50 YEARS SINCE THE TORCH WAS PASSED: THE SIERRA CLUB AND THE FOUNDING OF CONGAREE NATIONAL PARK

By Neal D. Polhemus

October 18, 1976, the date President Ford signed Public Law No. 94-545, is generally considered the birthday of Congaree National Park. But the campaign to save the rapidly disappearing old-growth forests across America, specifically those in the Congaree River floodplain, began much earlier.[1] A more fitting birthday would be October 25-26, 1969, the date of the first official outing of The Carolinas Group of the Sierra Club to the swamp. The upcoming 50th anniversary of the outing seems a fitting occasion to consider that momentous weekend and the subsequent grassroots campaign that fueled the movement. On that late autumn weekend, Harry Hampton, a conservationist and former editor of The State who had been advocating since the 1950s to preserve the forest located only a few miles from his family’s ancestral homestead, symbolically passed the torch to save the forest to a group of about 75 environmentally-conscious citizens.[2]

Rural spaces like Congaree National Park exist in stark contrast to South Carolina’s state capitol Columbia, the nearest urban space and political epicenter, some twenty miles north. It is somewhat ironic that the grassroots campaign to save the forest from the sawdust piles of Sumter County was organized in urban spaces. Members of the Sierra Club met together in members’ suburban apartments, converged in high-rise board rooms, and advocated at the desks of public officials in Columbia, Chicago, and Washington DC. Organizing took place in the rapidly expanding concrete jungles that pockmarked America’s landscape like an out-of-control virus, infecting and consuming nearly every natural resource it encountered. To protect the Congaree swamp, the Sierra Club had to convince public officials that federal legislation was required; legislation that was printed, passed, and signed in the thickly lacquered walls of the US Capital building. In order to establish a pristine natural space where all citizens were welcome, Sierra Club advocates had to successfully navigate and traverse urban spaces.[3]

The late-1960s were momentous years in our nation’s past, often characterized by sweeping social changes and cultural awakenings that represented radical shifts for millions of Americans. At the time, the Sierra Club was largely a West Coast organization headquartered in San Francisco, California – a place that, for many Southerners, conjured images of drug-fueled rock-n-roll concerts where hippies flocked to, ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out,’ as Timothy Leary remarked. But the organization was making inroads on the East Coast as well.[4]

In 1967, only two chapters existed east of the Rocky Mountains: the Atlantic Chapter, founded in 1950 and concentrated largely in the New York area, and the recently organized Southeast Chapter, formed in Washington D.C., that extended from Delaware to Mississippi. A nucleus of North Carolina members was concentrated in Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and Raleigh-Durham. In November 1968, members from across both states gathered at Morrow Mountain State Park to formally organize the Carolinas Group. Greenville-attorney Theodore A. Snyder Jr. was elected the group’s first chairman. In April 1969, there were 174 dues-paying members in the Carolinas Group; by the following year membership had doubled. There was momentum in the Carolinas for shifting environmental policy.[5] In October 1970, the Board of Directors approved the groups application for chapter status, and the first-official meeting of the new Joseph LeConte Chapter was held on Halloween of that year.[6] Time and time again, home-grown citizens from across North and South Carolina would answer the call to volunteer their time and pledge their resources to advocate for the organization’s goals.

The LeConte Chapter’s conservation work focused on endangered natural spaces in coastal North Carolina, the Piedmont and the Great Smoky Mountains. While vulnerable to developers, especially the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, and anti-wilderness legislation, Congaree was the most threatened. In 1969, the Beidler family, who owned the heart of the old-growth forest, began negotiating timber contracts to harvest the highly-prized lumber.[7] Preservation would be pointless if the ancient hardwoods were harvested. In May of that year, the LeConte Chapter’s Conservation Committee commenced a study to investigate how the Beidler Tract could come under management of the National Park System.[8]

cong_photo_s4_ss2_box2_165 Loading yard
Loading Yard. After more than 55 years, the chainsaws returned to the Beidler Tract, harvesting the valuable old-growth hardwood timber. Courtesy of openparksnetwork.org.

