Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Hopkins, South Carolina
South Carolina rivers were once bordered by over a million acres of old-growth floodplain forest; now only 12,000 acres remain and 11,000 are preserved in Congaree Swamp National Monument.
The early past
Prehistoric foragers hunted the swamp and fished its waters. The Congaree Indians claimed the swampland and Spanish explorers, notably Herando de Soto, recounted the intrigue of the area. Around 1700 the Congarees were decimated by a smallpox epidemic introduced with the white settlers' arrival. The new residents obtained land grants from the King of England until 1776 when the State of South Carolina won the right to distribute ownership of the land.
Attempts to make the land suitable for planting, as well as grazing, continued through 1860 The swamp's limited changes in elevation and consequent flooding stifled agricultural activity; but the intermittent flooding allows for soil nutrient renewal and enables the swamp's trees to thrive. Bald Cypress, in particular, became a target for logging. By 1905 the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company, owned by Francis Beidler, had acquired much of the land. Poor accessibility by land confined logging to tracts near waterways so that logs could be floated downriver. In the perpetual dampness, though, many of the cut trees remained too green to float. Operations were suspended within ten years. leaving the swamp basically untouched.
In 1969 relatively high timber prices prompted private landowners to consider resuming logging operations. As a result of an effective campaign launched by the Sierra Club and many local individuals to protect the natural resources, Congress established Congaree Swamp National Monument in 1976. That designation was not enough to protect the swamp from the force of Hurricane Hugo in September 1989. The park lost several National Champion Trees, but the overall effect was a natural stimulus to growth. Hugo snapped tree tops, thereby allowing sunlight to come through the canopy, promoting new growth beneath; fallen trees provide shelter for many species of organisms; standing dead trees will become new homes for a variety of plant and animal species, including fungi, insects, reptiles, birds, and bats.
On June 30, 1983 Congaree Swamp National Monument was designated an International Biosphere Reserve. Our continued conservation efforts will be rewarded by the preservation of our monument's resources -- once common, but now rare.