Introduction

Start of Boardwalk Loop Trail

Start of Boardwalk Loop Trail

Welcome to Congaree National Park’s most popular hiking trail, the Boardwalk Loop Trail. This 2.4-mile hike serves as an excellent introduction to the park’s natural and cultural history. You will see some of the giant trees that put this park on the map, including outstanding specimen loblolly pine, beech and baldcypress, and learn of the efforts to preserve this landscape. The boardwalk passes through a cypress-tupelo flat with hundreds of cypress “knees” emerging from the floodplain soils. At the Weston Lake overlook, see if you can spy turtles, sunfish and gar. In passing through the old-growth forest, evidence abounds of damage from natural disturbances, including hurricanes, ice storms and floods. The last portion of the trail passes through ideal habitat for the rare Carolina bogmint, look for its blooms in mid-summer. Though Congaree National Park has only been a national park since 2003, there is a long-recorded cultural history to learn as well. This land has been inhabited by many peoples, but signs of their presence on the land can be subtle.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The boardwalk passes by red-shouldered hawk and barred owl nests, and you have a reasonable chance of seeing these predators waiting in ambush for crayfish and other prey in the park’s wetlands. Listen for other bird species including the loud rattling of pileated woodpecker and red-headed woodpecker, or the chittering of chimney swift overhead. Near the bluff, keep an eye out for box turtle, mud turtle and rat snake. The boardwalk itself attracts all manner of skinks, anoles, and caterpillars interesting to children and adults alike.

The park is often mislabeled as a swamp; it is better categorized as an old-growth bottomland hardwood forest periodically flooded by groundwater or surface water. Additionally, tree species common to the area possess adaptations that allow for growth and reproduction despite periodic flooding and drought. Bottomland hardwood forests display distinct ecological zones at different elevations, and Congaree National Park is no different—as you walk along the Boardwalk Trail, it is possible to observe a change in soil saturation, groundcover plants and tree species with only slight changes in elevation.

Site Marker

Site Marker

The Boardwalk Trail begins at the Harry Hampton Visitor Center just past the breezeway. American holly trees line the edges of the boardwalk near the start of the trail. In fall and winter months, these trees are easy to identify, as the female trees display clusters of bright red berries in addition to their pointed leaves.

The current visitor’s guide to the Boardwalk Loop Trail provides information corresponding to markers along the boardwalk. This guide to the Boardwalk expands upon the visitor’s guide, and provides more information on the cultural and natural history of the park. The sites listed in this guide follow the markers placed along the boardwalk used in the park; the guide does not list information for all markers on the boardwalk.

Boardwalk Loop Trail Map

Site 1: American Beech Tree

American Beech in Fall

American Beech in Fall

American Beech Tree

American Beech Tree

The first stop on this trail is marked by the entrance to the Bluff Trail, which can be accessed near this marker, and a large American beech tree, which is characterized by smooth, light gray bark. Native to South Carolina, these trees can grow up to 115 feet tall and develop a dense canopy, which serves as a source of shade and overgrowth within the forest. They are sensitive to drought, thriving in moist, loamy soils, and so historically American beech served as a sign of fertile soil to settlers. Within the park, beech can be found on the bluff and higher ridges of floodplains, as they cannot tolerate prolonged wet, anaerobic soil conditions. American beech trees produce small, brown edible nuts, which are easy to identify due to their spiky, angular husks. These nuts are an important food source for birds and squirrels within the park, and were also a source of food for Native Americans.

The Congaree People

Before European colonization in 1718, present-day Congaree National Park was inhabited by a small tribe of Native Americans known as the Congaree. Though they lived in proximity to the Catawba tribe, the Congaree people are thought to have been non-Siouan based on their dialect. At the turn of the 17th century, the small tribe was visited by European settlers and smallpox, which killed a large number of Congaree people. The Yamasee War, fought between British settlers and many Native American tribes over colonial settlements, among other issues, broke out in 1715. As a result of combat and enslavement in the aftermath of the war, the already-small Congaree tribe became even smaller. After colonial settlers established Fort Congaree, a trading outpost and European settlement, near the tribe’s village, the remaining Congaree people assimilated into the larger Catawba tribe. Projectiles and pottery shards can be found in the park and in surrounding areas, but the Congarees’ presence in what is now the Congaree National Park largely disappeared after 1715.

