Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2018 - 33

Ocoee: Free,
Dammed, Free
Again
The Ocoee River ran uninterrupted until 1913, when a dam
was built to generate power,
broke free in 1976, hosted
Olympic events in 1996, and is
now gauranteed to run free for
about 100 days a year for the
next 15 years.
by Grant Currin
Last April, the Tennessee mountain
river that once was dammed and
drained, slow-flowed and nearly forgotten got new life when the Tennessee Valley Authority, the State of
Tennessee, and a group of outfitters
reached a 15-year agreement to keep
the river running freely for over 100
days per year.
The Ocoee, a tributary of the
Hiwassee that flows north from
Lumpkin County, Georgia, to Polk
County, Tennessee, ran uninterrupted for millennia, until 1913,
when the Tennessee Power Company dammed the river to generate power for the region and nearby Chattanooga.
While the rest of the world
fought two World Wars, endured
the Great Depression, saw 12 men
walk on the Moon and learned
the jitterbug, the Ocoee was safely
packed away in a wooden flume in
rural southeast Tennessee.
A lot had changed by 1976, when
a rockslide destroyed the flume and
gave the river her first taste of freedom in more than 60 years.
Though adventurers made the
first rafting expeditions in the

These paddlers were on the Ocoee River in 1978.

American West in the early nineteenth century, whitewater rafting
and similar adventure sports only
started to take off in the 1960s and
'70s. The Ocoee could not have chosen a better moment to begin its second act.
J.T. Lemons was among the first
people to run the river.
"The first time I ever did the
Ocoee was in late September of '76,"
he said. Lemons and some friends
were passing through the area after
visiting the Chattooga River near
Cashiers, N.C.
"We had some kayaks and a raft
with us, and there was enough daylight, so we tried it out." After a successful trip down the river, Lemons
found some investors and started
Ocoee Outdoors, a local rafting outfitter that is still in business.
However, a problem remained:
the TVA wanted to keep using the
Ocoee to generate power, but there
was not enough water to send rafters down the river and turn the turbines. When the TVA repaired the
flume a few months later, it tried to
divert water out of the river and to
the powerhouse. Lemons and the

owners of several other rafting operators fought the agency.
"After several years and a court
case, we came to an agreement [with
the TVA] where we got water 116
days a year for 35 years," Lemons
said. As part of the deal, outfitters
have paid the TVA $6.5 million to
make up for lost revenue.
In the years since Lemons and
his buddies took their first trip down
the Ocoee, rafting has become the
cornerstone of the local economy.
In addition to drawing international
attention to the region during the
1996 Olympics, when the river was
the site of the whitewater events, the
Ocoee brings hundreds of thousands
of visitors to the area each year. According to Mike Bell, a state senator
from nearby Riceville, the rafting industry generates $43.8 million and
provides more than 600 jobs.
Last April, the TVA, the State of
Tennessee, and a group of outfitters
reached an agreement that will keep
the river flowing for at least 15 more
years. As part of the deal, outfitters
will give the state about $4 per customer to pay off the TVA and help
with maintenance. 
January/Februrary 2018 33



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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2018 - Cover1
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Blue Ridge Country - January/February 2018 - Cover3
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