This weekend’s paddling trip to Lake Marion was nearly perfect. There was fantastic weather, beautiful scenery, excellent food, good company, and a venue with interesting history. Unfortunately, that history has been somewhat tainted and full of controversy.
Names like “Santee” and “Congaree” give indication that the original inhabitants of the area were Native Americans. 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 from the dense cypress forests, 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 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. Examples of Ferguson scrip coins can still be found on eBay and at antique coin vendors.
According to railroad historian and author Tom Fetters…
Life and wages for workers were good for Ferguson, too, Fetters said. 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, Fetters added.
However, the town was short-lived. According to the Carolana website, Ferguson’s post office was in operation 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, but I’m going to leave part of the story for another post.
Interest in Ferguson grew when the 2007-2008 drought lowered lake levels enough so that more of the structures and foundations could be seen. Water was low enough that folks could take four-wheelers out to the island.
Unfortunately, this led to looting of previously submerged archeological sites and even of submerged graves (thought not, necessarily, by the folks in the photo above.)
According to this article by Dr. John Rheney, signs are posted to prevent people from taking four-wheelers out to the island across the lake bed. All of the items on the island, from bricks to pottery to other artifacts, are now under the protection of the South Carolina Public Service Authority.
With the water so high, we were not able to see as much of the foundations and stonework on our visit as was seen in these linked reports during the drought of 2007-2008. However, we would make out breakers where waves were crashing against old pilings several yards out into the water. The hulking lumber kiln on the north end of the island, though, is a stark reminder of the town now submerged under the waters of Lake Marion.
UPDATE: I’ve been in touch with an Amy Martin who is on the faculty at USC. Her great-great grandfather was an accountant for Francis Beidler, and she has TONS of information about Ferguson, including photos and maps. She was out of town this week, but I hope to share more once we touch base.