Site 2: Muck Swamp

Muck Swamp

Muck Swamp

As you continue toward Site 2, note the changes in soil and vegetation. The soil under the boardwalk transitions to a wetter, thicker, and dense layer of soil. This mud type, composed of clay and peat, is what is referred to as a muck or peat swamp, and it serves as a 10-foot-thick filter to pollutants that flow into the park. This “swamp” is so named because the water source in this area is groundwater from the 600-foot thick sand layer underneath the muck swamp, accumulated from millions of years of deposits.  This groundwater seeps from the edge of the bluff into the lower-lying area here, creating the muck swamp.

The acidic nature of the muck helps turn pollutants into less harmful compounds, which helps to purify the floodplain water. The muck also provides nutrients and a fertile habitat for trees like sweetbay, American holly, and swamp tupelo that can survive and grow in wetter areas. As such, this muck plays an essential role in maintaining the overall health of Congaree’s environment.

You will soon pass out of the muck swamp habitat to slightly higher and drier soil conditions favorable to laurel oak, and then return to wetter soils after dropping a couple feet in elevation.  Those saturated soils are dominated by two tree species, baldcypress and water tupelo.

Pollution and Human Impacts

In recent years, the park has sustained a significant influx of pollutants, largely due to industrialization, human impact, and improper maintenance of water systems around central South Carolina. As of 2014, harmful levels of chemicals as well as birth control, diabetes, and epilepsy medications were found in waterways within the park. These chemicals pose a threat to humans, but potentially even more so to flora and fauna that rely on Congaree’s waters as a resource. Excess hormones in water can lead to feminization of fish, and impede the reproductive success of a population or species.Even more problematic is the harmful bacteria that has been found in the park’s adjacent rivers and streams. E.coli, a type of fecal bacteria, has been recorded in elevated levels for years now, high enough to affect the recreational use of the water. Upon further investigation, it was found that these pollutants originated from septic systems and failing sewage treatment systems entering the park at many locations, including Cedar Creek.

Site 3: Bald Cypress

Cypress Knees

Cypress Knees

Congaree National Park is home to many bald cypress trees, some of which are the largest specimens in the nation. Bald cypress can live for over a thousand years, and grow to be 100 to 120 feet tall, on average. Bald cypress thrive in wet environments such as Congaree National Park, but they can also grow in drier conditions. They are colloquially referenced as “bald” because they shed their leaves so early in the season.

Found primarily in the southeastern United States and the Gulf Coastal Plains, bald cypress trees have some highly distinctive features. As young trees, cypress sprout their thin, feathery leaves directly off the trunk of the tree, rather than sprouting off branches. Bald cypress possess a unique structural adaption known as “knees” that allow them to survive in wet environments.

Young Baldcypress

Young Baldcypress

These knees are part of the trees’ root systems, and grow vertically to protrude above the water when the trees’ roots are submerged. Though the purpose of these knees is not fully understood, they do provide extra structural support and anchorage to the ground. Recent studies support a long-held belief that the knees provide oxygen to roots during periods of flooding.

Bald cypress decays slowly, so much so that lumber from bald cypress has been called “the wood eternal”. As such, Native Americans used the highly durable bald cypress trees to make canoes. Historically, bald cypress was highly prized in building shingles, siding, docks, and other essential structures. The early 19th century logging industry claimed many of the bald cypress trees in the southeast United States, so trees in the Congaree National Park are some of the last remaining old-growth bald cypress trees on U.S. soil.

