David Lauderdale

Old highway should be treated as treasure

The Old Charleston Highway in Jasper County is a luscious sliver of genuine Lowcountry, when there are barely enough slivers left to feed a hummingbird.

A section of about eight miles runs straight as a church pew between two modern blacktops -- U.S. 17 and U.S. 321 -- south of Ridgeland. Those highways themselves have been overtaken by the bigger, faster Interstate 95 less than a mile away.

It was much quieter when President George Washington rode this stretch of the Old Charleston Highway on his goodwill tour of the South. On May 11, 1791, Washington was headed to Savannah in a special coach, his trusty hound, Cornwallis, running alongside.

Remarkably, what we see today is the same thing the first president saw along the same dirt roadbed.

Its savannas still harbor a diversity of species that attracted the attention of the first great naturalists, John James Audubon and William Bartram.

The road between Purrysburg on the Savannah River and Pocotaligo was cut between 1733 and 1740, according to Larry Rowland's history of this area. It is thought to have ferried British troops during the long-smoldering war of American independence, as well as rebels in the Civil War. Since 1960, state and local government agencies have worked to document colonial trails like this throughout the state for better appreciation by residents and visitors.

The Old Charleston Highway doesn't attract much attention, and it shouldn't. Its value lies in its whispered stories and cathedral-like hardwood bottom swamps.

But that doesn't mean the state should give the old road away or fail to maintain it.

A bridge is out on a two-mile section that is in the state's hands. It's been out so long a neighbor whose family has lived for generations in the Switzerland community nearby fears the historic road he loves to walk and bicycle will someday be fenced off to the public.

"That's not something that you just give away," said Bernard Shoemaker. "It's a treasure."

PUBLIC OR PRIVATE

The S.C. Department of Transportation would like to give it away for financial reasons.

Former Secretary of Transportation H.B. "Buck" Limehouse Jr. of Charleston told me a year ago that "the bridge in question is 195 feet long, and we estimate, if we do it with our forces, it's going to cost about $300,000. We just do not have that kind of money in our maintenance budget right at this point."

Traffic there averages only 10 cars a day, he said. The state tried several years ago to turn the road over to the hunting club and timber producer whose land surrounds it, Limehouse said.

The Okeetee Club would love to take ownership of the road, said its longtime superintendent, Bert Shiflet. But it declined the state's offer because he said it required the club to take over maintenance and liability without being able to close it to the public.

"It's one of those deals," he said. "We have all the land on either side, so why should we leave it open and take on the liability? We would have all the liability, and that is our biggest concern."

Concrete slabs were removed from the bridge six to 10 years ago, then work stopped and the bridge was blocked off, Shoemaker recalls. I couldn't find anyone who readily knows exactly when that took place or why.

But one thing is clear to Shiflet. A dead end on a lonely road attracts trouble. Litter, alcohol, illegal drugs, a burned-out car and even a dumped body have surfaced since the bridge was closed, he said.

Shoemaker hopes the historic value of the road will cause the state to fix the bridge and remove the blockades.

Shiflet said the club understands the road's historic value and would maintain it well. "What we've offered in the past is that if some entity wanted to have any special event there for their historic interest, we would be glad to oblige any need or request they have," he said.

FATHER OF FORESTRY

Most of the Old Charleston Highway that passes through the Okeetee Club is maintained by Jasper County. On that portion of the road, gravel that Washington and Bartram would never have traveled has been added because the road gets so slick when it's wet.

But the longleaf pine vistas that Washington and Bartram saw are still there, thanks solely to the Okeetee Club.

Its 50,000 acres are primarily dedicated to quail hunting, as it was when the club was founded in 1894. Its membership of fewer than 20 included some of the richest people in America. It remains a closely held hunting club and timber business.

Shiflet says it produces timber in a number of ways on the 40 percent of its property devoted to it. But he said Okeetee's longleaf pine habitat, wetlands and hardwood bottoms have been protected since 1894.

"One of the first formal forestry plans in the United States was done for Okeetee in 1908," he said. "The co-author was Gifford Pinchot, who is considered the father of forestry."

With Pinchot's plan and the club's devotion to quail habitat, Okeetee is home to glorious Lowcountry vistas and endangered species like the red-cockaded woodpecker.

A lot has changed in the South since George Washington's goodwill tour rumbled down the Old Charleston Highway. Old-growth forests seemed then to flow to infinity, like the ocean. Now these historic cultural assets are down to a trickle. The state should treat them as treasures.

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