Hiking the rusty rails: The Wateree Passage of the Palmetto Trail

Special to The Bluffton PacketFebruary 6, 2013 

There is a place in South Carolina where rusting rails of iron and moss-covered crossties lie beneath the enshrouding arms of cypress and tupelo. If you stand between them and gaze into the green distance of the swamp it is not hard to imagine the earth trembling as an old steam locomotive rockets toward you. The flash of sparks and scream of the whistle echoes across the river bottom as it thunders past, its cars filled with passengers heading to Lowcountry plantations or ordnance for Confederate armies fighting in distant fields. You have come to the Wateree Passage of the Palmetto Trail.

Since its inception in 1994, the Palmetto Trail has stretched from the mountains to the sea, allowing a recreational connection for hikers, bikers and outdoor enthusiasts access across the entire state. The Wateree Passage is one of the most recent additions to the trail, bringing the project closer to completion. Stretching from Poinsett State Park in the historic High Hills of the Santee near Wedgefield in Sumter County across the swamps of the Wateree River, the passage follows the line of the old South Carolina Railroad, merging history and nature onto the same path.

Now, where trestles and rails once stood, boardwalks and a wide grassy lane beckon adventurers. The Wateree Passage is remote yet easily accessible and offers a glimpse into a picturesque Lowcountry swamp that normally would need to be seen by boat or other means. Here you can view wildlife and the unique nature of the swamp with dry feet and no chance of getting lost finding your way home. The Wateree Passage is 7.2 miles long, is well-maintained and easy for a day trip hike or mountain biking trip.

I took a walk along the Wateree Passage recently with a group of friends. We hiked from the trailhead on Foxville Road along the old rail bed and into the deep swamp. A few miles in we reached a portion of the trail known as Sumter Junction. This historic "Y" junction of the old rail line was built long before the Civil War, and evidence of these old tracks could still be found among the trees. Pilings stretched away into the swamp like ancient temple columns beckoning the imagination back to a golden age of railroad travel.

Something besides nature attracted us to this place. In 1865 a raid by an invading federal army discovered ammunition-filled Confederate rail cars hidden along this stretch of track -- and promptly blew them up. The resulting explosions could be seen and felt for miles across the swamps. We found no cannonballs or evidence of days gone by, but spotting wheels of and old rail car in the mud and seeing the abandoned track added a fascinating dimension to a simple walk in the wild.

Whether a lover of nature or history or both, the Wateree Passage of the Palmetto Trail is worth getting outside to enjoy.

GETTING THERE

The Wateree Passage of the Palmetto Trail is two hours from Bluffton and worth a day trip to visit. The trail can be accessed at two points. The main trailhead is in Poinsett State Park in Wedgefield. Here the Palmetto Trail winds through the High Hills of the Santee, providing a varied walk in a unique landscape of Ice Age sandhills and a challenging ride for mountain bikers. A second trailhead is on Foxville Road just outside the park in the Manchester State Forest and allows immediate access to the old rail line and a 3-mile walk to the Wateree River. The passage is one-way at this point, so expect to back track. Bring plenty of water and bug repellant per the season. One place I recommend for a hearty breakfast and supplies is Batten's Grocery in nearby Wedgefield. The people at this unique country store and kitchen will provide fuel for your hike as well as a smile and good advice about the swamp. From Bluffton take I-95 north to Exit 108 to Summerton. Take U.S. 15 north ten miles to S.C. 261. This is the old "King's Highway" from colonial times and will take you 12 miles past historic landmarks and plantations to Wedgefield. Details: Manchester State Forest, 803-494-8196

POTTER'S RAID: THE LAST ACT OF THE CIVIL WAR IN SOUTH CAROLINA

On the same day that Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, Union General Edward E. Potter left occupied Georgetown, intent on raiding the middle part of the state. He entered the High Hills of the Santee and began his mission of burning and destroying any railroads, cotton gins and anything of value to the Confederate war effort. At Sumter Junction at the edge of the vast Wateree swamp he found nine rail cars on a siding filled with cannonballs, ammunition and (rumor has it) secret weapons intended for last-ditch efforts. Potter's force destroyed the train, scattering these arms to the four winds and continued their raid of destruction north through Camden and beyond.

Among his embattled troops was the famed 54th Massachusetts. This regiment made entirely of men of African descent were veterans of the fighting around Charleston and are well-remembered today by the movie "Glory."

Bluffton resident Matt Richardson enjoys taking day trips with his family and exploring the Lowcountry. To see more pictures from his adventures, go to www.Flickr.com and search on the username "greenkayak73." He can be reached at greenkayak73@yahoo.com.

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