Site 4: Water Tupelo

Water Tupelo

Water Tupelo

­­Interspersed with the majestic bald cypress are water tupelo trees, which also flourish in wet environments. Unlike the bald cypress, water tupelo will not grow in dry areas. These trees can be mistaken for each other, as they both possess swollen trunks. However, they are distinguishable by their leaf shapes and root systems.  Bald cypress often grow straight as an arrow, while water tupelo trunks are more sinuous. Bald cypress leaves are thin and needle-like, whereas water tupelo possess leaves that are broad, flat and smooth.   Water tupelo do not have knees, but possess a sophisticated root system that anchor them to the soil just as effectively as bald cypress. Both trees are superbly adapted to the floodplain environment and though the water tupelo sustains crown damage in storms, it is rare to find a baldcypress or water tupelo toppled by even the most damaging winds.

A­n old growth forest is one that has grown significantly undisturbed for an extended period of time. Old growth forests are characterized by high species diversity, multiple habitats, and trees of mixed age. In this specific area of the park, downed logs and standing snags provide distinct habitats, and trees form a patchy canopy layer due to the spatial distribution and height of trees. As such, sunlight permeates the forest underbrush unevenly, creating an environment unfavorable to species that require generous sunlight or impervious shade. Plants like the dwarf palmetto and the American holly, which grow best under a mixture of sun and shade, have taken advantage of this canopy distribution, and grow abundantly in the park.

Uneven sunlight distribution also allows plants to begin their life cycles at different times, creating a mixed age forest and therefore a more stable ecosystem. Since trees of the same species and age die concurrently, uniform forests tend to be less stable ecosystems in terms of ecological structure, as succession will occur more frequently.

Site 5: Switch cane and European Settlements

Switch Cane in Flood

Switch Cane in Flood

Similar in appearance to bamboo, the tall, reedy plant seen here is known as switch cane, an Arundinaria species. Switch cane favors shady growing conditions, damp soil or seepage habitats, and slightly elevated locations, which are found in abundance within the park. As such, switch cane has largely taken over the area and formed what is known as a canebrake, or a thicket of switch cane.

Prior to European settlement in the southeastern United States, switch cane was widely prevalent and an important resource for Native Americans. They incorporated this versatile plant into their everyday life as medicine, building materials, weapons, baskets, adornments, and musical instruments.  Native Americans conducted prescribed burns, which maintained ideal, moderate disturbance conditions. These burns eliminated woodier vegetation as major competitors, and provided ideal conditions for switch cane to thrive.

Switch cane was also valuable to settlers since it provided an abundant and rapidly growing source of food for livestock. Canebrakes indicated fertile soil, so surrounding land became popular areas to settle. Overgrazing, inconsistent burn practices, and land development led to a major decline in canebrake communities over time. Today, large canebrakes no longer exist outside of preserved areas like Congaree National Park, due to greater disturbance than switch cane can handle.

Site 6: Snags and Wildlife

Site 6 Snag

Site 6 Snag

Snags, or standing dead trees, can be found throughout the park, along with tip-ups, which are fallen trees whose root systems have been fully uprooted. Snags are caused by a multitude of environmental stressors, including lightning, high winds, wildfire, ice storms, drought, disease, and old age. They are typically missing their upper and smaller branches, and undergo multiple stages of decay. The duration of decay is dependent on the tree species and ecosystem, but in Congaree National Park, snags can stand for years—some snags from Hurricane Hugo are still standing today. After the tree dies, the bark begins to loosen and fall off, until the tree is stripped clean of outer bark. Then the tree begins to deteriorate, either slowly shedding branches and parts of its upper trunk or falling catastrophically after standing for years. After this stage, decay continues until nothing is left but a stump and decaying trunk.

