Tragedy in the Jocassee Gorges

The Jocassee Gorges include a multitude of waterfalls and cascades, because the gorges are on the Blue Ridge Escarpment, where elevation changes drastically and the land falls 2,000 feet in just four miles. The Toxaway, Horsepasture, Thompson, and Whitewater rivers have cut scenic valleys. Settlement down in these valleys near the North and South Carolina state line never really was heavy. It is steep and rough, home to many black bears, wild turkeys, all three species of trout, whitetail deer, ruffed grouse, bobcats and many other types of wildlife. Prior to damming of the Savannah River Basin, eels would migrate all the way up to the Jocassee Gorges and were frequently seined or caught on hooks and eaten as table fare by the mountain people.
Walking to what is now officially designated on the maps as the Fisher Hole was Ben Fisher, age 60, and four of his five sons. A cousin, Bill Fisher, 44, was also on the outing. Bill was a road foreman for Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). He had a wife and several children. The Fisher Hole is just upstream above the Foothills Trail swinging bridge over the Toxaway prong of Lake Jocassee. The shuttles from Devil’s Fork State Park run regularly to the Canebrake and the Foothills Trail where the bridge is located. The Fisher family was one of the most prominent in the Jocassee Gorges. Ben Fisher’s great-grandpa, James Washington Fisher, was at the site when Lord Cornwallis, leader of the British forces, surrendered to George Washington.
Ben’s oldest son, Raymond, age 35 years, 8 months, was a young and strong farmer, married, but could not swim. This is probably one of the most important and salient facts that might help explain something about this tragedy. A stout young mountain man, accustomed to long hours of hard work, sweat, and low pay of the 30s, Raymond was about to enter into a tug-of-war that would prove unyielding and costly. His young brother, Ernest, had just that week celebrated his 13th birthday. Ernest had just officially earned the title “teenager.” His brother, Odell, also a farmer, age 28 years, 5 months, was married with two small children.
Otis Fisher, 19, was not married. He was enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps started by President Roosevelt and was home on authorized furlough. Otis and Ernest chided each other as they approached the Toxaway River.
The family was anticipating good fishing in warm spring temperatures as they headed for the Jocassee Gorges on May 16, 1936. Hitler was gaining strength in Europe. The U.S. economy was hopeful under Franklin Roosevelt as President. This year was a campaign year. Many said Roosevelt wouldn’t be reelected. Otis was proud to be a part of the Civilian Conservation Corps that Roosevelt’s administration had created to help the mountain people living in the gorgeous Blue Ridge section of the Appalachian Mountain Range. Things were looking up! Life was good.
However, the extremes of life seem never to be that far away. Such was the case as the Ben Fisher party approached the river. It was getting late as the party arrived on the waters of the Toxaway River. Light was growing dim, and the river seemed more foreboding.
Oral tradition has linked dynamite as a variable in the deaths of the Ben Fisher family. It would not have been that unusual in 1936 for seining to follow the stunning of fish in a large body of water like the Toxaway River. Dynamite was not as difficult to get in 1936 as it is now in an age when explosives are heavily regulated. It is interesting and important, however, that none of the accounts in the Transylvania Times (two) or the Asheville Citizen (two) mentioned dynamite. Neither did any of the four death certificates or an official governmental accident report for Otis.
One account in the news of the Quebec Community for the Transylvania Times mentioned that “Raymond became entangled in the seine and sank into deep water.” The other detailed front page account in the Transylvania Times, dated May 21, 1936, stated that “he (Raymond) lost his footing on a slick rock in the 12 or 15 foot pool and went under.” The Asheville Times reported that while others prepared supper, “Odell and Raymond went into the river to seine for fish. As they were walking in the river, Raymond stepped into water over his head.” Could a delayed and unexpected discharge of dynamite cause this? Of course, but the details as presented do not necessarily lead to this conclusion.
The cousin Bill Fisher, and the youngest brother, Ernest, survived to tell what happened. The time was around 8:30 to 9 p.m. Darkness was descending, literally and figuratively. Bill Fisher explained to a waiting world what he had perceived. Raymond, although unable to swim, was on a rock in the deep portion of the big pool with one side of a seine. He and his brother Odell held the long poles attached to the net. They were 15 or 20 feet from the bank. Bill Fisher, Otis, and Ernest were on one bank, and Ben was on the opposite bank. Ben was fishing while Bill and Ernest were at the camp fire.
Apparently, Raymond lost his footing and slipped off into 12 or 15 feet of water. Raymond lost the seine pole, was on his own, and was in trouble. Odell quickly screamed for help. Bill ran from the fire, and by the time he swam to the two older brothers, they were really struggling after taking on water and getting strangled. Bill managed to grab one of the brothers by the hair. Odell was struggling and holding onto Raymond. Bill related that he noticed Ben coming into the water with a lighted torch. Bill said he screamed for Ben to stay out and keep the light burning. However, Ben stumbled into the water, lost the torch, and took on water himself.
The hole was now in total darkness, and Bill was really struggling with Raymond and Odell in the deep part of the pool. When Bill lost his hold, the darkness prevented him from being able to find the two older brothers. As Bill was swimming toward the bank, he saw Otis swimming toward the deep part where all the splashing had been. Bill said he didn’t know how Otis had gotten into trouble and drowned, but, apparently he and Ben had given their lives trying to help Raymond and Odell. Ernest was also trying to help, and had taken on water when Bill Fisher managed to pull him out to the bank.
