Flow Chart — a look at how Greenville, SC’s Reedy River shaped that city

Posted by | January 6, 2014

The following piece by John Nolan can be found in the current issue of TOWN magazine. It is reprinted here with permission.

The Reedy River put Greenville on the map—and, like its meandering currents and rushing falls, is the centerpiece for its rise, fall, and triumphant rise again. It has humble beginnings. Greenville’s Reedy River starts with a few springs seeping out of the ground just north in Travelers Rest off Ebenezer Church Road. It gathers strength, breadth, and force as it flows—touching thousands of lives by the time it reaches its most prominent feature in the heart of the city. It meanders for 16 miles to Lake Conestee, ultimately continuing for another 57 miles to Lake Greenwood.

Reedy River

The complexity of its uses and its enduring presence is worth reflection. Whether for refreshment, commercial enterprises, attractive scenic vistas, or just for recreation, the Reedy flows through Greenville’s history with vital importance. In many ways, the fortunes and failures of both the river and the city are indelibly intertwined.

1770s–1870s: A Century of Growth

From the earliest times of Greenville’s habitation, the Reedy River has played a central role in attracting people around its banks. For the Native Americans, its clear, cool waters were crucial. Even more important was its ability to draw wildlife in from surrounding fields and hills, making the area an important hunting ground for the local Cherokee and Catawba tribes. Our first colonial settler Richard Pearis was also drawn to the area for its waters, choosing to build his plantation Great Plains near the Reedy Falls. Its natural water power was first harnessed by Pearis with a gristmill built on the edge of the upper falls. Though Pearis’ presence was key to the village’s origins and the river’s utilization, his time here was limited by circumstances of the Revolutionary War, namely his siding with the British and the burning of his home by local patriots in the 1770s.

After Vardry McBee bought the lion’s share of the village in 1815, it didn’t take him long to continue harnessing the river for commercial use. McBee was, perhaps, the greatest and most ambitious entrepreneur the city has ever known. One of the first of his scores of local businesses was a stone gristmill on the edge of the upper Reedy Falls in 1816. He built a larger mill right next to it in 1829 (the foundation wall can still be seen along the riverwalk and are the oldest ruins in downtown). Greenville, just like any town of the era, depended on grains as a staple of daily life. Gristmills, built on seemingly any available stream or river, were a vital part of early American society (by 1860, South Carolina averaged 40 per county). Agriculture was a specialty of McBee’s, and his crops thrived. Like most Southern farmers before the Civil War, he grew plenty of corn. His Reedy mill turned it into hominy, grits, and cornmeal to allow locals the convenience of processed grains to make cooking easier.

1857 Carriage Factory (now Larkin's on the River Restaurant).

1857 Carriage Factory (now Larkin’s on the River Restaurant).

Greenville’s first real manufacturing industry also utilized the waterpower of the river—although this time it wasn’t for grains. For nearly a century, what is now known as the Peace Center complex was the site of one of the busiest and most successful businesses in Greenville’s early history. In 1835, the Gower & Cox Wagon and Carriage Factory was started by blacksmiths Ebenezer Gower and Thomas M. Cox. When Ebenezer’s younger brother Thomas Claghorn (T.C.) Gower joined the company they changed their name to the Gower, Cox and Gower Carriage Factory. In 1853, H.C. Markley became a fourth partner in the business—then named Gower, Cox and Markley Carriage Factory—and they continued to prosper, erecting the present three-and-a-half-story brick building in 1857, with a distinctive slanted roofline (now Larkin’s by the River Restaurant). The building originally was used for carriage storage and display, with the lower floor serving as a blacksmith shop.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century, there was a lumber shed on the bank of the river exactly where the TD Amphitheatre is today and a wheelhouse on the banks right next to the Main Street Bridge. A paint shop (now the Wyche Pavilion), carriage and wagon warehouses, a hardware store and office building (426 S. Main St.) were among the other buildings in the factory’s complex. Production in the Greenville facility outpaced all others south of Washington, D.C., putting Greenville on the map as a transportation hub long before textiles became the city’s enduring claim to fame. The Reedy’s waters were a needed resource for the machinery used to make carriages for regional citizens, farmers, and, later, soldiers in the Civil War (one of the wagons made here can still be seen at the Upcountry History Museum).

