One of my goals for 2022 was to paddle at least 10 new venues. Between weather, family obligations, and other conflicts I just hadn’t been able to to get started on that goal. Lake Monticello is fairly close and I’ve explored the general vicinity many times, but I had yet to explore its waters. With beautiful weather on the way, it was high time to correct that oversight and start working on that goal.
Of course, there’s a bit of history…
Lake Monticello is a fairly new reservoir on the western edge of Fairfield County. The reservoir was completed in 1978 as part the V. C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station, which has been embroiled in controversy in recent years. The lake is just east of the Parr Shoals Reservoir on the Broad River, which I have paddled. Even though it’s not on a larger river like Parr Shoals, it is the larger of the two reservoirs. I never understood the relationship between the two bodies of water until just recently.
To me this part of the state has always seemed like an enchanted world apart. The tri-county area of southern Laurens County, eastern Newberry, and western Fairfield County is covered by the Sumter National Forest and farmland. Remnants of lost settlements dot the area, with ghost towns and near-ghost towns such as Blair, Shelton, Alston, Monticello, Maybinton, Feasterville, and Jenkinsville lining the rail/river route. The general feeling is one of remoteness, far from the larger cities in the state.
The Broad River flows through this region. It served as a transportation corridor, first via water, then later as a railroad that ran (and still runs) along its banks. The rocky shoals along the Broad have also provided power for mills. The Robert Mills 1825 map of Fairfield County shows the shoals named Powell Shoals as well as a mill at that location. The Newberry County map identifies the mill as Henry’s Mill. The Fairfield County map also shows the small community of Monticello in 1825, for which the lake is named.
At some point the Parr family acquired the mill and the shoals were renamed Parr Shoals. In the early 1900s Henry L. Parr and others began making plans to build a hydroelectric plant at the site of his mill.
Generating electricity and a troubled history of power
Parr’s hydroelectric plant opened to great fanfare in May of 1914. The Columbia Record reported that the new plant would revolutionize industry in the area, turning Columbia into a “City of Factories.”
The mid-1950s saw a new way to produce electrical power. Development began on the Carolinas-Virgina Tube Reactor, more commonly known as the Parr Shoals Nuclear Station. This was a small experimental reactor that only operated for three years, from 1963 until 1967.
The Parr Shoals station was built right next to the hydropower station. The reactor buildings were finally demolished in the early 2000s. Here are two views from Google Earth showing the location of the CVTR, first from 1999 showing the domed reactor buildings still in place, then in 2022.
In the 1970s plans were made for a larger, permanent nuclear facility, located about three miles north of the old CVTR. Construction began on the Virgil C. Summer Nuclear Generating Station in 1973. The single-reactor station would work in conjunction with an updated Parr hydroelectric plant. The lake now known as Monticello would be built along Frees Creek and serve as a reactor cooling pond and pumped hydro storage for the Parr station.
In 2013 SCE&G in conjunction with Westinghouse began an expansion of the Summer facility with plans to add two reactors to the site. After cost overruns, mismanagement, and a $9 billion taxpayer boondoggle, the plans were abandoned. The new reactors still site uncompleted. Executives from SCANA, the parent company for SCE&G, were charged with “conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud related to the V.C. Summer nuclear expansion project.”
This current image from Google Earth shows the hydrostation, CRTV, and Summer facility in relation to the two reservoirs.
But, didn’t you say something about paddling?
Yeah, back to that…
I had been hesitant to kayak on Monticello. It seemed like a wide open lake with not much of interest along the shore, especially as seen from the boat ramp and park near Jenkinsville. That opinion wasn’t helped by a comment by one of my fellow kayakers, who described the place as “sterile.” I had kayaked on Parr Shoals Reservoir and found it to be a muddy, insect-ridden place and not very appealing. While I found the general area fascinating, the water itself wasn’t appealing.
That opinion changed when I saw some photos posted online of the upper reaches of the lake. These showed tree-lined coves and beautiful scenery. I decided that I would start at the 99 Boat Ramp at the upper end of the lake and stay away from the power station.
I arrived on a beautiful Monday morning the day after the vernal equinox and found the boat ramp hopping. It’s a well-developed shady area with two ramps, picnic areas, lots of parking, and even a place for primitive camping. There was an RV pulled into one of the parking places set up to camp. One boat ramp was in constant use, but there was another that was a bit more difficult to access and not as good for launching motor boats. It would be perfect for me, though.
I paddled back into a couple of coves. On mountain lakes I expect these to have a small tributary cascading into the lake, but these just backed into gulleys.
The water was exceptionally clear, but it looked like water levels were low. There was a good bit of erosion along the banks. I came across an area covered in old stumps, left from when the basin was cleared. I’m sure at higher water these would be hidden.
The eroded banks reminded me of Lake Jocassee at low levels. Like Jocassee, water levels in Monticello can fluctuate depending on power usage. The SCDNR website has this to say about water levels…
The non-traditional hydroelectric station at Lake Monticello uses the adjacent nuclear power facility to pump water into the reservoir, and then releases it through the turbines to produce power. During this process the water levels rise and fall, sometimes causing 5-foot fluctuations in the water level of Lake Monticello.
