A stone bridge abutment that had stood for more than two centuries along the Broad River in Columbia was toppled during sewage line work last month.
City contractors upgrading a sewage line strayed outside the 15-foot utility easement, also creating severe erosion problems in several backyards in the riverfront neighborhood along Castle Road.
“No warning. No knock on the door. No explanation,” said David Brinkman, who owns the land where the bridge abutment perched. “I guess it only took a few hours to obliterate a structure that had stood for 223 years.”
The bridge abutment looked like a simple pile of rocks partially covered by vegetation, but closer examination revealed it was cut granite stacked with a purpose, with man-made holes. Brinkman used early maps and modern GPS technology to determine it was the western abutment for a bridge built by John Compty.
One of the lesser known of the founding fathers of Columbia, Compty used his own money to build bridges in 1791, 1792 and 1797. The first two were washed away by floods. The abutment in Brinkman’s yard matched the map location of the 1792 bridge. A less organized pile of rocks in a neighbors yard likely was from the 1791 bridge, Brinkman said.
“There’s not a whole lot left in the area from that period,” said state archaeologist Jon Leader, who in 2007 confirmed the rocks were a man-made structure. “Finding things is like a needle in a haystack, and they’re usually small remnants of larger objects. But if you put them together, they tell the tale of the area.
“It’s not simply something that’s minor. It’s an underpinning of what it meant for Columbia to be Columbia in its current location. … This is a loss of an important piece of the city’s history that shouldn’t have happened.”
Anybody doing construction work in Columbia can find the location of known cultural history sites on the ArchSites website compiled and maintained by the S.C. Department of Archives and History and the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology.
“They didn’t ask us,” Leader said of the city and its contractors. “As far as we know, they didn’t ask anybody.”
The contractor is working on improvements to sewage lines first installed in the 1980s, and the project also is designed to build a new lift station. It’s one of a long list of sewage line projects in the city.
When the original sewage lines were installed, the landowners granted a 15-foot wide easement through their backyards for the work. The new work is impacting six homeowners on nine lots ‑ three lots have no homes. The homes hug a bluff along Castle Road, with the lots sloping steeply down to what until recently was a small ledge about 20 feet above the river, where the original sewage line was installed. The ledge was so thick with brush that only deer and adventurous youngsters traveled along it, Brinkman said.
The recent work scraped away a chunk of the slope and used the resulting dirt to widen the ledge to more than 30 feet in some areas. It’s wide enough to drive over now, though with portions already eroding.
The homeowners say they had no notice from the city or the contractor that work was to be done in their yards. After the first day of heavy work on the line stopped short of his property, Carl Foster was waiting for the crew the next morning. “I asked them to be gentle with my property,” Foster said.
With that request, plus protests by Brinkman later that day, the wide swath now ends as it enters Foster’s property.
City officials refused to comment on the situation, citing potential legal matters. The contractor, North American Pipeline Management Co., did not return phone messages left by The State at its Columbia office. An engineering consultant who said he was working for the city walked the project area Monday, Brinkman said.
The sewage line work is across the river from the section of the Riverfront Park trail system that detours down from the Columbia Canal embankment. When building that section of trail years ago and many other trails along the water, the River Alliance took precautions to check for cultural resources before clearing a path.
“In this more enlightened age, the reasonable expectation is if you’re doing work along the river, you’re going to encounter a cultural resource,” said Mike Dawson, executive director of the River Alliance. He has seen the new work across the river, and in his opinion “it was just a mindless destructive act.”
The destruction isn’t limited to the bridge abutment. The cut into the slope threatens the pilings of a deck built by one homeowner. And while silt fences were installed by the contractors, erosion during a heavy rain storm already forced them to be repaired.
Several of the landowners are working with attorney John Hodge to get answers about the project from the city and contractors, and possibly to seek compensation for damages. One set of landowners – not involved with Hodge – should have an easier time getting answers. City Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and husband, Joel Plaugh, own one of the lots that doesn’t have a house on it.
“I didn’t have a clue we were doing any grading,” Leona Plaugh said. “I know we didn’t get notice. We knew that it was a city easement, but it would have been nice to get notice.”
Plaugh asked city officials to sit down with the landowners and explain the project. She said she hopes the meeting will be this week. After several weeks of asking, Hodge got a preliminary meeting with city officials last week. Much remains to be worked out, Brinkman said.
The bridge abutment destruction was particularly devastating for Brinkman. His curiosity about it eight years ago led him to create a website that maps many of the 18th and 19th century river crossings around Columbia. He also bought a house in Cayce’s Riverland Park subdivision, simply to do archeology in the yard, which borders the historic road to one of those river crossings.
He has moved the abutment in his yard to the back of his mind.
“I always thought I’d come back to this and do more work on it,” Brinkman said. “Jon Leader told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. That’s not going anywhere.”