Documentary focuses on guardians of Cocke County waterways

Gay Webb was one of the founders of the Dead Pigeon River Council which in the 1980s and ‘90s fought hard to clean up the Pigeon River in Cocke County. The waterway was polluted by discharges from a paper plant in Canton, North Carolina.

What if we could smell our local rivers long before we could see them? What if our legacy was dead streams, poisonous water and a dying ecosystem?

This was the story of the Cocke County community not very long ago. Mark Twain suggested that our rivers were “too thin to plow but too thick to drink,” and that describes the French Broad River, the Pigeon, and other regional waterways just a couple of decades ago.

Industry brought better paying jobs to communities but it also brought pollution so toxic it killed the fish, the cows and, in some cases, the community where cancer rates were off the charts. Many people grew up believing all rivers were supposed to be brown and smelly.

Enter people like Wilma Dykeman and Gay Webb in Newport, and the Dead Pigeon River Council. Their passion, their activism and their call to save waterways awoke communities to the need for river stewardship.

The Pigeon River, once a polluted waterway, today is pristine and is the leading whitewater river in Tennessee.

The Center for Cultural Preservation, Western North Carolina’s History and Documentary Film Center, has announced the release of award-winning film director David Weintraub’s new film, “Guardians of Our Troubled Waters,” which lauds the ordinary people who did extraordinary things to protect our rivers and streams.

“Guardians” chronicles these stories and the early heroes who stood up against the destruction fighting against toxic pollution from factories which would have forced thousands of farmers from their ancestral land. The film focuses on three communities: Western North Carolina, East Tennessee and South Florida, as well as the men and women who stood up against those damaging the rivers.

“Guardians of Our Troubled Waters” will have its Tennessee premiere 10 a.m., Saturday, Oct. 26 at Newport Cinema 4 at 424 Heritage Blvd. in Newport. Tickets are $5 and advanced reservations are strongly recommended by registering online at Those who order online get a $5 discount on the DVD which will be available at the premiere.

The film is a collaboration with a number of organizations including the Wilma Dykeman Legacy Foundation, Clean Water Expected in East Tennessee and the Pigeon River Fund.