History Behind the Parks: Congaree National Park


By Carla Charter


SOUTH CAROLINA-In South Carolina a National Park protects the last intact old growth bottom land forest in the United States.

Originally there were over 30 million acres of Bottomland, nationwide. During the 1870’s and 1880’s loggers came south because the lumber was cheap and they had logged out the northern forests. Between WWI and WWII there was clearcutting so most bottom land trees are between 100 and 130 years old.  We have a State Champion Bald Cypress that is 26 feet in circumference and 136 feet high. A tree high that size is about 1,000 years old,” according to Jonathan Manchester, Park Ranger at the Congaree National Park.

In 1976 the land received its first designation, as the Congaree Swamp National Monument, although the land is not a swamp but a bottomland forest. “There is a difference between a bottomland and a swamp. A bottomland is a low area along the river that only gets wet when the river overflows. A swamp has some source of water for something else. Water flowing through it on a regular basis,” he continued.

The majority of the Congaree land was once owned by Beidler family, owners of the Santee Cypress Lumber Company in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They would harvest Cypress from the Congaree forest. “They were in there for almost 20 years selectively logging. They ceased operations right around the time of the Great Depression and World War I,” he said.

They then leased the land to local people and hunt clubs were formed. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, one of the members of one of the hunt clubs, Harry Hampton, editor of  ‘The State’ Newspaper began an effort to preserve the land. “He hunted all over the south east and recognized what he saw in the Congaree was different then what he had seen anywhere else. He started a movement to preserve the land and was able to bring National Park Service representatives to visit it,” Manchester continued.

In the 1960’s the Beidler’s began logging again except now rather than selective logging they were clearcutting.  ‘This spurred a lot of young people to movement and the Sierra Club became involved in an effort to preserve the land. In 1975 a rally was held in Columbia called ‘Congaree Action Now’ with close to 1,000 people attending.  On October 18,1976 Congress designated Congaree Park as a National Monument.  In 1988 the land was designated as a Federal Wildlife Area and in 2003 it was named Congaree National Park.  “After 2003 there was a steady rise in visitation,” he said.

Congaree National Park is approximately 27,000 acres of which 22,000 acres of the park is designated as federal wilderness land “which means in two thirds of the park no development is allowed,” Manchester continued.  The wilderness area can be navigated by canoes and kayaks. The park also offers approximately 27 miles of hiking trails. “The boardwalk is the most popular trail. It is a 2.4 mile loop,“ Manchester continued.

“We are a very biodiverse area with 90 different species of trees and over 700 species of different plants,” he said. “We have the largest Cherrybark Oak and we have the National Champion Loblolly Pine.” he said.

It is also a good park for animal and bird watching with 200 species of birds, over 1,000 species of moths and 21 species of snakes including Water Moccasins and Timber Rattlesnakes.

“We have amphibious frogs as well. Last year we had a field of Narrow-Mouth Toads which made a high-pitched sound almost like a sheep. People were asking if we had sheep,” Manchester said. The park is also home to white tailed deer, coyotes and bobcats.

The bottomland in the park floods about 10 times a year, which is caused by the Congaree River overflowing into the bottomlands, he continued.  During a major flood you might not be able to hike the majority of the trails. There is a section of the boardwalk however that is seven feet above ground so you can see the park flood,” he added.

The park has two campgrounds although they cannot accommodate recreational vehicles or campers.  Back country camping is permitted with the use of canoes and kayaks. “We have guided canoe tours in the spring and fall, free of charge, which have to be reserved one month prior to the date of the tour,” he said.

More information on the Congaree National Park can be found at www.nps.gov/cong/index.htm