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With a reintroduction, can Gills Creek and Columbia come to good terms?

Follow Gills Creek through Columbia

Gills Creek is heavily influenced by man and nature as the urban creek flows through Columbia from Northeast Richland County to the Congaree River.
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Gills Creek is heavily influenced by man and nature as the urban creek flows through Columbia from Northeast Richland County to the Congaree River.

What is Gills Creek, this stream that bubbles up from beneath Hughes Pond among extravagant WildeWood homes?

It is the creek we took for granted, forgot, until our abrupt, violent reintroduction in the floods of last October.

Like almost every lake in the 76-square-mile Gills Creek watershed, the creek’s starting point near Richland County’s northeastern border is a product of man, this one dammed for aesthetics and not much else.

Some of the cleanest water in the watershed is here; it hasn’t had a chance to be polluted yet. Upstream development and runoff will eventually sully the water quality, but not here.

Below the pond’s earthen dam, you might not realize the creek itself is there, a trickle in a patch of woodlands just beginning its roughly 20-mile journey to the Congaree River on the opposite side of the county.

“People don’t realize how good of a resource it is,” said Erich Miarka, director of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting the great drainage basin. “But if you can get people down to the creek, and they’re starting to use it on a daily basis, and they like it and it looks pretty to them, then hopefully we can start generating some awareness and get some people to care about it.”

Transformed and transforming

From Hughes Pond to Bell’s Pond, upper Gills Creek then makes its way through the Army’s Fort Jackson for about four miles.

There, it is largely independent from interference some 100 years after the Army drained a 200-acre swamp and straightened parts of the creek to suit its needs.

Reemerging in the land of civilians, the creek feeds what used to be Upper and Lower Rockyford lakes.

Where there were lakes 11 months ago, now there is prairie and the beginnings of a forest.

Laid bare by broken dams and since then left to nature’s whims, the suburban lakes have transformed into entirely new ecosystems, with lush tufts of bright green grass providing homes to new creatures where bass and carp once swam.

The creek crisscrosses the ground, becoming itself again.

‘A whole different world’

But those lakes were spectacular and special in their own right.

From his back porch, Mark Greiner used to fish in Lower Rockyford Lake. He’d put a remote-controlled boat in the water for fun or take his jonboat out to fish. Friends and family members would visit to enjoy the the scenery and everything the water had to offer.

His family moved into the house more than a decade ago simply because “it’s a lot better to live on the water than not,” Greiner said.

“It’s beautiful when the lake is full,” he said. “It’s a whole different world when you’re sitting on the lake on your back porch and you can fish or just enjoy the fresh air.”

Greiner and his neighbors didn’t sign up to live on a grassland. The water lured them, and they look forward to having their lake back once the dam is repaired, hopefully by next spring, he said.

“I want water there,” he said. “It’s just not a good sight for me, knowing what it used to look like.”

New normal

It might not be exactly what we want, but here, Gills Creek is becoming what it wants to be.

Amid the the new expanse of grassland, Gills Creek is reinventing itself, reforming a web of snaking water channels, shifting the soft soil, asserting its identity.

“It’s a dynamic system. It’s always changing,” Miarka said.

Since the flood, people often ask him when the creek and its lakes will get back to “normal.”

“Well, that is normal,” Miarka said. “Floods are normal. It’s a normal part of the system. They shape the creek.”

We’re not only looking at the new normal. Here, we’re looking at what Gills Creek would be if we had let it be.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

Gills Creek timeline

1740s

Settler James Gill lends his name to the creek

1785

On the west bank of Gills Creek, Thomas Taylor establishes a plantation, a portion of which will become the city of Columbia. Wade Hampton establishes two plantations, “Woodlands” and “Millwood,” on the creek’s eastern bank.

1796

Slaves build Taylor’s gristmill along the creek. The mill is sold to John and Edward Fisher, who use it to spin cotton. The mill’s ruins stand just below what’s now the Forest Lake dam surrounded by property developed by the Cooper family.

c. 1870

Samuel Dent dams the creek to power a saw mill, thus creating Dent’s Pond (now Forest Lake).

1912

Dent’s Pond is purchased, the dam is expanded, and Lake View recreational park is established for swimming, camping, etc. – a cool escape for city residents

1917

Construction of Camp Jackson (now Fort Jackson) begins; the 200-acre Gills Creek Swamp is drained, and the creek is artificially straightened.

1920

Bower’s Beach recreation area is built near what’s now Lake Katherine; city residents get there by way of trolley until the service is discontinued in 1923.

1923

Dent’s Pond is renamed Forest Lake, and Forest Lake Club is organized. John Hughes Cooper buys the Lake View property and develops homes surrounding Forest Lake.

1935

Forest Acres becomes a city.

1936

Bower’s Beach is closed, and the land is sold to developers.

1930s-60s

A series of lakes are created by dams throughout mainly the upper and middle parts of the watershed.

1960s-2000s

Heavy commercial and residential development occur throughout northeast Richland County, Columbia and Forest Acres.

Oct. 3-5, 2015

A 1,000-year rain event causes floods of historic proportions throughout the Gills Creek watershed, killing nine people in Richland County and causing hundreds of millions in damage.

Source: Gills Creek Watershed Association

In this series

CORRALING THE CREEK

Gills Creek, at its headwaters, serves as our beautiful backyard, where we have dammed it to create private lakes and tony neighborhoods. Here, too, though, the creek accepts the early rush of stormwater from decades of breakneck development upstream.

Gills Creek flows freely past golf courses and urban shopping centers. It sinks and narrows through concrete culverts under some of our busiest intersections. We see it where the roads dip and the trees thicken in the green urban canopies of Forest Acres.

The creek passes sleepy Columbia neighborhoods toward lowslung, springy farmland where the ground flattens to make planting easier. Canopied swampland brings cooler, clearer water and the promise of the bottomland forests of Congaree National Park.

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