Although the tree is dead, it serves as a crucial habitat for a number of fungi, bacteria, insects, and small animals. For fungi and bacteria, the slowly decaying tree serves as a host and a source of food.  Insects like the patent leather beetle live, feed and lay eggs in the decaying trunk. Many birds lack the ability to create a nest cavity for themselves within a tree’s trunk, and so they rely on snags to provide natural cavities in which to nest. Additionally, some birds like the pileated woodpecker create cavities in snags, since it is easier to hollow out trees that are already decaying. These birds also strip away the decaying outer bark, and consume the insects residing therein. Larger hunting birds like owls, ospreys, and woodpeckers tend to use snags as perching or hunting posts. The exposed roots of downed trees can serve as small perches, nesting sites, or a source of shelter for small animals.  Lastly, many species store food inside snags’ trunks. Snags sustain a multitude of organisms, and are an ecologically important habitat within the Congaree National Park.

Site 7: Logging

Logging at Congaree in the 1970s

Logging at Congaree in the 1970s (Open Parks Network)

In the early and mid 19th century, many old growth forests in the northeast and upper midwest were liquidated to support infrastructure development, including construction of towns, railroads, and factories. Once resources in the north ran out, attention turned to the south, where industrialization had been slower to develop and tracts of untouched land still remained. Francis Beidler, a timber mogul from Chicago, bought over 140,000 acres of land in South Carolina in the early 1900s, which was intended for logging. Beidler established a logging company, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, and set out to log the prized bald cypress trees found on this land. Logging bald cypresses proved to be less fruitful than Beidler and his employees anticipated, since the trees were difficult to cut down and transport. During the first logging season, the Beidler lost many freshly-felled cypresses because they were simply too heavy to float down the Congaree River.  Loggers learned to girdle the trees and let them dry for a year before harvesting.

After logging proved to be economically impractical, Francis Beidler put a halt to logging his tract of land. While millions of acres of southern old-growth bottomland hardwoods were logged during the early 1900s, Francis Beidler placed his tracts in timber reserve status, presuming it would be more profitable to log in future years when timber supplies declined. Today, one of these tracts has become the heart of Congaree National Park. Beidler’s land remained largely untouched by industrialization until 1969, when the Beidler heirs attempted to begin logging again in response to a high demand f

or timber.

Site 9: Guts, Sloughs, and Hogs

Feral Hog

Feral Hog

The shallow bodies of water surrounding the boardwalk are known as guts and sloughs.  Sloughs usually mark old river and creek channels.  A gut is a local term for a small, short floodplain stream that has clearly defined banks. Guts are often dry or stagnant during the summer and early fall. They seem to wind aimlessly over the floodplain, sometimes connecting different parts of the same creek together, or connecting one oxbow lake to another. Guts have an important role in floods. They transport water, nutrients and sediment from the Congaree River throughout the floodplain in the initial stage of a flood, and then channel water so that it can flow more quickly back to the river and main creeks as the flooding subsides.

Other areas of the low boardwalk are flanked by mounds of uprooted dirt, which indicate the presence of feral hogs in the park. Feral hogs present quite a problem in the park’s overall ecosystem for several reasons. In scavenging for food, hogs root through the earth, upturning plants and creating furrows in the soil. This behavior damages and kills native plant species, which allows for invasive plant species to thrive. The mounds of dirt produced by rooting can contribute to pollution via bacteria from feral hog waste and eroded topsoil. Since feral hogs have become a significant presence in the park, multiple ecosystems have been affected, including cypress-tupelo habitats, bottomland hardwoods, and seepage forest habitats, in which the low boardwalk is situated.  The recovery of longleaf pine populations in the park has also been stunted by the presence of feral hogs, as they consume longleaf pinecones that are essential to germination and growth of new trees.

As such, the park and the USDA have implemented measures to track the population’s progress. Hogs have been tagged to in order to track movement around the park, and learn more about their preferred habitats and feeding grounds. The park and the USDA cooperate in an ongoing effort to monitor the incidence of disease in the population, to keep the park safe for both humans and other animals.  Since 2014, the USDA has tried to curtail the population by trapping and shooting in designated target areas. These measures have been relatively successful, and efforts have been expanded to control hog populations around the periphery of the park to limit crop damage and soil erosion and improve water quality for the park’s neighbors.

