The Cherokee name Jocassee means “Place of the Lost One,” and what a fitting description that is for the South Carolina lake that bears its name, and for its sister lake, Lake Keowee. In 1974, Duke Energy Corporation finished construction of the Oconee Nuclear Station on the Keowee River in Oconee County, SC. The construction project included these two man-made lakes. The largest is Lake Keowee, which was built at the station site. Lake Jocassee, built at a higher elevation to serve as a pump storage lake for
hydroelectric power generation, covers 7,656 acres, impounding the waters of the Whitewater, Thompson, Horsepasture and Toxaway Rivers.
There’s no question that Lake Keowee’s 18,500 acres of water and 300 miles of shoreline have been a valuable source of energy and recreation in northwestern South Carolina. The lake provides a dependable water supply for Greenville and Seneca. The station’s generators have a total capacity of 174,000 kilowatts of electricity. And campers can enjoy the county-managed 155-acre Mile Creek Park, the 40-acre South Cove Park, and 44-acre High Falls Park (all leased from Duke).
Progress, as always, has a cost.
It was a post-World War II boom-time, for growth in population, housing, energy-use and consumption. No river with the downhill heft of Keowee would escape the dam builders’ advances. It was also a time in which the economics of the family farm forced some uncomfortable compromises among those who had for all history, in the words of Fruber Whitmire, “lived at home.” Growing one’s living was a dying way of life; an infringing world ran on ready cash.
So, the die was cast. Not many who lose a birthplace, a homeplace, a piece of sacred earth to a dam through eminent domain are going to bless Duke Power.
Lake Keowee History from Micheal Hembree and Dot Jackson:
Beneath the two lakes lay some of the most ancient and significant Native American and early European archaeological sites in the Southeast. Two hundred feet below Lake Keowee’s surface sit Fort Prince George, an early British military outpost, and the Cherokee village site at Keowee– “land of mulberry groves,”– which during the eighteenth century served as the capital of the Lowerhill Cherokee. Many other historic towns and buildings, such as Falls Creek Church, Estatoe, Sugartown, Mt Carmel Church, Jocassee Village, Camp Jocassee, and Keowee Church, felt the onrush of the Keowee River’s dammed waters.
This was the home place of John Thomas Newton, circa 1917.
The site is now under water due to Lake Keowee Construction.
Lake construction also required harvesting the wild timberlands in the lake basins, including some of the last stands of native old growth forest in the southern Blue Ridge Mountains. These lakes inundated some of the best bottomland in upstate South Carolina. When Crescent Land and Timber Company, a subsidiary of Duke Energy, finished the clearing operation in the fall of 1969, they had harvested 17.5 million board feet of pine sawtimber, 15 million board feet of hardwood sawtimber and 51,800 cords of pulpwood.
Duke Energy boasted that this was enough sawtimber to build 2,350 six-room houses, and that the pulpwood would load 2,250 railroad cars. Some of the yellow poplar trees that were harvested in the ancient forest of Jocassee were reported to be 200 feet tall, seven feet in diameter and over 200 years old.
Then there was the question of submerged cemeteries. State law prohibits damage or destruction of human remains. It is a felony, and conviction carries a maximum fine of $5,000 and 10 years in prison. So suitable re-internment plots had to be found. “Old Pickens” was located at Robertson’s Ford on the Keowee River, near where the nuclear station now sits. The only building remaining from Old Pickens is the old Presbyterian Church. There is a church yard with some of the original old tombstones, and next to that are the reinterred graves of Fannie Gibson, Joab Lewis, Isabella Baskin Reid, and a number of others moved to the site by Duke Power.
Other graves identified and claimed by relatives were moved to Martin Grove Wesleyan Methodist Church, Mount Carmel Baptist, Oconee Memorial Gardens Cemetery, Sunrise Cemetery in Pickens, and Stamp Creek Baptist Church Cemetery.
The Duke Power Company Memorial Cemetery was established during the construction of Lake Keowee as a place where unclaimed graves could be reinterred. If a living relative could not be found to specify a new interment location, the unknown remains where buried here.
In the fall of 2007 Duke Energy hired a Georgia-based company to do an archeological survey of Lake Keowee that will encompass the shoreline, islands and undeveloped portions of lake access areas. “The region is rich in history, and we believe it is important to identify archaeological and historic sites within the reservoir,” said Joe Hall, manager of Duke Energy’s lake-use permitting.
Luther Lyle, chairman of Oconee County’s Arts and Historical Commission, called the survey a wonderful thing, but late in coming.
“The Cherokee were all up and down the river and a lot is already under water,” Mr. Lyle said. “There is a wealth of knowledge and information to be gained from what’s still above the lake. I think the mindset has changed since the lakes were put in and we realized how much we have lost.”
While much was lost and there remains controversy about the flooding required to make these lakes, there is no doubt that Lake Jocassee and Lake Keowee are among the most beautiful lakes in the United States. National Geographic designated the Jocassee Gorges as a “destination of a lifetime”. This wilderness jewel was included in a special edition of the renowned magazine highlighting “50 of the World’s Last Great Places”.
Let’s enjoy and protect our lakes so they will remain the treasures that they are for many, many generations to come!
Lake Keowee Today