The Ghost Towns of Lake Marion
Sometime last year I came across an article about the town of Ferguson, South Carolina. The defunct town is now submerged under Lake Marion. All that remains are some foundations and the old lumber kiln that had been part of the Santee Cypress Lumber Company. While looking for information about the old town, I also came across the location of the old Church of the Epiphany on Church Island. The “Rocks Cemetery” which had been associated with the church is still located on the island. Since these two were fairly close, it seemed that this would be an excellent paddling trip. So, this second Saturday of April, the explorers from Lowcountry Unfiltered decided to take it on.
Friday night I’d had an excellent dinner with Dwight and family, and had planned to spend the night in Santee. Once again, Santee struck me as a particularly seedy little town. Right at the Highway 301 exit from I-26 are billboards advertising some big adult book/video store. At the entrance to Santee are two adult “gentleman’s clubs” right across from each other. There were additional adult video places and what looked like defunct clubs lining the way in. Another active club was just down from the motel where I was staying. It looks like this was a place were guys came to fish and play golf during the day, then get other entertainment in the evenings. Add to that the fact that the main commerce, the Santee Factory Outlet Stores, had closed up and become a ghost town, and the entire effect was of one of decay.
Despite the creepiness, I got a good night’s sleep and was up early the next morning. I was supposed to meet Alan at Bell’s Marina in Eutaw Springs for breakfast, but I had a bit of time. I decided to check our proposed access points.
This would be a point-to-point trip with different put-in and take-out locations. The plan was to paddle from Ferguson Landing across to Ferguson Island to check out the ruins there. Then we would skirt along the interior of several islands, with a lunch stop at the “Hook” at Sixteen Island. After that we cross about two miles of open water to Church Island, then swing around to Spiers Landing for the take-out. Total trip would be about 8 miles, give or take a bit.
View Lake Marion Ghost Town Tour.kml in a larger map
I found Ferguson Landing Road in Eutaw Springs with only a little bit of difficulty. Fisherman had park just about anywhere they pleased, and turning onto the dirt road was a challenge. However, once on it I had it to myself. The road was straight and ran for about two miles. It was built on the old railroad bed that once carried logs from the Ferguson lumber works back to town. At the end was the landing, Hide Away Campground and Hot Dog Bob’s. The campground had an air of permanence about is, as if these RVs rarely, if ever, hit the road. Hot Dog Bob’s was closed, but looked like a typical lake convenience store, but for a few cryptic signs.
The landing itself was a simple boat ramp that opened onto a spectacular view of cypress and Spanish moss. The rising sun nearly blinded me as I spoke with a woman fishing at the end of the dock. She warned me about gators and said she had counted no less than 25 fishing boats zipping past. Something must be up.
I thanked her for the info and headed out to find the take-out.
The next stop was Spiers Landing, about 11 miles away by highway. I took a couple of missteps, but soon found the road to the landing. Spiers is a well-developed park with tennis courts, playgrounds, and other facilities. It was hopping, as multiple boats were launching. Parking had already stretched out of the lot and onto the access road.
Back at Bell’s Marina, Alan and I had a good breakfast (“swimming in goodness,” as Alan put it.) We then headed on down to Ferguson Landing to meet the rest of the gang.
Stephen arrived first, then the rest of the LCU guys. In all we had ten paddlers on the trip. Boats and gear were unloaded and prepared for launch. Brian and I ran the shuttle, leaving his big truck and kayak trailer at the take out. By 10:30 we were on the water.
The weather was perfect, warm and sunny, with a bit of a breeze. Water levels seemed very high. We headed out across the lake toward Ferguson Island. Once we got past the shelter of the landing cove and cypress trees, the water got much rougher and picked up a bit of a chop. We could see whitecaps out on the open lake.
Just a few yards out from the landing we could already make out Ferguson Island and the shape of the old lumber kiln on the northwest end of the island.
The waves were crashing against the old ruins. We were able to find relatively safe landing on the leeward side of the island and set off to explore. Google Earth shows several structure remains in this area. At lower water levels many more foundation stones are exposed.
The only significant structure left was the old kiln, used to fire-dry lumber. However, we did find bricks and a few old walls on the north side of the island.
After some exploration we continued on our trek. Paddling along the leeward side of the island the water was calmer, except for when a fishing boat came cruising past. We meandered through the cypress trees, and spotted a few more ruins along the way. At the east end of the island was nice beach and a sign designating the area as a primitive campground.
Our ADD paddlers wanted to stop at this beach for lunch, but I had another stopping place in mind. We crossed a bit more open water and approached another of the smaller islands. We continued to weave among the cypress trees. There were TONS of osprey in the area. These had made their nests on shorter trees than I would have imagined – only 8-10 feet off the surface of the water. The nests were massive.