Sims Trail

Sims Trail

Sims Trail

The Sims Trail crosses directly through the center of the Boardwalk Trail, bifurcating it lengthwise between sites 9 and 18. The trail is named after Booker T. Sims, a park neighbor who assisted the park in its early years.  The former road near site 9 and the Weston Lake Loop Trail provided access to the clubhouse of Cedar Creek Hunt Club, of which Harry Hampton (see Site 18) was a member. The trail is accessible via the Visitor Center and a short walk along the Bluff Trail.

Because the Sims Trail has a more open canopy layer, one can observe many different species of butterflies along the trail. You can find common butterfly species like the Carolina Satyr and Red-spotted Purple here. There are also many small puddles and ponds surrounding the trail, which attract not only butterflies, but dragonflies, frogs, toads, and insects lke the metallic green six-spotted tiger beetle. Five-lined skinks can also be found here, the juveniles of which are easily distinguishable by their electric blue tails.

Site 11: Loblolly Pines and Champion Trees

Richland County Pine

Richland County Pine

Congaree National Park is a bottomland hardwood forest, which makes the existence of pine trees in this ecosystem somewhat unusual. Many species of pine trees are unable to grow in wetland areas, due to their inability to tolerate anaerobic conditions produced by periodic flooding. However, the loblolly pine is unique in that it can thrive in wet environments, and the word loblolly fittingly means “muddy puddle.” The loblolly pine is an essential feature of the park—it is home to many bird species, and its seeds provide food for small rodents. Loblollies are also prized sources of lumber, as they can grow up to 2 feet in one year.

These trees are some of the largest you will encounter in Congaree Park—though the typical height of a loblolly pine is between 50 and 80 feet tall, these trees can grow to be much larger, especially in the park. In fact, the tallest known loblolly pine in the world resides in the Congaree National Park, standing at a height of 169 feet tall.

Richland County Pine Crown

Richland County Pine Crown

Congaree is home to many other record-breaking sized trees, known as champion trees. American Forests is an organization dedicated to preserving forests and raising awareness regarding their importance. In an effort to increase public engagement with forests and parks, American Forests established the National Big Tree Program, which allows citizens to nominate trees for measurement.  To qualify as a champion tree, a tree must be native to or naturalized in the continental United States. A standardized formula based on trunk circumference, height, and crown spread is then used to calculate the size of the tree. Congaree National Park has the one of the highest concentrations of champion trees in the United States, and boasts many of the state’s champion trees as well. Aside from the loblolly pine, sweetgum, laurel oak, American elm, Shumard oak and others have been recognized as champions.

The tree found here is know as the Richland County Pine, since a core indicates that the tree dates back to the 1750s, a couple decades before the founding of Richland County.

Site 12: Weston Lake

Weston Lake Overlook

Weston Lake Overlook

A natural body of water, Weston Lake holds ecological significance within the context of the park. Weston Lake began as a small bend in the Congaree River, and over time has become an oxbow lake. Oxbow lakes are named for their distinctive shape, and are formed when sustained patterns of erosion and deposition occur on the banks of a river. Water travels more slowly along the inside bend of the river, allowing for deposition of sediments. At the same time, water travels faster along the outside bend of the river, eroding the river bank. Over time, the bends in the river become gradually narrower due to sediment deposition, and eventually separate from the main river, creating a U-shaped formation known as an oxbow.

Weston Lake is home to a wide range of amphibians, fish, and reptiles. Along the banks, snapping turtles, yellow-bellied sliders, and other species of freshwater turtles can be found, as well as gar and sunfish.

Birdwatching

The Weston Lake overlook is a great place to birdwatch, as it is near a barred owl nesting site and frequented by prothonotary warbler, which are notable for their bright yellow plumage and presence in spring and summer months. Red-headed woodpecker can also be seen and heard near the overlook most years. There is a long-recorded history of bird activity within the park—in 2001, when Congaree National Park was still a national monument, it was declared a Globally Important Bird Area (IBA) by Birdlife International and the Audubon Society. These areas are internationally agreed upon as habitats that are vital to the conservation of bird populations, endangered and otherwise. The park hosts a number of birds, both seasonal and permanent residents, that have been deemed “Priority Birds” by the Audubon Society. These species are of significant conservation importance, and include American woodcock, black-throated blue warbler, and wood thrush, among others.

