Palmetto Trail boardwalk opens through Wateree Swamp

COLUMBIA, SC — Palmetto Conservation Foundation (PCF) opened the new Palmetto Trail elevated boardwalk through Wateree Swamp last week to provide year-round access to a marvelous trek through nature and history.

The three-quarter-mile trestle boardwalk is elevated 15 feet above the swamp on reclaimed piers that once supported the historic South Carolina Railroad. For a 60-foot section where the piers could not be reclaimed, PCF installed the first suspension bridge on the 500-mile cross-state Palmetto Trail. SCE&G, a dedicated corporate partner of the Trail and the boardwalk, donated additional funding for the suspension bridge.

PCF also added several miles of forest trail in Richland County and a trailhead on Farmstead Road off U.S. Hwy 601, which lengthens Wateree Passage from 7.2 to 11.4 miles. The boardwalk is about midway between the new trailhead and an existing trailhead located in Poinsett State Park in Sumter County.

Planning and construction of the boardwalk took about four years, according to PCF Trail Coordinator Furman Miller. He was a PCF volunteer when he first saw the piers marching like Stonehenge structures through a jungle. He and a small crew of volunteers spent the first year cutting trees and clearing undergrowth.

When he shared his vision for the boardwalk, Miller told PCF Executive Director Natalie Britt, “We can do this.” He also shared his vision with his boss, Jeff Archie, who brought SCE&G into the project as a major supporter. That support launched the project.

At the ribbon-cutting last Thursday, Archie remembered a sense of being “overwhelmed” when he first toured the site with Miller. Despite “the snakes and the fertile ground,” he saw how the project would fit with SCE&G’s values.

“SCE&G believes in protecting the environment, and we are passionate about our support for the Palmetto Trail,” Archie said. He joined PCF’s Board of Directors and served as chair during boardwalk construction.

Archie cut the ribbon with Ed and Dorothy Kendall of the Kendall Foundation, which is known for philanthropy in the midlands. The Kendalls, who live near Wateree Passage, have a long-standing history of support for land conservation and a deep understanding of the benefits of being in nature. For them, financial support for the boardwalk was a perfect fit.

Britt paid tribute to the third major supporter, Mikee Cox of Cox Industries, who could not attend the ceremony. Cox Industries donated the tons of lumber needed to build the boardwalk.

Miller described the stringers that span the piers as requiring “lumber specially cut to the required 22 feet long by 4 inches wide and 12 inches deep.” The stringers and decking stretch a total of 2,468 feet, he said.

“I marvel at the workmanship of PCF’s volunteers and staff,” Archie said. “It’s incredible—absolutely incredible,” he said.

Both Archie and Britt recognized the many volunteers who donated their time to the boardwalk’s construction. In addition to Miller and others from the volunteer crew that maintains the Peak to Prosperity Passage, boardwalk volunteers included Boy Scouts, college students (including from Idaho), companies donating volunteers, PCF’s Wednesday volunteers, and the Palmetto Conservation Corps. The Corps, a new PCF program, is South Carolina’s only trail-based AmeriCorps program for young adults.

On constructing the trail through the swamp, Miller observed, “We were completely at the mercy of Mother Nature.” Britt cited two hurricanes, two ice storms, floods and winds that hampered construction over the years.

The South Carolina Railroad achieved notoriety in the final days of the Civil War when Union Gen. Edward Potter launched his now famous “Potter’s Raid.” His troops destroyed Confederate Army stores contained in some 200 cars sidelined at Middleton Depot and the Wateree Swamp.

A Sumter newspaper, The Watchman and Southron, chronicled the devastation in an 1886 account: “There was much to be destroyed and the destroyers proceeded systematically. They left not a vestige behind them. When the fire was applied to the gunpowder and hand grenades, the concussion was terrific. The railroad iron was all that was left and that torn and twisted into every conceivable shape. Much of it was tossed into the swamp a great distance and driven into the mire more than half its length.”

Today, some of the warped iron rails can still be seen at Sumter Junction (aka Wateree Junction) as one hikes or bikes the Palmetto Trail on Wateree Passage. PCF plans to install historical markers to commemorate the landmark.

Wateree Passage is one of the more popular passages on the Palmetto Trail because of its diverse terrain from the “high hills” of Poinsett State Park through the extensive cypress and hardwood swamp and across the river. The new Farmstead Road trailhead makes the passage easy to access from Columbia and Fort Jackson. The passage accommodates hiking and mountain biking.

Palmetto Conservation Foundation is a statewide nonprofit organization, founded in 1989, whose mission is to conserve South Carolina’s natural and cultural resources, preserve historic landmarks, and promote active outdoor recreation. PCF’s largest and best-known project is the Palmetto Trail. PCF’s newest program is the Palmetto Conservation Corps, South Carolina’s only trail-based service program for young adults. For more information, visit www.palmettoconservation.org or Facebook/palmettoconservation.org.

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About the Palmetto Trail

The scenic Palmetto Trail is one of 16 cross-state trails in the United States and is recognized regionally and nationally as a visitor-friendly attraction. The Trail inspires active, healthy living and showcases the state’s diverse natural beauty, fascinating history, and rich rural and urban culture. From mountains to sea, the Palmetto Trail connects Oconee County to Pickens, Greenville, Spartanburg, Union, Laurens, Newberry, Fairfield, Richland, Sumter, Clarendon, Orangeburg, Berkeley and Charleston counties. When finished, the Trail will extend about 500 continuous miles from Walhalla to Awendaw. With 28 completed passages and multiple trailheads, the Palmetto Trail is accessible from anywhere in the state for
day trips, weekend jaunts and longer treks. Passages are typically fewer than 15 miles in length, but range from 1.1 to 47 miles and feature wilderness and backcountry paths, urban bikeways, greenways, rails-to-trail conversions, city sidewalks, and even the steps of the State Capitol. The Trail connects private and public lands, state parks, national and state forests, Revolutionary and Civil War sites, and numerous cities, towns and communities. For information and downloadable maps of Palmetto Trail passages, and to become a Palmetto Conservation member and Trail supporter, visit www.palmettoconservation.org.

About Palmetto Conservation

The mission of Palmetto Conservation Foundation (PCF) is to conserve South Carolina’s natural and cultural resources, preserve historic landmarks, and promote outdoor recreation through trails and greenways. Founded in 1989, PCF is a statewide nonprofit organization with headquarters in Columbia. PCF’s largest and best-known project is building and maintaining the mountains-to-sea Palmetto Trail. In 2016, PCF inaugurated the Palmetto Conservation Corps to help interested young adults in South Carolina learn skills in trail maintenance and construction, assist with disaster recovery, and develop as the next generation of conservation stewards and leaders. The Palmetto Conservation Corps is South Carolina’s only trail-based AmeriCorps service program for young adults. To learn more about Palmetto Conservation, the Palmetto Trail and the Palmetto Conservation Corps, visit www.palmettoconservation.org and Facebook/palmettoconservation, or call 803-771-0870.