Breaking News: Ocoee Whitewater Center Burns to Ground

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Site of the 1996 Summer Olympics—and its Olympic flame—the Ocoee Whitewater Center, located along the banks of the Upper Ocoee in Ducktown, TN, was engulfed in flames itself and was destroyed in a fire Tuesday evening, according to Polk County officials.

According to reports, multiple agencies responded to the historic Polk County center once it went up in flames overnight, deeming the facility a total loss.

Situated alongside rapids named Humongous and Godzilla on the Ocoee, the site opened its doors for the 1996 Olympic Games, and held the world’s first Olympic whitewater event on a natural river.

Oboe
The Oboe Whitewater Center engulfed in flames. (Photos courtesy Bliss Zechman/FB)

It has since been used by commercial outfitters and private paddlers during regular water releases on Saturdays and Sudnays between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It also offered hiking and biking trails as well as native gardens and walkways.

While the river stretch below it is the one more regularly run by commercial and private boaters, the upper stretch, with its facilities, has long been a crown jewel in the region.

Elite paddlers from the era when the course and facility were built are distraught about its destruction. “It’s sad to see the whitewater center go,” says three-time Olympian Scott Shipley, who competed on the Oboe venue in Men’s K1 and designs whitewater courses for his firm S2O Design & Engineering. “it turned out to be this wonderful legacy building that people visited from all over. They had a poster or something with my name inside so people who visited it would reach out from time to time to say they’d seen it.  It kind of became a focal point as the Olympic Legacy of that course where you could learn what they built and ran there and so was very special to a lot of people.”

Oboe

Adds Olympic gold medalist Joe Jacobi, who competed on the Ocoee venue: “So many small towns and communities in the U.S. struggle to differentiate and tell a story. The Ocoee Whitewater Center told a good one – and connected people deeply in the process. The Ocoee Whitewater Center was a simple gateway to the outdoors in the middle of a national forest. You didn’t have to have the right clothes, car, or lingo to enjoy it. The surrounding area will be fine. The gateway will be missed.”

But the fire is even more of a blow to locals in the region, for which the center was a crown jewel and well-loved gathering place.

“This place holds a special place in my heart,” says Brooklyn Hughes Sosebee, who grew up in Ducktown and spent years guiding rafts on the Ocoee. “Most of the locals I have spoken with say they are heartbroken. The community is completely devastated. The Whitewater Center provides a place for locals to enjoy hiking trails, take a dip in the Blue Holes, snap special occasion photos, and host local parties. It’s also a place for local kids to take field trips, where students are informed about the watershed, local plants, and animals in the area. It’s a great site to teach students the importance of our riparian systems. The building also helped boost Polk County’s local economy after the devastation of the mining industry. Luckily, Polk County has whitewater outfitters with on-site facilities so it shouldn’t have much of an effect on the rafting season.”

According to a press release from the USDA Forest Service, the building was a complete loss but no one was injured in the fire. It reports that the center was a key recreation site on the forest and hosts about 300,000 visitors a year.

“First, we are just so grateful that no one was injured during the fire and thankful to our partners for their assistance in getting the fire under control and investigating the cause,” said Mike Wright, Acting Forest Supervisor for the Cherokee National Forest. “The Ocoee Whitewater Center was a unique site not just here on the Cherokee National Forest, but across the Forest Service. It is a difficult loss for us.”

Special agents with the TBI’s bomb and arson division are joining in the investigation and that the official cause is still unclear at this time. The Polk County 911 Emergency Communications District reports that the highway is closed from Highway 314 to Ducktown.

Watch TV report HERE:

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