Bill dived and tried in desperation to grab hold of clothing, an arm, the seine, anything. After coming to the awful realization that there was no hope, Bill and Ernest started to walk the five or six miles out of the gorges for help. What a terrible, horrific walk that must have been! The younger Ernest probably had as great a burden that night as a family member must ever bear. His brothers Otis, Odell, and Raymond were gone. His father, Ben, was with them back there in the desolate, deep, and cold darkness.
That night, in what was to become the Fisher Hole just upstream from the Canebrake, many unrealized dreams were left lying in the cold, deep water. Anticipation of a great harvest from an abundant crop flowed down the current and off into the unknown. Last thoughts of wives and loving things left unsaid lay in the numbing cold of the current and became less vivid as the sand and mud encroached and diluted.
Bill and Ernest walked out of the Jocassee Gorges, and the sheriff and the coroner were called. People near the gorges heard about the tragedy and started immediately to the accident site. At least 50 men were available to help.
A large raft was made from which to grapple for the clothing and bodies. The grappling was done in the deepest part of the pool. All four bodies were very close together and were obtained by 8:30 Sunday morning. This supports the hypothesis that all four who drowned seemed to be trying to help each other. However, getting the bodies out of the Jocassee Gorges was another problem of gargantuan proportions. It was impossible in 1936, as it is now, to get a vehicle anywhere close to what is known as the Fisher Hole. The closest place where a vehicle could be taken was downstream toward the Horsepasture, to a place we all know on Lake Jocassee as the Canebrake.
The men’s bodies were wrapped in sheets and blankets and then tied to long poles to be carried by two men for each body. There were enough men to alternate. The task was one that tried the stoutest of the mountain men. There were many places too rough to travel; a path had to be cleared with axes. There were holes too deep to go close to the bank in the water, and the bank was often too thick and rough to carry the bodies. There was much slipping, sliding, falling and splashing.
T.P. Galloway’s truck traveled from Old Toxaway to a place close to the Canebrake. The bodies arrived back at Old Toxaway in Galloway’s truck at approximately 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon. Bodies of the four men were taken to the Fisher home later that Sunday.
The funeral would occur the next day at Oak Grove Baptist Church, still located on Kim Miller Road, seven-tenths of a mile from its junction with Highway 64. As one travels west on Highway 64 from Rosman toward Lake Toxaway, Kim Miller Road is the next road turning right after passing the Quebec Community Center. The road was a project of Bill Fisher and his WPA crew.
Clyde McCall was a legendary mountain preacher who conducted the last rites. My mom and dad both knew Clyde McCall personally. There were 800 to 1,000 people who came to the gathering. The crowd was so overwhelming, the service had to be conducted outside in the churchyard. In the tradition of mountain funerals, flower girls walked in procession and carried early blooming flowers and homemade artificial flowers that would be placed on the caskets, and then on the graves. Eight different ladies carried flowers.
The four caskets were taken about 40 to 50 feet from the front door of the church and laid to rest. Ben Fisher’s stone contains the passage from Saint Paul that said “I have fought a good fight; I have stayed the course, I have kept the faith.”
Odell is buried next to his toddler child, who had died the previous May, 1935. Odell’s stone reads “A tender father, a loving friend.” Odell was 28 years, five months when he met his tragic end that May. His wife Nettie Thomas was only 36 when she also died in May. But none of the stones has the effect that Raymond’s has. The perfect words were chosen by someone, maybe his wife. It could have been said by all the Fisher homes affected by this catastrophe, and by all the homes ever affected by tragedy, anytime, anywhere. The stone poetically, succinctly, and eloquently reads: “How desolate our home, bereft of thee.”
The cries of the mountain family that day, the wails, the begging for mercy, were not unheard. Every person attending the funeral that day could feel a rush of emotion when considering losing a family member. Only one thing brought any closure to many people — the assertion that dynamite was involved. Asserting that dynamite was being used and eventually, however it happened, was responsible for the drownings, helped some people explain, to themselves mostly, this terrible tragedy that occurred in the beautiful Jocassee Gorges. It explained the unexplainable; it brought needed closure to the catastrophe, whether or not it was true.

Tom Cloer is Professor Emeritus at Furman University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina and was the first professor in the state chosen as South Carolina Professor of the Year, being chosen by Governor Caroll Campbell and the South Carolina Commission of Higher Education. He has published widely.
Dr. Cloer has fished almost every tributary of the Jocassee Gorges and has logged many hours of fly fishing, hiking, and camping on every major trout stream in the Gorges. He has fly fished the Horsepasture, Toxaway, Whitewater, and Thompson rivers, both before and after the formation of Lake Jocassee. His ancestors, dating back six generations, owned land along the Toxaway River, the Keowee River, and land that is now included in Devil’s Fork State Park, the gateway to the Jocassee Gorges.
Ernest Fisher, the surviving son (now deceased), worked for his father, Carl T. Cloer, Sr., a lumberman, as timber was cut for the construction of Lake Jocassee. Ernest and his son, Ray (named for Raymond who died in the Toxaway tragedy), were friends and hunting companions of Dr. Cloer and his father. Tom Cloer’s roots run deeply into the Jocassee Gorges.