Sandlapper Society

Lordy, Lordy, Lake Keowee is 40!

by Dan Huntley • photo courtesy of Duke Energy

John Powell was born less than three miles from the shore of Lake Keowee and still lives nearby.

He remembers, as a teenager, riding his horse down to the Keowee River in the 1960s to go swimming.

“We’d go over to High Falls where there was this wonderful swimming hole. Really good, deep and clear water. Students from Clemson would come over there on summer weekends,” said Powell, 60, a real estate developer and realtor.

He remembers first hearing talk of damming the river in the late 1960s. He said there was little opposition to the damming of the river; in fact, most people were excited about it. Powell also recalls the moment when he realized the creation of the lake would make an enormous difference in his community, certainly the biggest in his lifetime. “I was in the Future Farmers of America and my teacher predicted that land along the Keowee would soon be selling for up to $500 an acre. I went home and told my Daddy and he said that man was crazy.”

His family sold 60 acres that are now under water, but Powell has held on to nearly 100 acres near Keowee’s upper waters.

Powell says Lake Keowee is the literal heart of the region and that Duke has been a good corporate caretaker.

 “Duke has always been extremely active in our community, besides things like monitoring the docks and water quality. What draws people to this area is the lake; it’s not exactly a hidden jewel, because so many people do know about it. It’s hard to imagine this area without the lake.”

It was 40 years ago this spring that one of the “purest clear lakes in North America” was created and its dam began generating green emission-free electricity.  “We are honored Keowee Hydro has been a part of the community for four decades,” said Sam Burton, Keowee Station manager for Duke Energy. “Building hydroelectric capacity here and forming Lake Keowee have resulted in a special amenity that will continue to provide a beautiful place to live and visit for years to come.”

A dam on the Keowee River and another on the Little River created the 17,700-acre lake with its nearly 400 miles of shoreline. Duke began construction on the Keowee Dam in the spring of 1967 and closed the gates on the Keowee Dam in April 1970 to begin backing up the water to a depth of 150 feet.

The hydro station produces electricity through two turbines that are fed by a water pipe that is 800 feet long and 34 feet in diameter. The dam provides enough electricity to power 126,400 homes in the Upstate.

Lake Keowee offers a variety of recreational opportunities for boaters, sailors, campers, water-skiers, bird watchers, hikers, campers, kayakers and fishing folk— six public boat access areas; two county-managed parks in Oconee County and one in Pickens which are leased from Duke; and the 1,000-acre Keowee-Toxaway State Park. Another 373 acres along Eastatoe Creek have been turned over to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for management as a natural area.

Collectively, there are more than 167,000 acres of state parks, game lands and national forests— much of it available for hunting, as well as hiking.
For fishermen and boaters there are nine public access areas on Lake Keowee: Upper Section–Fall Creek; Crow Creek; Keowee Town; Mile Creek (leased to Pickens County) and the Lower Section: Stamp Creek; High Falls (leased to Oconee County); Warpath; Cane Creek; and South Cove (leased to Oconee County).

Full pond elevation at Lake Keowee is 800 feet above sea level, and the lake supplies water needs for Greenville and Seneca, as well as an excellent source for pan fish such as bream and crappie; plus redeye, spotted and smallmouth bass, brown and rainbow trout.

The region around Lake Keowee is known for waterfalls, with more than 150 marked waterfalls in the South Carolina Upstate, such as Whitewater Falls— with a cascade of more than 200 feet and one of the highest in Eastern America— near Lake Jocassee.

The land around the lake is part of a strong Native American heritage. Keowee means “place of the mulberry,” nearby Jocassee means “place of the lost one.” Prior to the first European settlers in the early 1700s, Native Americans, descendants of the Cherokee and Oconee tribes, hunted the broad bottomlands along the Keowee River and built towns along its banks.

Keowee Village was the capital of the Lower Cherokee towns and dates to at least 1539. The town was on the banks of the river, and gave both the river and the lake their names. Keowee Village was a large complex, extending for eight to ten miles from the river. In the late 1770s, Chief John Norton was born in Keowee. Norton, who was half Scottish and half Cherokee, went on to become Chief of the Mohawk Nation. Norton wrote extensively about tribes of the region and provided a rare first-person perspective of the early 19th century from a Native American’s perspective. Norton always spelled his hometown “Kuwoki.”

Several of the cities today that surround Lake Keowee get their names from their distance from Keowee Village— Six Mile, Twelve Mile and Ninety-Six.

Lakes Keowee and Jocassee have a vast array of rivers, lakes, creeks, waterfalls and forests. The 76-mile-long Foothills Trail that winds through the Blue Ridge Escarpment is a popular hiking spot. The trail connects Table Rock State Park and Oconee State Park. Also located in the area is Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina. The riverine forests provide a rich habitat for wildlife such as turkey, deer and black bears. The plant life boasts an abundant variety, including the Oconee Bells (Shortia galacifolia), which was first described by the French botanist André Michaux in 1787. The delicate plant contains pink and white blossoms and is found in only a few locations in this portion of the Blue Ridge Escarpment. 

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A New Generation of Energy

Although it was not part of the original planning for Keowee Hydroelectric Dam, one of its important functions today is as a backup power source for Oconee Nuclear Station. Oconee is the only nuclear station in the country with an on-site hydroelectric station for that purpose. 

The Keowee-Toxaway Hydroelectric Project, which includes Keowee and Jocassee hydro stations and both lakes, is in the beginning phases of a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) relicensing process. The current license expires in August 2016, and a final license application is due to FERC in August 2014. Lake Keowee is one of 13 impoundments maintained by Duke Energy in the Carolinas. Duke Energy Carolinas owns nuclear, coal-fired, natural gas and hydroelectric generation facilities. That diverse fuel mix provides approximately 19,000 megawatts of owned electric capacity to approximately 2.4 million customers in a 24,000-square-mile service area in South Carolina and North Carolina. Duke Energy is one of the largest electric power holding companies in the United States. Its regulated utility operations serve approximately 4 million customers in five states in the Southeast and Midwest, representing a population of approximately 12 million people.

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