Tom Eblen

50 years ago, Red River Gorge almost became a lake. The story of a hike that saved it.

It is hard to imagine now, but the Red River Gorge, a natural and archaeological wonder that has become one of the region’s most popular hiking and rock-climbing destinations, was almost flooded for a lake.

Virtually every government official was in favor of building a dam on the Red River, and it was well on its way to happening. Then the newly formed Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club, working with local residents opposed to the dam, got a U.S. Supreme Court justice to intervene.

Justice William O. Douglas didn’t issue a ruling; he took a walk in the woods.

Fifty years ago Sunday — on Nov. 18, 1967 — the club flew Douglas, an ardent conservationist, and his wife to Kentucky, where they hiked for three hours with several hundred demonstrators.

The Douglases also were accompanied by several journalists, including a New York Times correspondent and a young Louisville reporter named Diane Sawyer, who would go on to become one of the most famous women in television news.

A similar number of counter-protesters, who wanted the dam to stop flooding in Clay City and other nearby areas, also turned out. They carried signs reading, “Dam the Gorge” and “Sierra Club Go Home.” Despite initial fears, there was no violence.

Carroll Tichenor and Jim Kowalsky, two of the chapter’s first members, came up with the idea of bringing Douglas in to attract attention to their cause. They sent him a letter, then a postcard that they knew his staff would see. Douglas accepted the invitation, and the club raised money to pay his airfare.

“We wanted national attention, and I thought that was one way of getting it,” Tichenor said. “I’m not sure we could have stopped the dam if he hadn’t come.”

Although it would take a quarter-century to permanently stop the dam, Douglas’ visit began changing public opinion, both in Kentucky and nationally.

U.S. Supreme Justice William O. Douglas and his wife, Cathy, hike in Red River Gorge on Nov. 18, 1967, with fellow opponents of a proposed dam that would have inundated the now-popular natural recreation area. Maryjean Wall Herald-Leader File Photo

The Red River Gorge fight became an important victory for conservationists as the nation’s environmental movement was gaining steam. That movement would lead to creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and clean air and water legislation in the early 1970s that is again under attack by business interests and their political allies.

The Sierra Club plans another hike Saturday to mark the anniversary. (More information: The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources’ 65-year-old radio show, “Kentucky Afield,” has produced an hourlong documentary.

“Douglas was a showboat,” said Ralph Derickson, a Lexington Herald reporter who covered the event and went on to become a University of Kentucky spokesman.

“He was very friendly to both those who opposed and those who favored the dam,” said Derickson, who walked beside Douglas most of the way. “You could see how he became a judge. He tried to get along with both sides.”

Derickson’s front-page story in the Sunday Herald-Leader included colorful quotes from Douglas, who called natural places like the gorge the “spiritual inheritance of America.” He attacked federal dam projects that he said were mostly designed to create short-term jobs and make politicians look good.

At the time, federal agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Tennessee Valley Authority were building dozens of flood-control dams and recreation lakes around the country, sometimes at the expense of rare natural ecosystems.

The Corps of Engineers, which would have built the Red River dam, was “public enemy number one,” Douglas said. “How do you keep engineers busy?” he asked. “Obviously by building dams.”

The justice said natural waterways “are very, very unique and becoming very, very extinct.”

Attracting as much attention as Douglas on the hike was his wife, Cathy. The Supreme Court justice was then 69; she was 24. She was his fourth wife, and they had met the previous year at Mount St. Helens Lodge in Washington, where he was vacationing and she was working as a waitress during her college break.

“We were all aware of that,” said Maryjean Wall, who photographed the hike for the Herald-Leader and would spent the next four decades as the newspaper’s award-winning turf writer. “It wasn’t really a scandal, but it was fresh in everyone’s mind.”

The Douglases were married until his death in 1980. Cathy Douglas Stone is now a prominent attorney and environmentalist in Boston.

Tichenor’s wife, Doris, who died in 2011, made Douglas and his wife country ham sandwiches on home-baked bread, which they ate at Sky Bridge. After the hike, the Douglases were guests at a Sierra Club dinner at the old Phoenix Hotel in Lexington.

“The pressures against wilderness are tremendous,” Douglas told the dinner crowd of 246. “We don’t live, my friends, by bread alone; we live by the great spiritual values. That’s why I think your fight for the little Red River Gorge is symbolic of the great fight that’s going on all round the United States.”

Controversy over the Red River Gorge in Daniel Boone National Forest raged long after the Douglases flew back to Washington that night.

Lauren Webb, 7, from left, Brooke Webb, both of Goshen, Ky., Suzanne Webb, of Louisville, Ky., Morgan Webb 9, and Matt Webb, also of Goshen, along with their dog Daisy, look out over changing foliage along Sky Bridge Trail in the Red River Gorge Geological Area in Stanton on Oct. 26, 2017. Alex Slitz

The Courier-Journal, then owned by Louisville’s Bingham family, opposed the dam editorially for environmental reasons. The Herald-Leader, then owned by Lexington’s Stoll family, supported the dam, saying it was needed for flood control, economic development and possibly as a source for Lexington’s water supply.

The controversy became the subject of a famous 1971 book, “The Unforeseen Wilderness,” by Wendell Berry and photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

Public and political sentiment gradually built against the dam, and the project was abandoned. “The Army Corps of Engineers called it quits because it just wasn’t worth it,” said Derickson, who grew up in nearby Powell County and favored the dam’s construction.

The project was killed for good in 1993, when President Bill Clinton added a 19.4-mile section of the Red River to the National Wild and Scenic River system.

Parts of Red River Gorge, including the 13,379-acre Clifty Wilderness Area, were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003 because of Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years that have been found in rock shelters. The area is home to several rare plant and animal species.

About a half-million visitors a year now come to the gorge, a world-renowned destination for rock climbers and a popular place for hiking.

The Red River still periodically causes damaging floods in the region. Former Gov. Bert Combs died in 1991 as the result of one such flood.

The dam would have created a narrow, deep lake. Only one arch would have been covered, Tichenor said, but some cliffs and other unique aspects of the gorge would have been destroyed or rendered inaccessible.

“It would’ve just been a different world up there with the dam,” he said. “It would’ve stopped access to the gorge.”

Reporter Bill Estep contributed to this story.

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen