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The Dams That Nearly Swallowed the Gorilla

Most whitewater paddlers don’t know this, but Dec. 12 will mark 110 years since an engineer’s failed plan for a Western North Carolina river turned out to be one of the greatest gifts ever given to the sport.

Today, the Green River Narrows is one of the world’s most famous creeks, celebrated for the beauty of its gorge and steepness of its rapids. The Narrows is even home to one of the oldest whitewater races, where hundreds of paddlers have come to test their skill and luck against the Class V rapids and the clock. But in 1906, Spartanburg civil engineer George Ladshaw proposed four dams that would have destroyed the river.

But they weren’t built. The reason? Oddly enough, no one knows.

“I searched and searched, but could find no reason,” said John Pilson, a regular Narrows paddler who’s been researching Ladshaw and his unfulfilled proposals since stumbling upon it in 2008. In the UNC-Asheville archives, Pilson discovered Ladshaw’s blueprints for the dams, with two on the Upper section and two on the Narrows.

The push toward hydroelectric development for America’s rural areas had been in full swing 20 years by the time the Green River was put on the chopping block. “That was a huge focus of that time,” said Melinda Massey, director of Polk County Travel and Tourism. “Pretty much all the lakes in this area were created with power in mind because it is such a remote area.”

Massey added that dams also were seen as key to the tourism at the time as lakes, used for summertime recreation, were thought to make the area much more hospitable.

The Green River is not without dams. Tuxedo Dam lies above the Green River, but its operator typically works with the paddlers, tubers and anglers by providing nearly 300 release days a year.

Today, the river attracts thousands for rafting, tubing, angling, and big events like the Green River Games. It’s also brought key businesses. Paddlers Shane Benedict and Woody Calloway founded Liquidlogic kayaks on the Green River because “it was the river that we wanted to paddle, plain and simple.”

Pilson has called for a jubilation of sorts over Ladshaw’s failed dam dreams and even sent word of it to Raleigh. The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources officially recognized Ladshaw Day on December 12. Said Pilson, “I realized the opportunity for a half-joking remembrance of this unknown character who had such an impact on us.”

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