SI Vault
Edwin Shrake
April 01, 1968
With the surrounding country already laid waste by strip miners and timber companies, the resolute Army Corps of Engineers is now poised to move in its forces to inundate the Red River Gorge
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April 01, 1968

Operation Build And Destroy

With the surrounding country already laid waste by strip miners and timber companies, the resolute Army Corps of Engineers is now poised to move in its forces to inundate the Red River Gorge

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There are silver linings even in the dark clouds hovering over Vietnam. If it were not for the expense of the war, jackhammers would now be yammering in a gorge in eastern Kentucky through which flows the North Fork of the Red River. Construction of a dam would have started last month had a reprieve not come with a freeze on government spending for local projects. The river took 60 million years to carve the gorge out of the Cumberland Plateau, and it now has gained another scant year of life. The scheduled start of construction is January 1969.

By building a dam that has no good reason to be built, the Kentucky politicians and the Army Corps of Engineers will turn a unique piece of wilderness into a narrow, commonplace lake that will be attractive to few people. A water skier would have trouble making a wide swing on it. The gorge is a natural museum of geological structures, of plant and animal life and—a matter that is important to too few people—a thing of primeval beauty. The proposed dam, said the Louisville Courier-Journal in one of its frequent editorials on the subject, is "a boondoggle, pure and simple." Most of the nation is not yet aware of what this boondoggle threatens.

Great castle rock formations tower above the floor of the gorge. More than 20 natural rock arches stand along the palisades of the North Fork. Another 30 are scattered through the surrounding Daniel Boone National Forest. This phenomenon occurs in only one other place in the world, and that is along the Colorado River tributaries in Utah.

Because of the 600-foot drop down the walls of the gorge, climatic conditions change abruptly to form in one rather small area what Carl M. Clark, associate agricultural economist at the University of Kentucky, says is the finest botanical garden in the eastern United States. For example, a different type of wildflower blooms every day from late March into November, creating outbursts of shifting colors along the trails, streams and cliffs.

Wild white water rushes between the palisades that rear up high as a 60-story building, and one stretch of the river is strewn with boulders as big as houses. Daniel Boone is believed to have lived in the gorge, a notion that was supported last year when two mountaineers, who are disposed toward secrecy, led forest rangers to a rock shelter under which is a primitive hut that has "D. Boon" scratched on a wood shake shingle.

The Red River breaks into three forks—the South, Middle and North—six miles from the dam site. The South Fork is of little economic significance other than for its timber. The Middle Fork wanders through Natural Bridge State Park, which draws about 300,000 visitors a year, many of them from Lexington, an hour's drive to the west, or from Louisville, another hour farther. The North Fork, where the dam is to be built, courses its rugged gorge near the Mountain Parkway, a toll road that carries speeding motorists close by a place that most of them do not know exists. Except for a few tobacco patches and other crops along wider spaces of the gorge floor, the North Fork has had no real dollar value since the virgin timber was chopped. Nearly 40 years ago the National Forest Service bought much of the gorge for $3 or less per acre merely to conserve and replace the timber.

From down inside the gorge—where trees once rose 200 feet above the palisade walls with branches so thick as to blot out the sunlight—one gets the impression of being in the mountains rather than on a plateau that has been sculpted by erosion. "Red River Gorge," wrote Carl Clark, "is a miniature model of Nature's greatest masterpiece of erosion—the Grand Canyon in Arizona." Other than the natural arches, which are called "lighthouses" by the natives, the gorge has many balanced rocks, pinnacle rocks, rock houses and caves. Within 30 square miles, most of it protected by the National Forest Service, is a concentration of most of the types of plant life that can be found in the eastern United States. The vegetation is in such proliferation that scientists will not have time to finish an inventory of it if the dam is built anywhere near on schedule.

Geographically, the Red River Gorge is midway between the North and South of the country. At the top of the plateau the soil conditions in summer are similar to those of the Southwest. At the bottom of the palisades it is shady, cool and damp. Where the valley floor opens, it is humid and hot. Erosion has poured limestone, sandstone and shale onto the river terraces. One result is that nearly all the tree families east of the Rockies are found there. Clark would like to see the gorge become a national sanctuary for research in the natural sciences. "Standing on a high point such as Chimney Top Rock or Sky Bridge," says Clark, "a person has, within one panoramic view, an assembly of...botanical life unequaled anywhere in Kentucky and probably the entire United States as far as the total range of it is concerned."

Few, if any, of the bears and panthers that roamed the gorge in Daniel Boone's time remain, although residents talk of bears raiding garbage cans and of hearing panthers wail in the night. But deer and wild turkey have been restocked there, and beaver dams are not difficult to locate. More than 125 species of resident birds and 150 species of transient birds have been counted. The 10 or more tributary streams, fed by cold-water springs, have been stocked with rainbow and speckled trout. In the North Fork are muskie, channel catfish, rock bass, blue gill, largemouth and small-mouth bass, crappie and perch, as well as shiners, darters, chubs, shad and dace. More than 20 species of salamanders, seven species of turtles, six species of lizards and 15 kinds of snakes inhabit the gorge.

To see all this, to find these creatures, it is necessary to hike back into the wild country or to travel by canoe through the rough water. However, from lookouts such as Tunnel Ridge, atop the Nada Tunnel, one may peer out across a landscape of hills and ridges and forests, across a country so remote that explorers are still discovering new natural arches and plants. From the top of the ridge there is not a power line in sight, only an occasional string of blue woodsmoke, and the wind sounds like rushing water in the trees. The country is very much as it looked to Daniel Boone and John Swift.

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