by Tom Taylor
Vienna, Merritsville, Andersonville, Jocassee...all of these place names have something in common. Each was once a thriving town, now covered by the waters of a South Carolina lake. Perhaps the most compelling story, though, is that of the ghost town of Ferguson, once an active logging town with modern amenities along the banks of the Santee River. Remnants of the old town can still be seen on Ferguson Island in Lake Marion.
The original inhabitants of the dense cypress forests of the Congaree, Wateree, and Santee River basins were the Congaree tribes, whose names for these places still linger. Colonists also found the Santee River Basin a fertile ground for plantations and farming. Unfortunately, they also brought smallpox, which wiped out the Congaree tribes by the 1700’s. Francis Marion carried out his raids during the Revolutionary War in this area, earning him the name “Swamp Fox.” Lake Marion now bears his name.
As for the town of Ferguson itself, the story starts with two Chicago businessmen, Francis Beidler and Benjamin Ferguson. Post-Civil War South Carolina was impoverished, and Beidler and Benjamin were able to purchase huge tracts of forest land at bargain prices. Their holdings included most of the Congaree-Wateree-Santee (Cowasee) Basin. According to an article by Warner Montgomery in the Columbia Star:
“In 1881, two lumber magnates from Chicago, Francis Beidler and B.F. Ferguson formed the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company and purchased over 165,000 acres of land along the Congaree, Wateree, and Santee Rivers in South Carolina.”
Beidler and Ferguson, realizing the forests of the Northeast and Midwest had been exhausted, meant to capitalize on the bald cypress trees they discovered in the virgin Santee floodplain. They built a lumber mill on the Santee River and constructed a “town” in which the workers could live. The new town was called Ferguson.
The town grew quickly, and was one of the first towns in South Carolina to have indoor plumbing and gas lighting in the streets. It was a self-contained community that remained somewhat isolated from the other towns. Logs were sent by rail over to Eutawville and Cross for transfer to other parts of the state, but its residents did not interact much with those villages. Workers were paid in scrip rather than cash, and were forced to purchase from the company business located in the town.
Railroad historian and author Tom Fetters described Ferguson this way:
“Life and wages for workers were good for Ferguson, too. The area had everything from sawmills and kilns to houses for the 350 workers and their families, a school, a hospital and even a hotel. By the 1910s, houses had fences and roads were paved – hardly what one would expect from a logging village.”
However, the town was short-lived. Ferguson’s post office was in operation for only 27 years from 1890-1917. The Santee River Cypress Lumber Company ceased operations in 1915, and shortly thereafter the town died out. The town faded into the cypress forest until the coming of the Santee Cooper project.
The ultimate fate of Ferguson had its origins in Charleston. While the peninsula makes an excellent harbor situated between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, those rivers don’t really go anywhere. They provided adequate access to the low country plantations, but they don’t penetrate very far into the state. By contrast, Savannah was right on the banks of the Savannah River, which provided an easy way to get goods from far inland down to that coastal city. In this state, boats coming down the Santee River had a long stretch along the ocean beset with tides and storms. There seemed to be no good way to get goods from the interior of South Carolina to its largest coastal city.
In the late 1700’s the Santee Canal Company was formed to explore the possibility of connecting the Santee River with the Cooper River, providing a route into Charleston. Construction began in 1793 under the direction of Col. Christian Senf. and William Moultrie, who was one of the principal shareholders and eventually president of the company.
The canal did a great business until droughts of 1817 and 1818 dried up most of the waterway and left boats stranded. Eventually, railroads replaced the canal traffic, and the canal fell into disuse. However, the dream of a complete waterway connecting the Santee and Cooper Rivers persisted.
Fast forward about a hundred years…
The plight of South Carolinians had not improved. Floods threatened the Congaree-Santee basin on a regular basis, and malaria was prevalent. The whole area was impoverished, and illiteracy was common. As early as 1914 it was reported that the Santee-Cooper project was being planned.
These early discussions of the Santee Cooper project focused on the navigation aspects – the creation of a new canal linking the two rivers. Hydroelectric power was a secondary consideration. The lakes themselves weren’t really considered.
