Eventually we made it back to Highway 601. We could hear the traffic from the bridge long before we could see it.
We continued on past the bridge and onto the oxbow lake proper.
Not far onto the oxbow lake Billy took me to a set of wooden ruins on the southwest bank of the oxbow. He said that these were the remains of a railroad trestle.
This didn’t strike me as a railroad bridge, though. It was too wide and didn’t seem reinforced enough to support a train. After the trip I looked back at my old maps and couldn’t find any trace of a railroad through this area. The main route from Branchville crossed the Congaree north of here and went to Kingville. It was possible that this was a logging spur, but none of the topo maps showed this.
The history of the bridge turned out to be about as fascinating as the other history of the area. For many years ferries were the only way to cross the Congaree, whichever route it was taking.
In 1923 a new series of bridges was constructed over the swamp. The main bridge was a wood and steel construction over the main stem of the Congaree known as Bates Bridge. However, there were a series of wooden bridges that cross the swampy areas.
The 1923 article from The State newspaper describes the bridge this way…
Richland side: Wooden bridge over the old bed of the Congaree, with 50 foot creosoted piles driven 26 feet below the river bed to some hard substance; two miles of high-water road through the swamp, broken by four wooden bridges, the road being from four to eight feet in height.The State, November 28, 1923
This sounds much more like what we were seeing on the oxbow. However, this bridge didn’t last very long. In 1928 the bridge was washed away by flooding
The new Bates Bridge wasn’t much better than the old one, though. It was still a steel and wooden construction.
In 1944 a new bridge over the Congaree was proposed. The old Bates Bridge was left in place while the new one was under construction. However, tragedy struck. In 1946 a large truck fell through the timbers of the old bridge, killing the driver.
The new bridge wasn’t completed across the Congaree and swamp areas until 1950. It face many delays, including a lack of steel during WWII.
As for the pilings that Billy and I found, I’m not sure if they were from the 1923 bridge or the 1928 bridge. I am pretty sure that this was not a former railroad trestle, though.
We explored one more little cove behind the bridge remains, then headed back to the landing. It seemed that the water was even higher, rising as waters from upstate made their way down. We were able to paddle almost all the way to where we parked the cars. We also caught some of the trickiest cross currents as we paddled over the dirt road.
According to my GPS we paddled 6.1 miles. My normal trackers didn’t seem to be working and I didn’t have my big GPS with me so the track isn’t as accurate as I usually have. I’ve zoomed out on the track so that it can be seen in context with the Congaree and Wateree Rivers.
There’s lots more to explore. We didn’t really get into the Bates Old River oxbow lake at all. We’ll have to save for another time. The park has plans to improve the access road so that it will be easier to pull my trailer down here, but I’m not going to wait for that. I’d like to see what this area is like in the spring.
It was a great trip and I enjoyed finally meeting Billy in person. We hit it off right away, as if we’d known each other for years. I appreciated his knowledge of the area, and I look forward to taking more trips with him.
One final note…
As I was doing my research on this area I came across references to something called the “Buckingham Dam.” Apparently in the 1940s there was a proposal for a dam on the Santee River at Buckingham Landing, just downstream of the confluence of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers. This would have radically altered the Midlands landscape, inundating land and flooding areas as far north as the Gervais Street Bridge in Columbia and as far east as Camden. All of Congaree National Park would be under water.
The proposal met with protests from multiple sources, including the timber industry and farmers. The plan was abandoned in favor of the new bridge over the Congaree. During WWII it was thought that the ability to move troops from Fort Jackson to the coast was more important than a lake, so the bridge took priority.
I’m glad the dam wasn’t built, but it is interesting to imagine what our state would be like if it had been.