I do know that I had to watch out for submerged stumps and even some rocks that were just under the surface.
My friend had described the lake as sterile. I found it to be anything but that. Small fingerlings darted around the boat ramp and in the shallower coves. I saw lots of birds, including kingfishers, herons, an osprey, and even loons, which I heard before seeing. Along the banks grew the South Carolina state flower, yellow jessamine.
Immediately I was transported back to the state’s tricentennial celebration in 1970. I was in third grade and one of the state songs we had to sing was “Sunny Yellow Jessamine.”
Sunny Yellow Jessamine
Sunny Yellow Jessamine:
Bright and shiny gold.
Swaying in the gentle breeze,
Lovely to behold.
Flower of our native land,
Ours to have and hold.
Sunny Yellow Jessamine:
South Carolina gold.
But jessamine wasn’t the only state emblem I spotted on this trip. On some of the exposed beaches and eroded areas I spotted some grayish deposits.
I think this might be silt made from eroded Winnsboro Blue Granite, the state stone. The stone was mined in the nearby Kincaid-Anderson Quarry and was used extensively in construction. The South Carolina Capitol Building is made from Winnsboro Blue.
I continued my way around the upper coves. On the west side of the lake I could see a few houses set back and only a couple of docks. SCDNR maintains a buffer zone around the lake and limits the number of docks that can be built. This leaves this part of the lake looking fairly wild and natural (or as natural as a man-made lake can be.) DNR also limits the types of boats allowed on the lake. There is no skiing or jet skis. Fishing boats and pontoons are allowed. That makes it great for kayaking.
There were a couple of large islands just to my east, so I decided to check them out. This meant crossing open water where fishing boats had been zipping about. Between the wind and the wake the water was surprisingly choppy.
The larger island rose to a small knoll covered with trees. On its south side there was a wide beach. This looked like an excellent place just to hang out on a warm summer day. I didn’t get out to explore.
The east bank of the lake has farmland that comes right down to the water’s edge. Some of these old farms were even noted on Robert Mills’s map.
I checked my GPS and saw that I wasn’t too far from Monticello Methodist Church so I headed in that direction. Turns out that the distance was greater than I thought. I had a couple of peninsulas to round to get there. I was worried that I was running out of time for this paddling trip, so I only got to where I could see the church and its cemetery.
I had visited the church and explored the old cemetery in the past.
As this point I was getting a bit worried about time. I had a rehearsal in the evening and was hoping to get off the water by 2:00 so I could get home in time to review the music. I was two miles from the boat ramp and would need to paddle steadily to make it on time. As I headed out I could see the V. C. Summer plant on the horizon.
As I paddled back past the islands I wondered what they were like before the land was inundated. I kind of like to know what I’m paddling over. All of South Carolina’s lakes are man-made…every one of them. That means displacement for someone. I looked at old topographic maps and saw that a road ran through this area, but it was pretty much deserted. There were two old cemeteries, one unnamed and one labeled Pearson Cemetery. I was paddling right over the locations for these cemeteries. I have no idea as to the fate of these cemeteries, whether the graves were moved or just left in place. The Pearson Cemetery is on Find-a-Grave, as well as a later memorial located in the old town of Parr, most likely on the restricted nuclear site. Since the latter site is listed as a “memorial”, it leads me to believe that the Pearson graves themselves are now under water. During my very brief stint with the Discovery Channel my catch phrase was supposed to be “Every lake is a graveyard.” (That project fell through during COVID and I never appeared on any of the channel. Darn.)
I didn’t take anymore photos because I was trying to keep on pace, but the GoPro kept shooting. I approached the causeway that separates the main lake from the smaller swimming/recreation lake just upstream.
I made it back to the ramp at 2:01, in plenty of time. There was a guy at the ramp about to launch an Epic surf ski. We chatted a bit as I got my gear loaded onto the trick all while lusting over his boat. I had paddled one once before in Florida and remembered that it was like trying to paddle a 2X4. I’ve had lots more experience since those days, so I think I might do better this time. Regardless, it was time for me to head back home.
According to the multiple GPS units I had tracking my activity, I paddled 7.5 miles. Here’s the GPS track.
The GoPro didn’t run all of the time, but did run enough for me to get a decent time-lapse.
It was a great trip and despite the bad history of the power plant and my trepidations about the venue, I enjoyed myself. Now I’d like to launch from the other boat ramp, which is closer to the power plant. It could be a completely different experience. At least now I feel better about giving it a try.
One thought on “Paddling Lake Monticello”
Monticello Church and the also visible Davis / Robinson Plantation home nearby are both designed by Robert Mills. Dr. AE Davis was the original owner of the plantation. The plantation was stated to be the largest cotton producer in the Carolinas and Georgia. The Plantation was also the original importer of Brahma cattle among other domestic animals that are common in the US today. There are letters on file with the library of congress that state the plantation is were the cotton gin was invented. They state in protest that Eli Whitney stayed there and stole the idea which lead to his patten. Bald Eagles are fairly plentiful all around the lake. The black deposits you saw on the shore lines are actual iron. Bring a magnet with you on your next visit for a little experiment to confirm this. The rust from the iron is why the shoreline clay is rust red in color. You explored part of the more interesting end of the lake. Keep going, there is more to see.