Bills were introduced, but the project lay dormant for another 20 years. According to a 2007 retrospective of the Santee Cooper Project in The State newspaper…
“In 1934, state legislation established the S.C. Public Service Authority to construct and operate the Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project and improve “health, welfare and material prosperity.”
The lakes and the dams would do just that by providing electricity. In 1935, a guaranteed federal loan and grant promised a beginning. But court fights with private utility companies delayed the start of work until April 1939.
Soon workers pulled from the relief rolls of every county in the state were at work. The Works Progress Administration gave 9,672 South Carolinians jobs at the project’s peak, according to the 1944 ‘Picture Progress Story of the Santee Cooper.’ In all, 12,500 workers were employed.
WPA Workers swarmed over the Moultrie basin cutting trees, clearing stumps, and completely clearing the area. Photographers such as Harry T. Poe, Jack Delano, Samuel Lord Hyde, and C. R. “Dick” Banks were tasked with documenting the plantations, cemeteries, and other structures throughout the Moultrie and Marion basins, as well as construction of the Pinopolis dam and other components of the projects.
Many of the people displaced by the Santee Cooper Project were not happy with the loss of their lands. Joseph Simons lived at Pond Bluff Plantation, which had originally been the home of Francis Marion. Marion’s original home was long gone, but Simons had built a new home at Pond Bluff. Simons refused to sell to Santee Cooper, which then invoked eminent domain to seize the property. Simons exhausted his legal options, and in 1939 stood on the porch of his home, pulled a gun, and shot himself.
Lake Moultrie was cleared of stumps, graves, plantations, and everything. Lake Marion was done a bit more haphazardly, though with rumblings in Europe and the threat of war, construction was ramped up. According to one worker, Bill Fletcher…
“Their idea was to cut the trees down, get the stumps, and tops, and everything out. He [the foreman] says, ‘Forget about that. Cut the trees down or leave them standing. It don’t make any difference.” He says, “We want that lake filled up.’ So that was the number one priority at that time. ‘Get that lake filled up. We need the electricity.’” (Transcription from video interview from “Serving Their Country: SC’s Greatest Generation SCETV/ITV, 2002)
With the onset of World War II, the Lake Marion basin was not cleared. Cypress trees can be found right out in the lake. Large tracts such as Rimini and Sparkleberry Swamps are still thick with trees. In these places stumps can be seen below the waterline, and can be a hazard for boaters. At lower levels the stumps are clearly visible.
And so the waters rose and the lakes formed. In addition to electricity, the Santee Cooper Project did create the long-sought water route from Columbia to Charleston. A diversion canal links the two lakes, while the Santee River flows eastward from the dam at Lake Marion and bypasses Lake Moultrie. At the Pinopolis Dam on Lake Moultrie, the Pinopolis lock lowers boats 75 feet down to the Tailrace Canal, which then connects to the Cooper River. At the time of its completion, the lock was the largest single-stage lock in the world. The New Deal project was one of the largest WPA projects of that era, and one of the largest land-clearing endeavors undertaken.
And so we return to Ferguson…
Because the Lake Marion basin wasn’t cleared, the ruins of Ferguson are still visible. The easiest way to reach these is from Ferguson Landing, near the town of Eutaw Springs. The road to the landing follows the track of the old railroad that carried lumber from Ferguson.
Ferguson Island is about a half mile from the landing. The remains of the old lumber kiln loom above the waters, and other brick structures can be found on the island. At low water levels other foundations and artifacts can be found around the kiln.
Ferguson isn’t the only remnant of the once thriving communities along the Santee. Five miles southwest of Ferguson Island is Church Island, with the remains of the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany and an old cemetery associated with the church. Here one can find the grave of Joseph Simons, who refused to give up his land to the Santee Cooper Project, as well as the graves of many Confederate veterans.
A visit to Ferguson and Church Islands is well worth a day out on Lake Marion. The trip can be made by kayak as well as motor boat. If you decide to visit, be aware that the ruins and artifacts are protected by law, and should not be disturbed or removed. However, if you linger long enough, perhaps you’ll hear whispers of the voices of the generations that once lived along the banks of the Santee River.
Tom Taylor is a contributing writer for the South Carolina Heritage Corridor. A Laurens County native, he is a retired educator and school administrator who now resides in Greenville, SC with his wife Laura. Follow more of Tom's travels through his blog, Random Connections.