Slider Turtles at Weston Lake

Slider Turtles at Weston Lake

The variety of trees present near the overlook—American holly, swamp chestnut oak, laurel oak, red maple and baldcypress—encourage birds to nest, perch, and feed here. While the Weston Lake overlook is not sanctioned as a fishing site, the rest of Weston Lake is open for fishing. The overlook is one of the most beautiful views to be found on the Boardwalk Trail.

Site 13: Lightning Struck Tree

Lightning Struck Tree

Lightning Struck Tree

Roughly 15 feet from the boardwalk trail, you can see a loblolly pine that has been struck and killed by lightning. Because loblollies are often the tallest trees in a forest, they are more likely to be struck by lightning. Oftentimes when lightning hits a healthy tree, water in the cells underneath the bark are superheated, and the bark cracks. However, the tree still holds utility within the park’s ecosystem.

Lightning-struck trees serve as a habitat and source of food for termites and beetles, and as a host for fungal pathogens. These trees, and ones that have been that have been weakened by disease, storms, or fires, are at a greater risk for insect infestations. In recent years, both loblolly and longleaf pines in the park’s uplands have experienced a severe pine bark beetle outbreak, and the beetles have infested healthy trees in addition to vulnerable ones. Pine bark beetles release pheromones to mate while on the tree, and lay their eggs underneath the bark. As larvae, these beetles feed through the bark, destroying the tree’s xylem (transport tissue) and leading to cell death. The park works to eliminate this infestation by burning and felling trees to halt the spread of beetles.

Site 14: Dwarf Palmetto

Dwarf Palmetto

Dwarf Palmetto

Near this marker is an abundance of dwarf palmetto, an undergrowth plant with numerous fronds that resemble a fan. Dwarf palmetto are common in the southern and central U.S., and can withstand short periods of extremely cold temperatures, despite residing in mild climate. The abundance of dwarf palmetto can be attributed to a few factors, including the disturbance caused by Hurricane Hugo, the deadliest and costliest hurricane to have hit South Carolina. Landing in 1989 as a category 4 storm, Hurricane Hugo primarily affected the South Carolina low country, near Charleston and Myrtle Beach. However, extremely strong winds, up to 90 mph inland, brought damage throughout the state. In the park, Hugo toppled two champion trees, a Shumard oak and an overcup oak, and it is estimated that 60% of the largest trees sustained damage.

The wind damage sustained by these large trees thinned the dense canopy layer, allowing enough sunlight for shade intolerant species to populate the forests. As such, smaller trees like sweetgum and oak saplings, and undergrowth plants like the dwarf palmetto have had the opportunity to thrive in this area. Large storms like Hurricane Hugo allow for forest renewal via succession, or a prolonged period of change in the species diversity, abundance, and distribution within an ecological community.

Site 15: Old Still Site

Old Still Site

Old Still Site

Between the trees, you can see a large, old iron portion of a still roughly 20 to 30 feet from the boardwalk. Stills are apparatuses that are used to distill liquids via boiling the liquid and condensing the vapors. In this instance, stills were used by moonshiners and bootleggers to make alcohol starting in the Prohibition Era.

Prohibition, a nationwide ban on alcohol production, transportation, and consumption, originated partially from religious and feminist motives, and was a significant source of contention. Across the nation, anti-Prohibition movements popped up, from illegal moonshining to dance clubs. In South Carolina, Prohibition also manifested in a class struggle—it was said that “a rich family could have a cellar-full of liquor and get by, it seemed, but if a poor family had one bottle of home-brew, there would be trouble.” In response to a state prohibition referendum, South Carolina created a state dispensary system, which stipulated that all liquor sales in the state would be dispensed through state-run facilities. Despite the state’s efforts to regulate and normalize prohibition laws, illegal moonshining and bootlegging was still a common, yet clandestine occurrence in the Prohibition era. The Congaree floodplain, with its dense vegetation, remote location, and ready access to water, was a perfect location to hide stills and make alcohol. You can find still sites similar to this one in multiple locations around the Congaree Park, in various stages of disarray.

