Nature meets history along the banks of the Catawba River in the Olde English District
The Catawba River winds its fast-moving, muddy course through the heart of South Carolina’s Olde English District tourism region, and improved access to the river is bringing visitors and driving economic development in this fast-growing community.
by David Lucas
A recent outing for the S.C. Natural Resources Blog took me up Interstate 77 to the Catawba River and Chester County’s Landsford Canal State Park, to walk the park’s riverside nature trail and scout its famed rocky shoals spider lilies in advance of the 2018 Lily Fest ( May 20th from 12-5 p.m.). This massive colony of lilies growing in the fast-moving waters of the Catawba River is believed to be the largest in the world, and the park's annual celebration is held to coincide with their peak blooming time, when this shallow, rocky section of the river turns white in a stunning display of these remarkable plant’s delicate white blooms.
Unusually high water levels, coupled with somewhat cooler than normal spring temperatures have the lilies a bit behind schedule this year, but I’m pleased to report that the plants were beginning to show some bloom when I visited, and should be in full flower in time for the festival. An updated “Lily Watch”bloom report is available on the state parks website for dedicated lily watchers, and as of May14, the prediction for festival day was looking good.
Landsford Canal State Park is in the heart of South Carolina’s Olde English District tourism region. This seven-county region stretches from Union County on its western edge, all the way across the middle of the state to Chesterfield County, and south from York County on the North Carolina border down to Kershaw County, Lake Wateree and the historic city of Camden. If history is your bag, this is one region you will want to put on your vacation wish-list. It played a big part in the Revolutionary War in the South Carolina backcountry. You’ll definitely want to check out the Blackstock Battlefield in Union County, where in November of 1780, General Thomas Sumter, “the Gamecock,” whipped British forces led by despised commander Banastre Tarleton, changing the course of the war. In the National Historic Register-designated Camden Historic District, you’ll find a 107-acre outdoor museum complex on the site that served as the British headquarters during the occupation of Camden (1780-81).
At these and literally dozens of other sites across the Olde English District, you’ll find a region rich with history, including that of its original inhabitants, the Catawba people, who gave the mighty Catawba River its name. The Catawba Nation is the only federally recognized tribe in the state of South Carolina, and Catawba pottery, made from clay mined from sacred sites along the river, is prized by collectors. The collection on display at USC-Lancaster’s Native American Studies Center is not to be missed. It is simply amazing, and the Center’s staff is doing incredible work in the study and preservation of South Carolina’s Native American peoples, their histories, and cultures.
That connection between nature and history is ever-present in the region, as both native inhabitants and European settlers depended upon the river and other natural features for their livelihood, which in turn shaped the region’s development, even into the modern era. It comes as no surprise then, that in addition to the numerous historical and cultural attractions found here, the opportunities for outdoor recreation are practically unlimited. SCDNR-managed properties in the region include Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve, a unique 3,000-acre protected area where the piedmont and sandhills geographic regions meet. Forty Acre Rock itself is the preserve’s centerpiece, a gigantic granite outcropping that’s crevices, waterfalls and vernal pools shelter dozens of rare plants. There’s also Liberty Hill Wildlife Management Area, an 8,000-acre sportsman’s paradise situated along 17 miles of Lake Wateree and Catawba River shoreline. Hunting, hiking and birdwatching are popular activities here. (Hunting requires a WMA permit issued by the SCDNR.) The Landsford Canal Forest Legacy Area is adjacent to the state park.
Prefer your outdoor experience with a heaping helping of horsepower? The folks at Carolina Adventure World can help with that. The Fairfield County facility has over 100 miles of custom designed trails, 10 miles of dirt bike trails, rock crawl, drag strip, banked oval track, an enduro course, and multiple mud bogs. You can rent ATVs or bring your own, and camping and RV hook-ups are available.
At the H. Cooper Black Memorial Field Trial and Recreation Area near Cheraw, the name of the outdoor game is horseback riding and – you guessed it – national level field trial and retriever dog competitions. South Carolina was once a hub for the sport of field trial, which in the early part of the 20th century drew crowds comparable to modern day football games. Pick your event and you might even see Field Trial Hall of Famer and Fort Mill native John Ray Kimbrell competing here!
But perhaps nowhere in the region is the connection between nature and history as explicit as at Landsford Canal. In addition to the annual show put on by the blooming spider lilies, the park’s trails offer a unique glimpse into the region’s industrial past. During the early 1800s, enterprising businessmen of the era dug a canal that allowed boats laden with cotton and other goods safe passage around the same shallow rocky shoals where the lilies now thrive, providing a critical commercial link between backcountry farmers and coastal ports. A rock coffer dam was constructed to guide boats safely into the hand-dug canal, and remnants of the canal’s network’s stonework foundations built by Irish immigrants are found along the park’s canal trail, which intersects with the riverside trail near the viewing platform overlooking the lilies. The easy, approximately 1.25-mile hike down the river to the viewing platform and back to the trail head near the park headquarters provides great river views, plenty of chances to see interesting plants and wildlife, and will take you past interpretive signs explaining how the canal system worked.
Image Gallery: Lock keepers cabin; remnants of the dam stretch into the river; a squirrel runs across remnants of the canal locks; the nature trail follows the riverbank; Japanese and native red coral honeysuckle; five-lined skink; blue spiderwort; bridges cross the canal along the trail; native mountain laurel -- somewhat rare in the piedmont region; taking photos from the lily observation deck; benches are placed at scenic spots along the trail; stonework remains of a bridge over the canal; rocking chairs on the porch of the lock keepers cabin offer a relxing view of the river.
At the parking lot, you can catch your breath while enjoying a view of the river from the front porch of the restored lock keepers cabin (circa 1790), now a park gift shop and museum. The park is also a popular put-in/take out point for paddling trips on the Catawba, and a fantastic new canoe launch with a circular drive for dropping off/picking up boats, restroom facilities and a parking area has just opened.
With these and all of the other fantastic outdoor opportunities available to explore in the Olde English District, it’s definitely a place I’ll be returning to on future blog trips.
Side Trip: Rock Hill’s Piedmont Medical Center Trail and River Park
Looking for a quick leg-stretcher on your travels through this region that will allow you to enjoy the Catawba River while getting in a quick cardio workout or just relaxing with a picnic lunch? Just a few miles upriver from Landsford Canal State Park, where S.C. Highway 21 crosses the Catawba, the City of Rock Hill has you covered with its Piedmont Medical Center Trail and greenway, a paved asphalt track that winds along the river for approximately 3.5 miles, eventually joining with the city’s 70-acre River Park, in what is becoming a hugely popular amenity for local residents looking to enjoy their river. It’s a fast-growing area, with people drawn to the jobs and economic opportunities provided by nearby mega-city Charlotte, N.C., well as in Rock Hill and nearby Fort Mill. If the apartments and townhomes springing up along the trail are any indication (they are), it’s definitely proof once again that outdoor that investing in access to great natural resources and outdoor recreation opportunities is a powerful economic development incentive. On a recent Monday afternoon visit, the parking lot at the trailhead near the “Pumphouse” restaurant was full, families were enjoying the sunshine and river views, and walkers and bikers were enjoying the weather and remarkable views from the trail’s overlooks.
Image gallery: kayaks at the Riverwalk canoe launch; the paved trail follows 3.5 miles of the riverbank; new apartment buildings are spring up on the property adjacent to the river trail; views of the river from the trail; the rocks of the river are teeming with turtles; rapids around a small island; walkers on the trail; this king snake was sunning itself trailside; access to the river is driving economic development in the area around the trail.