Furman University’s higher education was a much-needed development for this up-and-coming town. Its significance is still strongly felt today. Interestingly, the Reedy played a part in the decision of the school to relocate here. After struggling in several rural locations, school leaders liked the population growth, climate, location, and economic prospects of Greenville. Vardry McBee owned the land on the bluff overlooking the Reedy River Falls—attractive real estate by anyone’s estimation. McBee offered an irresistible incentive on the sale price ($7,500), and Furman soon put down its roots along the river.

1870s–1970s: Flourishing Textiles and a Dying River

Greenville’s textile industry dominated the local economy and societal structure for nearly a century. When we look to its origins, the Reedy, again, played a critical role. The Upstate’s textile industry developed in earnest after the Civil War. The location chosen for the first mill in the city of Greenville was on the Reedy River at the base of the lower falls in 1874. It was called the Sampson & Hall Mill. A mill village housing the more than 50 employees soon grew up in the area surrounding the mill along the slopes of the hill and east toward Falls Street. Just as the earlier gristmills had dams and water sluices to shuttle the Reedy’s water to their water wheels, so did the first textile mills in the city.

View of Carriage Factory wheel house on the Reedy River c1895.

View of Carriage Factory wheel house on the Reedy River c1895.

A pair of large water wheels turned a shaft that powered the machinery inside. Ruins of the water-wheel housing still remain in Falls Park as a reminder of this once-thriving mill. The successful outlook of Sampson and Hall’s first mill caused its investors to build another mill on the eastern bank of the upper falls. The 1874 mill across the river was renamed the Camperdown Mill No. 1, and the new mill opened in March 1876, as the Camperdown Mill No. 2. Like its predecessor on the lower falls, Camperdown No. 2 started out as a water-powered mill with a dam and water sluice. After six years, the Camperdown Mill’s business was booming and employed several hundred operatives.

Success, however, had its ups and downs for the mill in the late 1800s. At the start of the twentieth century, a total of eight mills were in operation within a two-mile radius of the city, employing thousands of men, women, and children. Many of the mills were built upriver from the Camperdown mills along the Reedy and its branches. The nearest (and still extant) was built in 1882 as the Huguenot Mill. Though the mill sits on the banks of the river, it didn’t rely on the Reedy’s waters. The Huguenot was the first steam-powered mill in Greenville, powered by a large Corliss engine. These engines were especially sought after by textile mills for their ability to provide large amounts of energy while still capable of precise speed adjustments to keep from breaking the threads.

The next generation of mills utilized the new advancements of steam and electric power, further expanding their sizes, capabilities, and output. Though the Reedy was no longer needed for power, mills utilized its waters for carrying off wastes. Facilities such as Monaghan Mill, American Spinning, Poe Mill, Poinsett Mill, and Union Bleachery discharged their wastes and excess colored dyes indiscriminately into the river. For many years the Reedy’s waters would flow with a plethora of colors—depending on which dye was being discarded on any particular day. The “Rainbow Reedy” was its pejorative nickname. Thus, the industry that brought long-term economic strength to Greenville was also the primary cause of the Reedy River’s decline. Decades of ecological neglect and abuse led to the river’s once-cherished area around the falls in the heart of Greenville to become a part of town that locals would avoid at all costs.

American Spinning Mill. Courtesy Greenville Co. Library.

American Spinning Mill. Courtesy Greenville Co. Library.

Though textile mills were the major contributor to the Reedy’s decline, other factors were also at play. By mid-century, large construction projects like Greenville’s Army Air Base (Donaldson) and the new I-85 Interstate along the Reedy’s path sent massive amounts of sediment into the river for deposit into Lake Conestee. Housing development contributed additional volume of silt, causing the lake to go from a pre–WWII size of 145 acres to less than 18 by the end of the century. Other sources contributing to the river’s years of demise were agricultural (pesticides) and storm-water runoff, sewage runoff, residential trash, pedestrian litter, automobile tires, and flooding debris. Decisive evidence of the river’s disregard was the erection of the four-lane Camperdown Road bridge in 1960. The Reedy’s best natural feature was now hidden from sight under nearly six million pounds of concrete and steel.

Camperdown Road bridge over the Reedy Falls.

Camperdown Road bridge over the Reedy Falls.