We continued on the leeward, inland side of the island, soon reaching Sixteen Island. There were lots of fishing boats out and about. Many of these ripped through without regard to their wake. Other were courteous and slowed down when they spotted our boats.
As the views from Sixteen Island opened up, we could see the twin smokestacks of the Santee Cooper Power Plant, located between lakes Marion and Moultrie. We continued through the cypress, and paused to watch even more osprey as they dived at us. They were not happy we were so close to the nests.
We continued on along until we got to the southeast end of Sixteen Island. This beach area is known locally as “The Hook” due to its shape. It would make the perfect lunch stop. There was already a pontoon boat, but there was plenty of beach, and the folks wouldn’t mind us being there, too.
Matt had brought his stove. As has become our tradition, we feasted on bratwurst, sauerkraut, and craft-brewed beer. It couldn’t get much better than this. John even broke out his metal detector to see if he could find anything interesting.
Suitably refreshed and rested, it was time for the long haul – 2 miles across open water to Church Island. Fortunately the wind had died down a bit, but there were still swells. We had two alternate routes, just in case. We could either head north and pause along another smaller island, or we could turn inland and skirt along the south shore. We just went for it.
Eventually we made it across the channel, and were soon approaching Church Island. I could see the clearing that marked the old Rocks Cemetery and location of the Church of the Epiphany.
We landed at different spots and began our explorations of the cemetery. There were lots of ornate stones, and we found several signature stones.
There was a fire still smoking where I had landed, and it looked like the grass had just been cut. Civil War veterans had brand new Confederate flags in place. Someone had just done a lot of maintenance here. It was good to see that they were still taking care of the property.
Google Earth shows the outlines of the family plots but really didn’t indicate the location of the old church.
In the middle of the site was a large brick structure that looked like an oversized pulpit. Markers on that structure gave a brief history of the church. A wooden frame building had stood here.
That church burned and was replaced in 1927 by a brick structure. It only last a few years as the waters rose with the formation of Lake Marion. The church structure was deconsecrated, but left in place when the congregation moved to Eutawville. After years of vandalism, the church was demolished in 1957. Looking back, we could see a rough area outlined near the brick memorial. There were no graves in the area, and we thing that is where the church might have stood.
We paused for a group photo on the steps leading into one of the family plots. In honor of those that had passed, we doffed our hats.
The grounds were peaceful, and we could have stayed and explored more. However, it was time to move on. We headed southward along Church Island, then angled southeast toward our landing. We passed through more cypress groves and saw more osprey.
We paused at one nest and just waited until the bird felt comfortable returning. It still watched us with a wary eye.
As we approached our take-out and the end of this phase of our journey, we saw that the place was hopping. Boat after boat was in line to take out. Fortunately, we didn’t need the ramp, and pulled onto a small beach area next to it. We loaded up our boats onto Brian’s trailer and all piled into his truck for the drive back to Ferguson Landing to retrieve our vehicles.
While we were loading boats back at Ferguson, a woman on a moped drove up with two dogs in tow. She was sporting a barb wire tattoo across her biceps, and rode right up to me. She said, “Dem ain’t my dawgs. Folks just drive out here and dump ‘em. It’s a shame. You want a beagle? That’s a nice dawg, but I just cain’t take ‘em.” I wasn’t sure if I was being propositioned or what. She turned to someone in Hot Dog Bob’s and shouted, “bring me out a cold beer!”, then scooted off on her moped.
The others had left – some for home, and some for a rendezvous for BBQ. Stephen and I now decided we had to check out Hot Dog Bob’s. We went inside and found that it was NOT a convenience store, as we had thought. There was a pool table, pinball machines, and a bar with a few denizens of the campground hanging out. Stephen with into full preacher mode and started chatting with them. They seemed like nice enough folks.
Our day was not over, though. Stephen and I drove through Eutawville in the direction of Holly Hill. On the outskirts of town we found Sweatman’s Barbecue. We almost missed it. The building is a 100+ year old farm house. Inside, there were tables and a BBQ buffet set up. We joined the others of our group for a great end-of-journey meal.
…and the trip STILL wasn’t over…
After dinner, Stephen and I headed back into Eutawville. We first stopped by the parish house for the Church of the Epiphany…
…then we went across the street to the church itself. There were cars parked in the lot, and it turned out that a service was in session. Since we had come off of an all-day paddling trip, we didn’t think we looked (or smelled) like parishioners. We headed on back toward the Upstate and our homes.
It had been a fantastic day out on the water. I’ve already written too much here for one post, so I’ll do a “Part Two” with some of the research and history that we’ve found for the area. Until then, here are my photos from the trip. I posted nearly 250…
Here are John Ring’s photos…
And here are Alan Russell’s photos…
Here are Matt Richardson’s photos…
I’ll post more as my friends put them on Flickr.
- The Ghost Towns of Lake Marion, Part 2 – Ferguson
- The Ghost Towns of Lake Marion, Part 3 – The Water Rises