Essay: Congaree’s Cypress Story

That wonderful 1963 National Park study that declared Congaree Swamp worthy of protection within the national park system used the term “near-virgin” to describe the floodplain’s old-growth forest. This was because much of the park’s virgin cypress had been logged in the early 1900s. The evidence was plainly seen in the form of cut cypress stumps lining the park’s creeks and waterways.

Old cypress stumps from the early 1900s are found throughout the park’s waterways.

The cypress story began a long way from Congaree. In the 1880s, Chicago was the center of a growing nation’s logging industry. By then the vast white pine forests of the Upper Midwest had been reduced to a cutover shambles and the lumber industry was looking for new sources of wood. The Deep South was a logical location because it still had millions of acres of valuable, uncut longleaf pine and bald cypress, and land prices were depressed.

Francis Beidler I and a partner created the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company.

One of the many timber concerns that came South from Chicago belonged to entrepreneur Francis Beidler I (1854-1924). I am not sure why Mr. Beidler was interested in bald cypress, or what attracted him specifically to South Carolina and the Santee River system in particular. Possibly local or national timber agents, whose job it was to find sources of lumber to feed the mills, had provided favorable reports of large stands of virgin bald cypress in South Carolina. We do know that by 1888 Mr. Beidler and his partner, B.F. Ferguson, had incorporated as the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company (SRCLC) and had secured the necessary capital to begin acquiring extensive holdings along the Santee River and its two main tributaries, the Wateree and Congaree. Over roughly a thirty-year period SRCLC acquired more than 150,000 acres of cypress swampland that stretched for more than seventy-five miles along the Congaree, Wateree, and Santee Rivers.

To process cut cypress logs and convert them to usable lumber, SRCLC constructed a large mill around 1888 on the Santee River in southeastern Orangeburg County near Eutaw Springs. The mill consisted of the usual facilities associated with lumber work, including bunk houses, a commissary, and even a hospital. At its peak, the mill employed 400 people, larger than many communities in South Carolina at the time, and became known as Ferguson. The 1921 Army Corps of Engineers topographic map for Eutawville shows the Ferguson mill with the old Atlantic Coast Railroad Line leading to it and a large holding pond next to the river where the logs were kept in storage until they could be processed.

A 1921 topographic map showing the Ferguson lumber mill (red), now under the waters of Lake Marion.

Beidler first started cutting cypress along the Santee River in the vicinity of his mill, but later, as he acquired more holdings, moved farther and farther upstream into the Congaree and Wateree floodplains. SRCLC first began cutting Congaree cypress in 1899, with the last year being around 1915, when the mill shut down. It is testimony to the durability of cypress that the cut stumps, now more than a century old, still stand in the park.

The big cypress trees, some measuring twenty-five to thirty feet in circumference, were cut above the buttress with crosscut saws by two men, each standing on a sturdy, oak “spring” board. Once felled, the tree was cut into sixteen-foot logs, the standard lumber length at the time.

Neal Polhemus examines the spring board notch in this century-old cypress stump with a red maple growing out of it.

This work was done primarily in the summer and fall when water levels in the swamp were low. After the winter rains came and the swamp started flooding, the logs would be poled out to the river where they were lashed together with chains and floated downstream to the mill. Unfortunately, the loggers found out the hard way that freshly cut, “green” logs don’t float, but sink (and to this day the bottoms of many guts, creeks, and sloughs in the Congaree have numerous old cypress logs, sixteen feet in length, which never made it to the mill). To remedy this problem, teams of ax men were employed to girdle the cypress, effectively killing it, by chopping a ring completely around the tree, and letting it “cure” on the stump for about a year, after which the logs would be light enough to float. Amazingly, I have run across bald cypress “snags” that have been dead for a century or more and still standing with their girdle rings clearly visible, that for whatever reason the loggers didn’t cut down.

Dave Schuetrum by a virgin Congaree cypress with girdled ax marks showing.

Because there were so many virgin cypress available, Congaree loggers could afford to be choosy, and selected only those trees with the straightest trunks free of knots and excess limbs. Plus, in the pre-chainsaw era it wasn’t profitable to waste the labor and time of several men to cut blemished, hollow, or otherwise defective trees. This resulted in enough uncut bald cypress being left behind, including the current state champion, to provide a tantalizing glimpse of what the original virgin cypress stands in the Congaree must have looked like before the ax got to them. Many of these ancient relics are crooked, hollow, have deformed trunks and other deficiencies, but some appear perfectly sound with straight, soaring trunks. Finding one of these swamp patriarchs always fills me with a sense of awe and wonder.

Congaree’s state champion bald cypress in the park’s east end measures nearly 28 feet in circumference and 132 feet tall. Photo by Joe Kegley.

Bald cypress is renowned for its longevity and easily the oldest tree in the Eastern U.S. According to the SRCLC mill manager at Ferguson, the average ages of Santee cypress that came through the mill, including those from the Wateree and Congaree, were 500-700 years, but one log had 1,600 growth rings. Similar ages have recently been verified by scientists who found a 1,500-year-old cypress at Audubon’s Beidler Forest in Berkeley County, and a 1,700-year-old cypress in eastern North Carolina (and in 2019 a 2,600 year old cypress was discovered in eastern North Carolina!).

The “wood eternal” had high economic value primarily due to its legendary rot resistance. It was also a “soft wood,” easy to work and shape. Among its many applications, where the ability to withstand exposure to the elements was paramount, was as railroad ties, cooperage, pilings, posts, docks, steps, porches, doors, shutters, flooring, siding, and trim. One specialized application was roofing shingles or “shakes.” The Ferguson mill had special facilities devoted to doing nothing but turning out wooden shingles. Stories of cypress shakes lasting for a hundred years are not uncommon. In  2007, a story surfaced of a homeowner in New Jersey replacing the wooden shingles on the sides of his bungalow cottage, shingles that had “Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, Ferguson, South Carolina” stenciled on the bottoms. These shingles at the time of replacement were about a century old.

Former park superintendent Tracy Swartout holds a century-old cypress shingle that came from the Ferguson mill.

Cypress logging did not prove all that profitable for SRCLC. The market was glutted at times with an oversupply from throughout the South, forcing the mill to shut down, for sometimes months at a time. The Ferguson mill eventually closed after twenty-seven years of operation. But unlike most lumbermen of the day, who got rid of their land holdings as soon as the timber was cut, Francis Beidler recognized that tree regrowth was rapid on his swamp properties, and that he had enough acreage to cut trees in perpetuity.  This all changed in the 1930s when the state of South Carolina announced the mammoth Santee-Cooper Project that would, among other things, flood 60,000 acres of SRCLC land, nearly half of its holdings, for the construction of Lake Marion on the Santee River.

There are still enough virgin cypress left in the Congaree, notably the park’s “East End,” to inspire a sense of awe and wonder for visitors willing to undertake a long trek, without trails, into my favorite part of the park. Indeed, parts of this area must appear as it did before cypress logging began in Congaree since nary an old stump is to be seen. Most of these trees were standing long before the first white man came to Richland County and will be here long after we are gone and forgotten. It is a humbling experience to be able to place your hand on one of these ancient links with the past.

Graham Norman sits atop a 16-foot cypress sinker log that never made it to the lumber mill.

The story of Congaree’s remaining virgin cypress has been mostly overlooked in the park’s narrative. Fortunately, my friend Graham Norman realized this and has recently undertaken a survey of these remarkable trees, documenting their number, size, location, and condition.