, it was pointed out that the station bought some supplies here, and that they used the LaFollette Municipal Hospital and the LaFollette Country Club, with the green fees being reduced. The Air Force personnel also donated blood for the local hospital. The County also had about four acres incorporated into the base.
Many servicemen married local ladies and a few returned to the area after leaving the service.

     During the 1950s and early 1960s decreases in military spending brought about the closing of many bases, which included the radar base at Briceville.

Comments from one of our readers:

Ran across your posting about the 663rd AC&Wron whilst surfing the 'net, and was swept by a wave of nostalga. I was stationed at Briceville AFS for three years from 1957 thru 1960. Your article was pretty much "right on the money". The Arial Tramway ("Bucket") was indeed a different experience for all of us. Nothing to do for 30 minutes "up" and 30 minutes "down" every day. Wouldn't be bad for me now that I'm 67  years old, but for a 20-something human male it was the longest trip in creation. Especially when the "bucket" built for twelve had more than twenty aboard, and doubly tiresome when winter forced the door to be shut. I must have played ten thousand games of Hearts... don't like playing cards to this day. 

Another thrill in winter was ice building up on the cable causing it to lose its grip on the traction drum at the tramway drive building. I know this sounds strange, but the system was designed with one end of the cable attached to "uphill" end of the the car, stretching up the mountain, around a "turnaround" pulley, thence back down the grade PAST the car to wrap three times around the traction drum (drive wheel) before going back UP the hill to attech to the "downhill" end of the car. Sort of like an old fashioned clothesline with a pulley by the back door and another out on a tree or something so you could hang your whole wash whilst standing in one place. Any way when the cable "iced up" the tram operator at the drive building couldn't control the speed. Just like your brakes on glare ice. Let us say that a few times the ride "home" got pretty ex-HILL-erating. (Sorry... just couldn't resist) Anyhow, was pleased to read your report. It brought back many fine memories of Lake City, Norris Lake, Lafollette, and all the rest. Thank you, and Kindest Regards

Bil Turner
posted with permission of Bil Turner - thanks Bil!

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