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A Labor of Love

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50 years later, SML dam engineer returns with family, friends

By John Barnhart

    If you enjoy Smith Mountain Lake, then you should thank Dr. Jeffrey Fong.

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    Smith Mountain Lake exists because Smith Mountain Dam holds back the Roanoke River at a gap in Smith Mountain. Dr. Fong is the engineer who designed the dam.
    Last week, Dr. Fong, and a group of friends, came to visit the dam. He joked that he wanted to “see if it’s still standing.” Actually, he expects it to still be standing long after everybody alive today is gone. Dr. Fong expects the dam to be good for 200 years.
    “Concrete is very interesting,” he said. “The older it gets, the stronger  it is.”
    According to Dr. Fong, the dam only needs to preserve its structural integrity is maintenance at the bottom, where the concrete meets the rock. He described it as being like dental work.
    “It’s very hard to do curved dams, very hard,” Dr. Fong said.
    Smith    Mountain   Dam, a concrete arch dam, is curved both vertically and horizontally. This design directs water pressure to the sides and the bottom of the dam, making it possible to use less concrete. Dr. Fong said it cost $50 million to build the dam, but it would cost $1 billion to build it today.

The project
    Dr. Fong was 25 when he started designing the project, which also includes Leesville Dam, in 1959. There were no calculators and no computer aided drafting programs. All drawings were made in pencil, by hand. All calculations were done with slide rules. Dr. Fong said he hired a team of 10 people to work out the mathematical calculations involved — a task that would be done by one person using a computer today.
    There were snags, of course. One snag came when Dr. Fong wanted Appalachian Power to drill 30 bore holes at the gap, where the dam would be built, in order to determine how far down they had to go to find bedrock.
    “They only gave me five,” he said.
    Dr. Fong said Appalachian didn’t want to drill 30 bore holes because it felt that many would be too expensive. He said he warned the company, at the time, that it would pay for that decision and it turned out he was right. After the project was designed and work started, engineers discovered that bedrock was actually 20 feet farther down than the five bore holes had indicated. Because of this, work had to stop while Dr. Fong redesigned the dam. This cost Appalachian a lot more than the 30 bore holes, that Dr. Fong wanted, would have cost.
    “If you save money in the beginning, you’re going to pay for it in the end,” he commented.
    There were a lot of other challenges that Dr. Fong had to work out. One of the problems was getting equipment and materials to what was then a very remote site with only dirt roads. He said that it took him an hour-and-a half to drive from the Hotel Roanoke, where he was staying, to the dam site.

Previous work
    The Smith Mountain Dam project, which also includes Leesville Dam, is not the first dam he designed. His first was in 1954, shortly after coming to the United States from Hong Kong. It’s special to him, however, because it was the first pumped storage hydroelectric project in the United States.
    Water released from Smith Mountain Lake goes through enormous turbines to generate electricity during the daytime. Most of this water collects in Leesville Lake. At night, when electrical demand is low, two turbines are reversed, becoming pumps, and pump water back into Smith Mountain Lake. Smith Mountain Lake acts like a huge storage battery for the power company.
    Dr. Fong said that daytime electric rates were one cent per kilowatt hour back in 1959, while rates at night were a tenth of that. Storing power, in the form of water, at night, allowed the company to make money selling it at higher rates in the day. Dr. Fong said the power company made enough money from the difference to pay for the dam in five years.

Economic impact
    At the time, the only economic impact anticipated from the dam was generating electricity. They weren’t considering the impact to rest of the area, which came as houses and businesses were built around the new lake. What was then the poorest section of Bedford County became, along with the Forest area, one of the two richest.
    Another impact they hadn’t thought of was the lake serving as a drinking water source.
    “We never thought about it,” he said, when told of the Bedford Regional Water Authority’s use of  Smith Mountain lake water.
    “The drinking water is wonderful!” he commented.
    During his visit, Dr. Fong checked out the dam’s visitor center and was impressed with it.
    “I’m glad to see this visitors center,” he said.
    “I love this, this is good stuff,” he added, looking at the displays that show how the project was built and how it works.
    He also got to meet some people who happened to be visiting. When they found out the engineer who designed the dam was there they wanted to meet him. Dr. Fong launched into an animated discussion of the project, holding their complete attention. Although he’s now 80, he displays the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year-old.

Born in Shanghai
    Dr. Fong was originally born in Shanghai and was seven when Japanese troops captured the city. Bombing preceded the arrival of the troops. He said all the civilian buildings were bombed by Japanese aircraft.
    “We [his family] were in a bomb shelter,” he recalled.
    The Japanese occupation was harsh. All school children had to salute any Japanese soldiers the encountered.
    “We had nothing to eat,” he recalled. “They took our rice.”
    He said they ended up eating animal feed.
    Japan was defeated and the Japanese occupation ended, but troubles did not end. The Communists took over in 1949. At first, his father, who was an accountant, was ready to serve the new government.
    “My dad was very patriotic,” Dr. Fong said.
    The Communists, however, wanted him to turn over the names of all of his customers. That was  something he could not, in good conscience do, and his ethical stand landed him in prison. Eventually the Communists allowed him to flee to Hong Kong, but seized all of his money. Fortunately a friend had already escaped to Hong Kong and gave him a job there.
    Dr. Fong graduated first in his class from the University of Hong Kong with a degree in engineering. He learned English, while there, because all classes were taught in English and all students were required to speak to each other in English only. As a result, he was already fluent in English when he came to the United States, courtesy of the Refugee Relief Act. His fluency in English helped him because being able to go to the site, where a project that he’s designed is being built, and talking with the people who are building it is important for an engineer.
    After coming to the United States, he earned his master’s degree at Columbia University and his PhD. at Stanford University.
    Today he still works full-time in engineering at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He’s also an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Drexel University and teaches short international on-line classes. After a full day’s work he and his wife, Elizabeth, play tennis. Elizabeth Fong, who has a master’s in computer science from Stanford, still works full-time doing work in cyber security.