The raw natural beauty and the rare flora and fauna of the Congaree Swamp was known to only a few people in South Carolina and to even fewer outside the state. But that number had been growing since the early 1950s. At Harry Hampton’s request, Richard H. Pough of the American Museum of Natural History contacted the National Park Service.[9] In 1959, and again in 1961, a Park Service team spent several weeks exploring and surveying the Beidler Tract with Hampton as their guide.[10] Despite the Park Service’s 1963 report stating that the Beidler Tract was a “biological community of rare quality and considerable scientific value” and that its “intrinsic values” were threatened, no further action was taken by the agency.[11] With Pough’s assistance, and others, Hampton had succeeded in convincing the agency to visit the swamp and witness first-hand its rich botanical bounty. Yet the Park Service was reluctant to press forward because the Beidler family was not interested in selling their bottomland property and, consequently, momentum was lost to save the forest.[12]

cong_photo_s4_ss1_box1_276
In December 1959, a National Park Service team visited Congaree to measure the swamp’s champion class hardwoods and document the rare plants, animals, and ecosystem. Courtesy of openparksnetwork.org.

In May 1969, botanist and accomplished ornithologist John V. Dennis took Snyder on a tour of the Beidler Tract.[13] Dennis knew the swamp well. Two years earlier, Dennis composed one of the first scientific surveys of the swamp’s flora and fauna.[14] Snyder returned to Greenville and began organizing the club’s first outing to Congaree. Club outings were critical opportunities to bring public attention to endangered spaces. Sierra Club founder John Muir believed that citizens’ first-hand experiences and encounters with nature were paramount to preserving the nation’s diminishing wilderness expanses. Snyder envisioned an outing in late autumn when conditions would be optimal for the group. By then the swamp’s dense green curtain that envelopes the canopy would be fading into various shades of auburn and brown. First, the club needed permission from Marion Burnside, a Columbia businessman and avid hunter, who leased the tract from the Beidler family. In years past Hampton had facilitated such endeavors, but in 1969 his wife’s illness kept him on the sidelines.[15]

In early September, Burnside granted Snyder’s request and planning continued in earnest.[16] Publicizing the swamp was Snyder’s primary goal. “One of the major ways our chapter can publicize its conservation activities is through outings to endangered areas,” Snyder stated, allowing them to “spread the word about its beauties and the dangers they face.”[17] In addition, Snyder invited Eliot Porter, renowned nature photographer and member of the Club’s Board of Directors, to join the outing.[18] It was hoped that Porter’s photographs of the swamp’s towering pines, known as ‘Redwoods East,’ would galvanize public support.[19] At the same time, the chapter’s bi-monthly newsletter was distributed to members across the Carolinas announcing that Dennis would lead tours of the swamp.[20]

csw_2448. Hunt club entry sign
Since the late 1930s, the Beidler Tract was leased to group of Columbia professionals who fished and hunted in the vast floodplain. In the late 1960s, local businessman Marion Burnside had the lease and operated the Cedar Creek Hunt Club. Courtesy of openparksnetwork.org.

With the outing weekend approaching, club members Jim Parks, a high-school physics teacher, and attorney Ann Timberlake coordinated logistics and wrapped up last-minute details. The significance of the outing is illustrated in a letter Hampton wrote to Snyder in June 1969 as the idea for an outing was becoming more tangible. Although Hampton’s fifteen-year crusade had resulted in some public awareness and an official visit by park representatives, Washington D.C. officials were unwilling to take additional measures to protect the forest. Hampton needed help. Although no longer the lone spokesman for preserving the Beidler Tract, Hampton’s support was unwavering. Hampton told Snyder that “acquisition should be taken by an organization such as the Sierra Club which has national strength. Hitherto there was no such organization in the state, and no one with a any definite and concrete ideas of how to proceed.”[21]

cong_photo_s4_ss2_box2_328 Dick Watkins, Tim Elder, Mike McAnelly (L-R)
From Left-Right. LeConte Chapter members Dick Watkins and Jim Elder, and Mike McAnelly. Watkins attended the October 1969 outing, and when Elder joined the club in 1971, they would provide crucial leadership in the campaign to save Congaree swamp. Courtesy of openparksnetwork.org.

As the sun set and the swamp grew dark, rising from below the horizon was an iridescent Hunter’s Moon – a celestial signal to the Congaree people who formerly inhabited the area, marking the commencement of the hunting season in preparation for the long winter ahead. Spirits were high as a sense of discovery and wonder blanketed the campsite. The moonlight penetrated the canopy with a sense of hope and possibility. Perhaps the full moon beaming high over the swamp that night was a symbolic passing of the torch to a new generation of preservationists who, seven-years later, would realize the dream Hampton had long envisioned. It would certainly seem so.