Site 16: Ecological Disturbances

Tree trunks from Hurricane Hugo

Tree trunks from Hurricane Hugo

At this site, the effects of Hurricane Hugo can be seen again, partially due to the gaps in canopy-layer trees. Just as canopy gaps allow for dwarf palmetto growth in other areas of the park, it allows for growth of thick vines that can be seen here. The piles of debris and enormous fallen trees underneath and surrounding the boardwalk are again signs of hurricane-related damage.

Congaree National Park’s floodplain lies in the lower half of a watershed formed by the Saluda and Broad Rivers, which originate in upstate South Carolina and North Carolina respectively, and converge to form the Congaree River. As such, the river can overflow its banks and inundate the floodplain in response to large rainfall events many miles upstream.

The October 2015 Flood

Depending on the time of year, one can observe seasonal flooding that occurs in the park–a natural and healthy occurrence. Though flooding can occur in any season, it is most common during the winter months of December through March. In October of 2015, parts of South Carolina experienced record rainfall and flooding in what is locally known as the 1,000-Year flood.   Local streams and creeks washed out bridges and damaged hundreds of homes in the Columbia area.  Flooding on the Congaree River, which pushed the river to its highest level since 1936, was more typical of a 25-year event since rainfall in its upper watershed was much less extreme than local rainfall totals. Though Congaree National Park was flooded for weeks after the rainfall, the park did not sustain serious damage. However, the park did experience a drop in visitors due to obstructed trails.

Site 17: Controlled Burns and Loblolly Pines

Burned Loblolly Pine

Burned Loblolly Pine

At this site, you can see a downed loblolly pine, the unintentional result of a controlled burn sanctioned by the National Park Service. Though loblollies are relatively fire tolerant, this tree’s hollow base provided sufficient draft to ignite the entire tree, which resulted in toppling. Controlled burns, also known as prescribed fires, are conducted in order to maintain the balance and health of the forest. When forests do not experience fires for a period of time, overcrowding of tree species occurs, and flammable dry fuel builds up in the environment, increasing the likelihood of extreme wildfire occurrences. Prescribed burns are conducted under favorable temperature, air pressure, and humidity conditions, and so are managed to allow for the germination of certain tree species, elimination of flammable debris, nutrient recycling, and overall forest renewal.

Native Americans facilitated controlled burns to improve forest health and promote habitat suitable for hunting and agriculture, confirmed by fire scars on trees and centuries-old charcoal layers. However, the nature of their burns resulted not in ecosystem renewal, but a change in ecosystem. In recent years, controlled burns have been conducted to restore longleaf pines, reduce the threat of wildfires, and to improve habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. Human activity in the form of introduced species, roads, logging, and lack of prescribed burns greatly reduced the longleaf pine forest, which was also the red-cockaded woodpecker’s main habitat.  As of 2016, there have been no sightings of nesting red-cockaded woodpecker since they abandoned their nesting sites park in 1998. As you continue along the boardwalk, be sure to note the numerous tip-up trees and expansive exposed root systems.

Site 18: Harry Hampton

Harry Hampton

Harry Hampton  (Digital Public Library of America)

Harry Hampton, a reporter and editor of The State newspaper and member of a prominent local family, began a movement in the 1950s to save the Congaree floodplain and preserve it for future generations. Hampton was a Columbia native, and an avid outdoorsmen and wildlife enthusiast. The Harry Hampton Visitor Center at Congaree National Park is named after him, as is the Harry Hampton Wildlife Fund, dedicated to raising funds for the research, education, and management of game and fish laws to benefit wildlife conservation in South Carolina. His interest in conservation issues and consequent quest to preserve the Beidler Tract originated in his hobby of hunting. After hunting on the Beidler Tract and becoming familiar with the floodplain, Hampton decided that this forest was exceptional in its species diversity and large trees, and began lobbying to set the land aside as a national park.

