At Lake Marion in South Carolina, you can explore a flooded 'ghost town' by kayak

Special to The Bluffton PacketMay 6, 2013 

  • GETTING THERE

    From Bluffton, Lake Marion is an easy two hour ride up Interstate 95 to Eutaw Springs. It is a good change of pace from the salty sandbar fun of the May River to experience the haunting beauty of this man-made Lowcountry lake paradise.



    The town of Ferguson is about a mile offshore and very accessible by boat or kayak. Church Island is a mile and a half from the mainland and easy to find as well.



    Our trip was a seven-mile paddle from point to point, putting in at Ferguson Landing near Eutaw Springs, and taking out at Spiers Landing, a county park five miles further down the road. There is a $3 boat launching fee at Ferguson's Landing, but Spiers Landing is free. We had a belt-bursting dinner at Sweatman's Barbecue in nearby Holly Hill, capping off a perfect day on the water. For more information on the lake and its landings contact SCDNR at 843 825-3387.



    THE ROCKS CEMETERY AND THE TIDES OF PROGRESS

    In 1804, the first church was built near The Rocks plantation along the Santee River. This was during the golden age of cotton plantations, and the wealth of these river kingdoms was already legendary.



    For many years this church served the families of St. Stephens Parish. Over time it was improved and added to, and all around it grew the stately graveyard holding its departed to silently await that trumpet in the east. Plantation owners, farmers and merchants found eternal rest here. The broken columns of Civil War veterans rose among them, and as the 20th century dawned, the silent stones and their attendant chapel had become typical of nearly every other churchyard in South Carolina.



    Change came in the 1930s when news of the great lake project swept the region. Plantation houses were moved or razed to make way for the rising waters, but soon Rocks Church was isolated on a remote island more than a mile from shore in the vastness of the lake. Abandoned but not forgotten, the church was lost as a place of worship but not as a symbol of a once-vibrant community. Today, the grounds are well-kept and if you can make the passage it is worth the visit. I don't have to tell you to be reverent or respectful once you come ashore among the stones. The peaceful beauty of the Rocks Cemetery instills its own sense of solitude upon its visitors, calling in a quiet voice to remember days gone by and the people who made the land what it once was.

At the azure margin where the green of the lake meets the blue sky, a line of stranded cypress trees beckoned. I pointed the nose of my kayak to a blocky mass in the center and paddled hard against the gentle spring breeze. Very soon a crumbling concrete and brick structure arose before me, providing both a barrier from the main part of the lake and a break from the ticklish wind. I had found the abandoned, flooded town of Ferguson in the middle of Lake Marion and a new day of adventure in the Lowcountry had begun.

The lumber town of Ferguson is one of many true "ghost towns" that can be found in South Carolina. The tides of time and economics have caused many towns and villages to fade away, but the unique feature of this one is that it is surrounded in its entirety by Lake Marion.

More than 50 years ago, Ferguson was a bustling lumber mill town on the banks of the Santee River. It served 350 families and worked overtime to harvest the rich bottomland virgin cypress forests nearby. Today it consists of piles of brick and other odds and ends scattered along the lakebed. The 110,000-acre lake swallowed the town after it was dammed in the 1940s. Now, only a giant lumber kiln and a few artifacts remain -- testimony to progress and a kayaker's delight. Fishermen, too, prowl the waters around its old footings in search of lake monsters hiding in the dark waters.

In the same neighborhood is a haunting reminder of the past that is even older. On nearby Church Island, the "Rocks Cemetery" marks the place where the Church of the Epiphany once stood. This burial ground dates from 1804 and was once the scene of a thriving congregation on the grounds of the ancient Rocks Plantation, dating from Colonial times.

The rising waters claimed the church, too, and altered the lives of its congregants forever. In fact, one member was so distraught that the lake project was taking his farm that he chose suicide rather than accept the fate of the land. He is buried in the cemetery on the shores of the lake he resisted. The cemetery is lovingly tended today as a testimony to undying community spirit.

Recently I kayaked out to Ferguson and Church Island with a group of friends. As you approach these places you are overwhelmed by the beauty of the lake and the fact that though age and progress have moved past these old places they are far from forgotten. As you glide between the Spanish moss-draped cypress, osprey cry overhead and history comes alive. A sign on Church Island reminds you that you tread on hallowed ground. Though Ferguson and The Rocks may be a place of rest one visit and you will feel your spirit soar.

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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