How Jocassee Gorges Was Saved

To appreciate what Bill Thomas did for Gorges State Park, think of it not as a stand-alone property but as part of the larger Lake Jocassee watershed. Also known as Jocassee Gorges, it is a freak of climatological and geologic nature that extends across the North Carolina-South Carolina line southwest of Asheville and has been named by National Geographic as one of fifty “World’s Last Great Places.”

The ancient crash of tectonic plates that created the Appalachian Mountains pushed up the Blue Wall on the southeast edge of the mountains and formed the bones of the lake’s basin and the maze of gorges above it. The 2,000-foot wall catches moisture from clouds drifting up from the Gulf of Mexico, creating an annual average of 91 inches of rain (and a whopping 136 inches in 2018) that feeds four landmark rivers, the Thompson, Toxaway, Horsepasture and Whitewater. Their destination-worthy cascades include Whitewater, Rainbow, Turtleback and Windy falls.

Thomas, taking in the views at Gorges State Park, thought about what this land could have been— a vast zone of hydroelectric projects, its famous waterfalls funneled through pipes, its wild rivers cooped up in basins designed to flush like toilets to produce surges of power.

He thought about what it has been instead for the past 20 years—a safely preserved wonderland of deep ravines, plunging rivers and rare plants.

Thomas, 91, a retired chemical engineer, made an unpaid, late-life career of doing good things for the environment, applying his passion for the outdoors and brilliant, Princeton-trained intellect to a series of causes, including the blocking of a luxury subdivision planned for the heart of DuPont State Recreational Forest.

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