Crossing a Great Divide

Chapter 8 | The water rises

Making lakes Marion and Moultrie required what was the nation's largest-ever land clearing and public works project.

May 17, 2007 

The very existence of the lakes and their dams is a story of the consequences, good and bad, of what we call "progress." Some dreams of progress take a long time, such as the dream of connecting Columbia and Charleston by water. Or the larger desire to bring prosperity to desolate and destitute stretches of South Carolina.

In 1770, the Commons House of Assembly proposed a survey to build a canal for both purposes. The Revolutionary War and other distractions intervened.

In 1786, a private company — with Gov. William Moultrie as president and Gen. Francis Marion as a director — was organized and chartered by the state. From 1793 to 1800, laborers hacked away with pick, ax and shovel, connecting the Santee River to the Cooper River and Charleston.

For 50 years, the 22-mile-long canal served as a route for cotton-laden barges, unless there was a drought — and until the construction of a railway between Columbia and Charleston.

But a route by water remained a fascination. In the next century, T.C. Williams revived the dream. In 1926, the owner of the Columbia Railway and Navigation Co. obtained a license from the Federal Power Commission for navigation locks and a hydroelectric project.

But hard times were in the way.

Cotton was no longer king. Exhausted and eroded soil, the boll weevil and cotton's dwindling price led to desperation among farmers. Sharecroppers and tenant farmers were displaced; blacks and whites lost land to debt and taxes. South Carolina entered the Great Depression years before the 1929 stock market crash.

By the 1930s, the unemployment rate in rural S.C. counties surpassed 30 percent. People died from hunger, Walter Edgar writes in the "History of Santee Cooper, 1934-1984."

The S.C. Emergency Relief Administration counted 403,000 on its rolls.

South Carolina politicians — including Charleston Mayor Burnet R. Maybank, state senators Strom Thurmond and Richard M. Jefferies and U.S. Sen. James F. Byrnes — saw a chance for federal funds, jobs and electrification in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's promise of public works. Ninety-three percent of rural South Carolina lacked electricity.

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, blacks and whites, 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.

The first task: mosquitoes.

It could cost your life to live near the swamps. In 1931, 17,462 cases of malaria were recorded in South Carolina, 213 fatal. The infection and death rates from malaria were far worse in these low, wet rural counties. Eighty percent of the area's schoolchildren had malaria. More than 10 percent of the state's malaria deaths occurred in Orangeburg County.

Malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, causesuncontrollable shivering, a high fever, then profuse sweating, headache, nausea, exhaustion — perhaps death. These three stages repeat again and again, making surviving malaria a lifelong, life-sapping struggle.

"It was low and damp. The plantation owners had to leave in the spring. One told me it was death to go back before first frost," remembers C.R. "Dick" Banks.

Banks, born in 1920, sports a dapper mustache and an old-fashioned charm that evokes the British raj and swagger sticks. He lives in his family's St. Matthews home, stacked wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling with memorabilia, antiques, old photographs, old magazines, old books, old newspapers and cats.

From June 1940 through December 1941, Banks was a WPA photographer, recording the land clearing as well as the plantation houses doomed by the project. Later, he served as St. Matthews' clerk of court for 24 years.

Before the Santee Cooper project could begin, automatic siphons, first tried in India and never before in the United States, drained stagnant pools. Sixteen motor boats sprayed insecticide along riverbanks; water was sprayed with oil to kill mosquito larvae.

This was a land of swamps and forests pocked by small farms and fading plantations. Thanks to poverty, floods, uninhabitable land and malaria, the counties losing dry land were sparsely populated. But all residents in the lakes' way had to go, removed by the power of eminent domain.

For the project, 901 families, almost all black, were relocated. Their houses were moved or replaced, and they were given 100 chickens, says the "Picture Progress Story."

While 6,000 graves were moved, many were left to the waters. A 1939 architectural report cited 22 endangered plantation houses, mostly in Berkeley County, mostly demolished, a few moved before lake waters rose. Banks remembers an owner staying in a corner of an historic home as it was dismantled; he remembers another killing himself.

Plantation owners "take issue with reports that the lakes of the Santee-Cooper project will affect only barren and worthless lands," said a commentary of the time in the Charleston Post and Courier.

The white landowners got more than chickens; they were paid $12.19 an acre, "much more than the land was worth then, but they were forced off their places," says Edgar.

In the corporate history, Edgar notes, "Ironically, the largest landowners were not local folk but absentee and business interests who owned vast timberlands."

For the project, 22 WPA camps were built. "They hired black and white, but they wouldn't live in the same cabin," Banks says. Bolted-together small cabins each slept four; larger kitchens and recreation and dining halls added to the feel of a temporary town.

Workers cleared by hand 177,000 acres: 100,000 for what would be Lake Marion, 60,000 for what would be Lake Moultrie. Among the virgin hardwood cut were trees boasting a circumference of 13-1/2 feet.

World War II brought a sense of haste; the project was declared "necessary for national defense." Electricity was needed in Charleston for the Navy Yard, so the basin that became Lake Marion was cleared in a rush, stumps left in the lake bed, timber chained to the stumps. For years, people could fish from logjams.

On Feb. 17, 1942, Santee Cooper generated its first electricity.

"It came in on schedule. It came in on budget. It was incredible for that time," says Edgar.

SANTEE COOPER The Santee Cooper Hydroelectric and Navigation Project achieved several firsts for its time:

  • Largest land-clearing project in the nation's history.
  • Largest public-works project in the nation.
  • Highest single lift lock in the world — 75 feet — at the Pinopolis Dam.
  • Longest earthen dam in the world, the 8-mile-long Santee Dam.
  • Elimination of malaria. By 1948, no county around the lakes reported malaria.

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