Harry Hampton Visitor Center

Harry Hampton Visitor Center

His lobbying was lost amongst those opposed to creation of a park, until the Beidler family prepared to begin logging again in 1969. In turn, conservationists took up Hampton’s cause under the umbrella of the Congaree Swamp National Preserve Association, and began an intensive lobbying campaign for federal legislation protecting the land. In 1976, Congaree Swamp National Monument was established. The Beidlers logged approximately 2500 acres of land before it fell under federal protection, and then sold their land to the federal government for tens of millions of dollars.

Once estimated to cover 30-50 million acres of the southeastern U.S., old-growth bottomland forests have been greatly diminished. However, largely due to the conservation efforts started by Harry Hampton, Congaree National Park is the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest left in America. Congaree has only been a national park since 2003—before that, it was a national monument. With the title of a national park has come many benefits, including greater recognition and enhanced efforts to increase the park’s visibility and outreach.

Site 19: Freedmen and Slaves

Jacob Stroyer from 1885 edition of My Life in the South

Jacob Stroyer from 1885 edition of My Life in the South

This trail marker is surrounded by a variety of undergrowth, trees, and shrubs. Included is a beautiful downed loblolly pine, sweetgum, and holly trees. The twisted tree roots, natural debris, and thick muck made it more difficult for slave owners and slave catchers to traverse the unknown terrain, and the dense vegetation promoted concealment. As such, some runaway slaves established settlements in the river floodplains, and created communities amongst the forest. The park was frequented further as an area of temporary refuge, for slaves on the run or freedmen avoiding capture. Notable accounts of these harrowing tales were written by Charles Ball, who detailed his time as a slave on a Congaree River plantation in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, and Jacob Stroyer, who wrote My Life in the South, recounting his life as a slave at Headquarters Plantation, site of Kensington Mansion in Eastover near the eastern end of Congaree National Park.

Tales of the Congaree

Tales of the Congaree

A more modern (20th century) history of African Americans in Congaree Park is characterized in Tales of the Congaree, a set of short stories and recollections told by African Americans and recorded by Edward C.L. Adams, a local white physician. Adams was well liked in the African-American community, and so his stories, written in the vernacular of the time, are said to be true to their sentiments. Among these stories are supernatural tales, recollections of wild creatures sighted in the swamp, and accounts of lynchings and Jim Crow Laws that were not uncommon in this time period.

Site 20: African Americans of Lower Richland

Harriet Barber House

Harriet Barber House

Today, the history of African American peoples remains integral to Congaree National Park’s modern culture. Historic landmarks such as the Harriet Barber House came into existence with the end of slavery. Harriet Barber and her husband Samuel, two former slaves, bought a 42.5-acre tract of land in 1872 through the South Carolina Land Commission, a program designed to give freedmen the opportunity to own land. Though a fair number of African Americans participated in the program, all families save the Barbers lost or sold their land. The Barber property was the only land tract to remain in the hands of direct descendants of freed slaves, and the house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Southeast Rural Community Outreach (SERCO) has also played a role in promoting the history of Lower Richland and its African American residents. Along with Mount Moriah Baptist Church and Congaree National Park, SERCO hosts Swampfest every fall, a festival celebrating the culture of lower Richland and promoting heritage tourism. The festival includes nature walks and educational talks about communities that historically lived within the park, including maroons, runaway slaves, and Native Americans. Public outreach and historically significant sites like the Barber House serve as a reminder of lower Richland County’s rich history.

Pooja Malhotra completed this guide as part of an University of South Carolina Honors College senior thesis.  Photographs provided by Pooja Malhotra and Rhonda Grego.