By Carol Antman for The Island Eye News
It was a surreal image: our pontoon boat floating 76 feet above the Tail Race Canal on a wall of water held in place by the Pinopolis Dam’s massive metal doors. In the next 20 minutes, six million gallons of water drained to lower us from Lake Moultrie’s height. What a marvel of engineering. My sister and I couldn’t believe we were having such an adventure just an hour from Charleston.
The day began as all good outings should: with a nice meal. Gilligan’s Seafood is conveniently located at the docks in Monck’s Corner where the excursion departs. The al fresco seafood lunch set the tone for our Lowcountry experience. Fisheagle Tours only offers the lock trips Wednesdays through Saturdays in October, departing at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. They last about 2 ½ hours. Since we’re both prone to sea-sickness, we were concerned but the wide pontoon boat navigated the calm water smoothly. There’s also a cover for sun and rain. Besides the technological wonders, there was plenty to see. The captain kept us peering through binoculars as he pointed out migrating birds and nests and explained the history of the area.
When the dam began construction in the 1940’s, only 3% of the state’s residents had electricity. The Great Depression had decimated the country’s economy. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” included several initiatives to bring electricity to populous areas of the country and South Carolina’s leaders, including Strom Thurmond and Charleston mayor Burnet Maybank, saw that as an opportunity for economic development for our state also.
Building the lakes, dams and dikes would also provide a navigation route from Columbia to Charleston, a plan that had been abandoned when the depression began. Nearly 13,000 workers (many taken from relief rolls) used raw muscle, mules and machines to clear swamps and woods to begin building the dikes, dams and lakes. Entire communities were relocated, forced by eminent domain and enticed by new homes with screened porches (a big incentive in this mosquito infested area), $12 per acre and 100 chickens per family. Francis Marion, the Revolutionary War hero, was in one of the displaced families. Thousands of graves were relocated but some eerily remain below the murky water. Two million board feet of timber was harvested but branches of nearly indestructible cypress trees still pock mark the surface.
It took only 27 months to turn 161,000 acres into Lakes Marion and Moultrie and install the Pinopolis Power Plant’s five hydroelectric units. Spillways with 62 gates were constructed to control the overflow of water. The project required over 3 million cubic yards of concrete. It was the largest land-clearing project in U.S. history and the highest single lift lock in the world when it was completed. Using the new route for navigation never panned out. The Tail Race Canal proved unsuitable for larger ships, railroads improved, but the power plant began generating electricity in 1942 and ultimately served cooperatives in 46 counties. The lock now serves pleasure crafts all year.
Fisheagle Tours’ new owner, Kathie Livingston has worked in outdoor education for over 20 years. Her company also includes a kayak and canoe outfit at Santee State Park and a Nature Adventure Center in Awendaw.
After buying Fisheagle Tours in 2015, she completely renovated the boats and searched for qualified captains. The lock tour takes place on a modernized 30 passenger quad-pontoon boat with a bathroom and handicap access. After a few interviews, she found Captain Rick who “really knows his history.” Beyond the sensation of being lifted and lowered between the Tail Race Canal and Lake Moultrie, the tours are popular because of their hands-on educational appeal for school groups and visitors. Images of the dam’s history, bird and Indian relics are passed around and a huge alligator head is a popular artifact. Reviewers rave about the species of birds they see and the historic knowledge shared by Captain Rick. They even have a Spanish speaking guide who comes along as needed.
It was a wonderful way for my sister and me to see a distinctly different aspect of South Carolina, away from the beach and tourist areas. As we drifted along, we admired the scattered family vacation houses, waved at fishermen and spotted majestic osprey.
But what has remained with me until now is the incredible sensation of a flood of water sending our boat aloft and then draining out again, the massive doors and walls of the dam as they closed around us, and the impressive history and engineering that made it all possible.
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston, S.C. as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com