Sequestered in urban concrete towers and further isolated in its mind-numbing modular cubicles, shining examples of modernity’s upward march, the public was unaware that Congaree, one of the last old-growth bottomland hardwood forests in America, was on the verge of extinction. Having experienced nature’s healing powers first-hand, club members returned home energized and committed to spreading the word about Congaree. If saved, Congaree would become a readily accessible antidote for Columbia’s weary working class, a refuge from civilization’s corrupting tendencies. No prescription required. No longer a private hunting club, the swamp belongs to the people.[22] Campsites are available within short walking distance of the spot where members of the LeConte Chapter first set up their tents.

headshot, metropole, garibaldi lake bc

 

Neal D. Polhemus is an instructor at the University of South Carolina. He has published journal articles in Atlantic Studies and History in Africa.

 

 


[1] John E. Cely, Congaree National Park (Charleston S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2017), 17-28.

[2] “An Outing Remembered… Recollections by Ann Timberlake, Ted Snyder, and Richard Watkins,” Friends of Congaree Swamp Newsletter, (August 1999), 6; Nancy Coleman, “He Speaks for the Wilderness,” South Carolina Wildlife, 27 (1980), 14-18.

[3] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; Or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” Environmental History, no. 1 (96), 7–28; Mark W. T. Harvey, Wilderness Forever: Howard Zahniser and the Path to the Wilderness Act (Seattle, Wash.: University of Washington Press, 2005); Matthew A. Lockhart, “‘The Trouble with Wilderness’ Education in the National Park Service: The Case of the Lost Cattle Mounts of Congaree,” The Public Historian 28, no. 2 (2006), 11–30; Stephen R. Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981), 58-9.

[4] Robert Greenfield, Timothy Leary: A Biography (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc, 2006).

[5] Footnotes, Newsletter of the Sierra Club – Carolinas Group, April 1969. Many thanks to Dick Watkins – Sierra Club lifer – for allowing me to consult his personal papers in preparing this essay.

[6] Footnotes, Newsletter of the Sierra Club – Joseph LeConte Chapter, 15 November 1970.

[7] Mark Kinzer, Nature’s Return: An Environmental History of Congaree National Park (Columbia, S.C.: The University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 3.

[8] Footnotes, Newsletter of the Sierra Club – Carolinas Chapter, 17 May 1969.

[9] Frank Graham, “In Memoriam: Richard H. Pough, 1904-2003,” The Auk 121, no. 3 (2004), 969.

[10] Harry Hampton, “A Double Round,” The State, 7 November 1961; Harry Hampton, “Down the Creek,” The State, 2 November 1961; Harry R. E. Hampton, Woods and Waters and Some Asides (Columbia, S.C.: State Publishing Co., 1979), 295-96.

[11] National Park Service, Specific Area Report: Proposed Congaree Swamp National Monument, South Carolina, (1963).

[12] Harry R. E. Hampton, Woods and Waters and Some Asides (Columbia, S.C.: State Publishing Co., 1979), 296.

[13] Ted Snyder to George Alderson, 17 May 1969, Congaree National Preserve Association Papers, South Carolina Political Collections, Hollings Library. Hereafter CSNPA. (This collection is still being processed by archival staff. Many thanks to Dorothy Walker for granting permission to consult these papers.)

[14] John V. Dennis, A Preliminary Report on the Woody Plants, Birds, and Mammals of the Congaree Swamp, South Carolina, (Unpublished Report to the National Park Service, 1967).

[15] John V. Dennis to Ted Snyder, 8 August 1969, CSNPA.

[16] Ted Snyder to Marion Burnside, 12 September 1969, CSNPA.

[17] Footnotes, Newsletter of the Sierra Club – Joseph LeConte Chapter, 9 April 1971.

[18] Ted Snyder to John V. Dennis, 13 August 1969, CSNPA.

[19] Ted Snyder to George Alderson, 17 May 1969, CSNPA. The characterization of the Congaree Swamps towering Loblolly Pines as the ‘Redwoods East’ would endure throughout the campaign to preserve to forest. Efforts by the Sierra Club to save the ancient Redwood groves of Northern California overlapped with members in the Carolinas to publicize Congaree. The Sierra Nevada’s towering Redwoods and Ponderosa Pines were, for many visitors to the swamp, the only point of comparison in describing the bottomland pines. Richard Stalter and Wade Batson, “A Giant Loblolly near Columbia South Carolina,” Castanea Vol. 34, No. 4 (Dec., 1969), 438.

[20] Footnotes, Newsletter of the Sierra Club – Carolinas Group, Sept./Oct., 1969.

[21] Harry Hampton to Ted Snyder, 28 June 1969, CSNPA.

[22] https://www.nps.gov/cong/planyourvisit/camping.htm

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