Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 1 | Down to the river

Is the way it was the way it should be? The story of a bridge reveals much about the people, history and future of South Carolina.

cbrinson@thestate.comMay 17, 2007 

The sun rises near Pack's Flats on Lake Marion.

GERRY MELENDEZ/GMELENDEZ@THESTATE.COM

In rural South Carolina, memory is long, many generations long. And often unforgiving.

Ezekiel Bodrick, tall and strong and 83, crushes beer cans with a heavy stick. A washtub full of silvery crumpled aluminum sits beside his Last Stop Convenience Store, across the railroad tracks from the ghost town that once was Lone Star. "A few bought up all the land and keep it; that's not progress," he says and stops to take off his brown narrow-brimmed hat. "Times change, but some who don't go nowhere and see nothing wouldn't know. The old ones are still killing themselves trying to hold everybody else down."

Bodrick is black and a landowner. He and four of his brothers and sisters, a child and a grandchild live in the 6th Congressional District, represented by James E. Clyburn. It's a district divided by Lake Marion and a seven-decades-long conversation about a bridge.

The plan to build a bridge across Upper Santee Swamp is of keen interest to Bodrick. The road on the Lone Star side would slide by his family tract.

In the particular — a swamp, a bridge, a congressman — can be found the universal — a state famously "too small to be a republic and too big to be a lunatic asylum."

It's just a bridge, at this stage an imagined bridge, the Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector. But this idea of a bridge sags under the weight of questions about race and class and power, about fairness, about progress, whatever that is.

When Clyburn decided he wanted a bridge — and the governor and environmentalists decided they didn't — another civil war was under way. The classic rubs and graces — old grudges, selfish dreams; love of place, hope of betterment — are engaged.

Since 1939, when construction began on dams to tame the Santee River and generate electricity, talk of a bridge between Lone Star and Rimini has troubled the waters. Studies on adding a bridge cropped up in the 1950s, '60s and '90s.

This decade has brought dismay over the escalating cost, now $150 million; mocking comments that a bridge linking tiny Lone Star and Rimini would go from "nowhere to nowhere"; a lawsuit to stop the bridge; a feud between a governor and a congressman; a documentary film; a permit denial — and a frequently reiterated vow by a man now House Majority Whip that a bridge will be built, no matter what.

But to Bodrick, all that's just static: Clyburn's bridge and roads mean jobs, more neighbors, a better future. Bodrick wants the bridge; he wants change.

· · ·

In rural South Carolina, ties to land last; family businesses pass from generation to generation. What happens to one affects all. David K. Summers Jr. sits behind a big desk in his office at Cameron's Golden Kernel Pecan Co. He and brother Bill took on the family shelling and shipping business in the 1960s.

White-haired and portly, Summers combines a benevolent smile and a canny mind. Nearly three decades on Calhoun County Council have earned him the moniker King David.

He complains of the rambling route between Orangeburg and Sumter, blaming politics for the lack of a more direct course and for the 1950 car wreck that killed his father.

Summers, 66, is white and well-off. He wants the Connector; he wants the road his father couldn't travel. To Summers, the bridge and its roads mean convenience, development and a chance to redeem a loss.

· · ·

In rural South Carolina, conversations are seldom about just the present moment. There's the shimmer of centuries when we talk about social or economic or political issues, about whether the way it was is the way it still should be. J.D. Shirer is farmer-tan, his cap sun-bleached, his sense of irony well-honed as his truck bumps past his just-picked Lone Star cotton fields.

"They've already been across my field, putting in stakes," he says of an effort to mark the proposed Connector's route. "I asked, 'Who gave you permission to be in my field?' Then I asked, 'What will you do when I pull the stakes up? I can't farm with the stakes.' And the guy laughed and said, 'That's my job security.'"

And Shirer laughs. To him, this is an old story. After all, he says, his father was a highway commissioner in the 1950s, and a study then concluded that existing crossings, one near Congaree Swamp at U.S. 601, and one near Santee at U.S. 301, were "the two places to cross water."

Shirer's grandfather and father and uncles farmed. His brother, son and cousins farm. The family members farm Shirer land or Stoudemire land or Zeagler land — they're all related by blood and marriage — and mean to keep passing it down, keep farming.

"They would be coming in and taking away from us what's family-owned. They want to do something for other people and disrupt our lives," says wife Martha Shirer, whose grandmother was a Stoudemire, whose brother is married to her husband's first cousin.

The Shirers are white, in their 60s. They don't want the Connector slicing up their fields. "We've been here all our lives, and we like it the way it is: quiet," says Shirer.

To the Shirers, the bridge and roads mean disruption, land divided, land lost.

· · ·
In rural South Carolina, poverty is familiar. So is beauty. The 6th District contains five of the state's six poorest counties. It also contains Congaree National Park, Lake Marion, Lake Moultrie, Francis Marion National Forest, The Great Swamp Sanctuary. Guaranteed then: A clash between those who want to develop and those who want to preserve.

Angela Viney, dark-haired and intense, a West Virginia coal miner's daughter, ran the S.C. Wildlife Federation from 1976 to 2006. She talks of visiting the Upper Santee Swamp, which the proposed Connector would cross, and promising herself nothing would be harmed and those fishing on the banks would remain.

The Wildlife Federation has opposed the Connector since 2000, when the S.C. Department of Transportation released a feasibility study. At a meeting of conservationists and sportsmen, "Everybody expressed concern over losing an area that is a pristine wildlife habitat with recreational hunting and fishing," says Viney.

To her, the bridge and roads represent disregard for plants, animals, rare places. To her, this seems willful destruction. In September 2006, three environmental organizations sued in federal court to stop the bridge. But that's just the latest in a long story getting longer.

And those for and those against look to Clyburn.

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