The state of the Reedy perhaps reached its low point in the 1970s. Its overgrown banks and foul smell were the disgrace (and a reflection) of a downtown in decline. A generation of locals grew up unaware of a downtown waterfall, and the Reedy was essentially forgotten. Main Street’s once-thriving retail base moved to suburban malls, and area mills were shutting down one after the other. The Reedy and downtown Greenville desperately needed significant change.

1970s–Present: Reclamation and Liberty

In spite the odor, discoloration, trash, and crime in the Reedy falls area, not everyone forgot about it. Grassroots efforts were led by the Carolina Foothills Garden Club, who bought up many acres below the Reedy falls and began reclaiming overgrown land along its banks in 1967. The first vision for creating an attractive park was born. For the Reedy, the fact that the textile mills that were shutting down meant that its waters could begin to run cleaner. The federally mandated Clean Water Act in 1972 also helped stop the careless pollution along its length. However, public awareness and civic pride were critically needed to effectively rally citizens to support the revitalization of the river. But that would come very slowly.

According to Mayor Knox White, the first public discussion for taking down the Camperdown Bridge came in 1989 and was “a trial balloon that popped.” Community interest in restoring the Reedy moved forward in the ’90s with the formation of the Friends of the Reedy River in 1993 and Upstate Forever in 1998. In spite of these pockets of public awareness, the cause needed a focal point that people could rally around. That focal point would be the creation of world-class park around the Reedy Falls.

However, the removal of the bridge was figuratively and literally the biggest obstacle for its realization. With Knox White’s mayoral election in 1995, Greenville had a determined leader to take down the bridge and make the Reedy Falls the centerpiece of the city that it deserved to be. A year later the Carolina Foothills Garden Club and the City of Greenville adopted a Master Beautification/Development Plan for the 26-acre Park.

The building of the Governor’s School for the Arts in 1999 on the bluff overlooking the falls was a huge win for drawing more interest. Finally, the vote to tear down the Camperdown Bridge happened in 2001, bringing the change needed for downtown Greenville. The Reedy River Master Plan, drawn up by Clemson University under the sponsorship of the City and County of Greenville, solidified the long-range plan to help sustain, preserve, and utilize the Reedy’s resources and beauty to its fullest potential. Grassroots efforts for the Reedy were furthered through the work of The Conestee Foundation. Locals saw dramatic renderings of what the park would look like and people started to “get it.”

The opening of Falls Park in late 2004 marked a major triumph for the City of Greenville, helping to spur more economic growth, international attention, and civic pride than anyone could have imagined. The jewel on the crown of the Reedy River was now visible to all and could be enjoyed in its panoramic splendor from the 355-foot Liberty Bridge designed by Miguel Rosales. A year after completion, the Liberty Bridge won the prestigious Arthur G. Hayden Medal for outstanding achievement in bridge engineering at the International Bridge Conference.

Though the Reedy still has more hurdles to its cleanup and protection, its potential is finally being realized in so many ways. Recreationally, the GHS Swamp Rabbit Trail brings thousands every week to enjoy the river’s environs while benefiting from exercise. Beyond Falls Park, thousands more enjoy various sports and activities at Cleveland Park and Conestee—each with big plans for future development. Planned parks promise to enhance the Reedy corridor experience even more. The Cancer Survivors Park, coming in 2014, will provide a dynamic facet and beautiful facilities to the area. Likewise, the scale and features of the proposed Mayberry Park will greatly expand our city core’s recreational greenspace and has the potential to be as transformative to the West Side as Falls Park was to the West End a decade ago.

View of the Reedy Falls from the Liberty Bridge.

View of the Reedy Falls from the Liberty Bridge.

Further upriver, the Greenville Textile Heritage Society is spearheading a 6-acre park with a planned picnic area, trails, playground, and a performance gazebo. Riverplace, downtown’s largest private investment of the modern era, was a key component of the riverwalk development, and its proximity to the Reedy made it prime real estate for tenants. Recent announcements of the next phase including offices, retail, and an Embassy Suites (on the location of Jacob Cagle’s old lumber mill) will bring exciting new opportunities. Across River Street, fundraising continues for a $23 million visitor’s center called Reedy Square. Another new hotel/residential/commercial development, River’s Edge, is already under construction on the opposite bank of the Reedy. Given the city and county’s commitment to the preservation and wise development along the Reedy, the future of the river looks bright indeed.

Greenvillians are proud of their downtown and their river again.

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