The drought on lakes Marion and Moultrie has revealed myriad challenges to the counties and people who rely on them as a source of revenue and recreation, but the receding waters have also uncovered fragments of an era long preserved beneath the lake surface.
Traditionally regarded as a sportsman's paradise, the drought transformed the Santee Cooper lakes into fertile fields for historical enthusiasts and people with personal ties to the area.
Retired physician Norman Walsh is a bit of a both. He grew up in Pinopolis and lived there until 1958.
"Our home was on Lake Moultrie — on the east side, on the water — and I began my experiences on the lake the day it came up in 1941," Walsh says. "As soon as I was old enough, I was out on it in boats and spent most of each summer on the lake."
Walsh returned to the area a few years ago, and memories of his early years in Pinopolis were the impetus for the book "Plantations, Pineland Villages, Pinopolis and Its People," written in collaboration with Pinopolis resident and fellow historical hobbyist Cecy Guerry.
Last Christmas Eve, the Santee Cooper lakes dropped to an elevation of approximately 66.25 feet, a level not seen since the early 1950s and more than six feet below normal levels for that time of year. The lakes have since risen to more ideal depths, but those low levels created new avenues for Walsh and Guerry to explore.
"Our interest in the drought began out of curiosity in wanting to see the places we wrote about in the book," Walsh says. "We could actually go onto the lakebed and see the ruins of the home sites we had written about."
In their book, Guerry and Walsh detailed an area located within Berkeley, Calhoun, Clarendon, Orangeburg and Sumter counties that once was part of the Southern plantation system and now holds the potential to reconnect South Carolinians with their place in history, if only briefly.
"It's one of the best areas for South Carolinians to see themselves, because it is a pretty good mirror that talks about community and about development and economics," says State Archaeologist Dr. Jonathan Leader. "The whole area is important, literally, from the get-go. The Indians overlapped with the colonists. . . . Then you have the enslaved Africans who eventually became free and were living in the area as well. So you have that entire history, from European economic suppression to American economic freedom — the whole tapestry of American life."
By 1930, however, that tapestry was frayed.
In his book "History of Santee Cooper: 1934-1984," noted South Carolina historian Dr. Walter Edgar paints a bleak picture of the state in the years between the Civil War and World War II. The prosperity enjoyed in the antebellum years gave way to economic ruin, especially in the former plantation country along the upper reaches of the Cooper and Santee rivers. He writes the few isolated landowners who managed to hold on to their estates were the exception.
"Once elegant homes had been converted into tenant housing or abandoned altogether," Edgar writes. "The overproduction of cotton had robbed the soils of their nutrients and created tremendous erosion problems. The collapse of the price of cotton after World War I had caused thousands of farmers to leave the land. Some were forced off by foreclosure, but others simply abandoned their homes. By the end of the 1920s, thousands of acres of once-productive farmland lay idle and forgotten."
The sun had set on South Carolina's agrarian economy. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 complicated an already dire economic situation, especially in rural counties like Berkeley where, according to Edgar, there was only a capital investment of $113,000 in 1930. It became clear that the state needed an economic shot in the arm, and it returned to the territory between the Santee and Cooper rivers for that boost.
According to Edgar, South Carolina flirted with tapping the Cooper and Santee rivers for economic growth as far back as 1770. In those early years, the promise of improved inland navigation and transportation of goods were the biggest drivers, but private ventures had either failed or stalled. By the 1920s, the interest had largely shifted to the possibility of hydroelectric power.
In his 1968 book "River of the Carolinas: The Santee," Henry Savage Jr. writes, "One would think that to look for hydroelectric plant locations amid the swamps and pine flats of the Carolina Low Country would be about as profitable as a search for snakes in Ireland."
Nevertheless, Savage writes, surveys conducted some 150 years before the Great Depression revealed "a unique phenomenon."
"The headwaters of the Cooper River, which rises but a few miles south of the course of the Santee, lay 35 feet below the level of the Santee," Savage writes. "So if the level of the Santee were raised 40 feet by a dam and the river diverted through the low ridge of the Cooper River a 75-foot head could be obtained."
This represented real power potential, capable of pulling the Lowcountry and South Carolina out an economic nosedive. Both private and political interests advocated legislation that would create a public corporation to complete a project begun by the Columbia Railway and Navigation Company in the 1920s to construct a canal, dam and power plant. This culminated in an enabling act signed April 7, 1934, by Governor Ibra C. Blackwood that created the South Carolina Public Service Authority, more commonly known as Santee Cooper.
Edgar writes the first clearing for the dams and powerhouse began on April 18, 1939. By the following June, Santee Cooper had acquired some 200,000 acres of land. But it came at a steep price — literally and figuratively.
"There were, and still are, some hard feelings on the part of some families who were uprooted by the project," Edgar writes. "Santee Cooper paid fair market value for the land. Some critics said it paid way too much — an average of $12.19 per acre when farmland elsewhere in the state went for $2 per acre or less."
As communities moved to make way for the lakes, they left behind remnants that were ultimately submerged beneath the rising waters of lakes Marion and Moultrie. But as the drought pushed back their waters these past several months, an astounding array of artifacts has captured the imagination of many.
"It's been more than a historian could hope for," Walsh says.
His interest lies primarily with documenting the locations that have become exposed, whereas Guerry is more preoccupied with finding tangible artifacts.
"It can be a section of a plate the size of my fingernail. It can be a hoe head. It can be a button. Just something that shows people were there," she says.
It's this kind of enthusiasm that Leader says makes his job easy.
"South Carolina is one of the places I've been where the people really are still very much connected to their landscape," he says. "I don't spend a great deal of my time arguing with people about the importance of history."
Leader and the staff at the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have been going through their archival materials to see what's already been collected and documented about the area, and they've organized a task force of individuals with specialized knowledge of its history and ecology.
"The idea is to get as good a sample as we can and do as much as we can to preserve the history, to get the story out, to make sure it gets into the schools and make sure the local community has that connection again to their past that they can pass on to the future," Leader says. "This is everybody's history, and if we get it out to everybody, chances are maybe it will be remembered and used appropriately."
Leader calls the drought a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but not just for him and fellow academics.
"It presents an opportunity for people to own their history, in an appropriate sense, and to be fully involved. It doesn't have to be the play toy of the professional few. It shouldn't be," he says. "South Carolina is incredibly rich, in terms of its history. Ã¢ÂÂ¦ We were seminal in so many different things over time, that any time you have the opportunity to take a look at these things on the ground, you can't help but re-write history. You can't help but bring forward new information that people didn't know or didn't understand its significance. But it's all significant."
This article, by Kevin F. Langston, was originally published in the Spring 2008 edition of "PowerSource," a publication of Santee Cooper Corporate Communications. It is reprinted with permission.