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Our Secret Delta

An epic story about power, beauty and how one of South Carolina's last great places faces new threats

  • Updated
An epic story about power, beauty and how one of South Carolina's last great places faces new threats
Santee tributaries.JPG

You can still see traces of old rice fields amid the tributaries of the Santee Delta near the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 1

The Flow

The Santee Delta is a mysterious place, with secrets hidden by neglect and time.

It’s difficult to love sometimes, especially when deer flies hit your skin like hailstones.

And it’s difficult to see, even, because the delta is so flat and wild that forests hide vistas behind curtains of brown and green.

Yet once you get a little altitude, with a drone or from guides who know its past, this place opens like a grand old book.

Then its pages tell of inventions that changed the course of history, of rice called Carolina Gold, of the blistered hands of enslaved people who built one of the world’s agricultural wonders, of the ebb and flow of money and wont.

And also stories about baseball teams and ducks. About aging alligators with names like Big Bertha and Truck Biter. About old threats and new.

And water.

Always water, whether the stories are new or old, tragedies or mysteries.

So, before we get to the stories and secrets, let’s get our bearings, let’s follow the water.

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The sun sets over the South Santee River and former rice fields on Monday, April 29, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

From the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, it flows toward South Carolina. It gains force as foothills give way to South Carolina’s Midlands, forming the Saluda, Catawba and Broad rivers, brown with loam.

Past Columbia, the land flattens and the rivers expand like lungs into the great cypress swamps of the Congaree. The water slows at Santee Cooper’s dams, forming the shallow lakes Moultrie and Marion. Then it shoots through spillways. Some goes into the Cooper River toward Charleston’s busy harbor.

But most pours into the much-less-busy Santee.

With no real slopes to guide it now, the Santee meanders like a haphazardly thrown rope until it splits in two, the North and South Santee. Finally, in the flats between Georgetown and McClellanville, those strands meet an opposing force, the rising tides of the Atlantic.

This meeting place is where the delta becomes the delta, where sediment flowing from Upstate fans out and makes marshes and barrier islands. And, because this soppy land is low, and because of the tides, the ground isn't always solid. It’s something in between: swamps so quiet you hear blood rush in your ears, old rice fields with flocks of blackbirds that lift as one and move back and forth, like a conductor’s hand.

All told, the Santee Delta drains an area the combined size of Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire. Its floodplain below the Santee Cooper dams fills 550,000 acres, an area seven times larger than the city of Charleston, and most of it is undeveloped. The delta's marshes and swamps are home to more than 100 threatened or endangered plant and animal species. At least one plant grows nowhere else on Earth.

Despite its size and uniqueness, the Santee Delta has long flowed in the shadows of the more celebrated and smaller ACE Basin estuary near Beaufort and the Santee's immediate neighbors, the Francis Marion National Forest and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

Yet hidden in the head-high stands of the Santee's cordgrass are some of the state’s most important historical treasures, clues to events that changed the trajectory of the South, and therefore the nation. Many of these forgotten places are vanishing amid the eroding flow of time and rising seas.

And the delta faces other threats: political intrigue, neglect, even from the water itself. Utilities want to build towering new transmission lines to McClellanville. Developers are building on the area's fringes. The Santee Delta is at once one of the least trodden and most vulnerable places in the Southeast.

Uncovering the delta's secrets can be a challenge, though. Witness Richard Porcher, who late one afternoon found himself lost in a place he knows better than most.

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Noted botanist Richard Porcher pushes through cordgrass on Crow Island. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 2

Lost in the 'Rice Kingdom'

Porcher is a sturdy man of 80 with a trim frame, white hair and a gleam in his eyes, especially when he talks about the Santee Delta’s mysteries. He has an increasingly rare Charleston accent, one he deploys in baritone bursts of stories and facts.

His Carolina roots stretch back 12 generations to 1685. That’s when his ancestors arrived — French Protestants called Huguenots, which is why his name today is still pronounced “pour-shay.” He’s quick to say that his forebearers fled France because of religious persecution, but once here, the bullied became bullies, importing people in bondage to work in the fields.

On this late afternoon, Porcher looked like an old-school explorer with tall rubber boots over blue corduroy pants and a canteen slung over his shoulder. His ropy arms protruded from his weathered tan shirt, his skin showing signs of age and cuts from journeys in the field. He carried a large wooden staff.

“For the snakes,” he half joked.

Some of his ancestors were acclaimed botanists, and he’d long felt the calling to continue in their boot steps. He began exploring the Santee Delta 40 years ago when he taught biology at The Citadel, South Carolina's military college. He has since written definitive books about the state’s wildflowers and sea island cotton. But the Santee Delta’s rich human history, especially its emergence as the center of the South’s “Rice Kingdom,” also captured his imagination, so he wrote a definitive book about rice.

As part of that research, he mapped every rice-related structure he could find in the delta: rice mill chimneys, rice field shelters, remnants of slave quarters. This was no easy task.

The delta is vast and has few roads; rivers and creeks are the only routes to some spots. And you can’t see far from the low vantage of a jonboat seat. So he developed a ruin-hunting technique: From your perch in a boat, look up a tad and keep your eye trained for trees and bushes. That meant high ground. And high ground meant better odds that people once lived there.

Then get out.

“You would have no idea what’s here if you just stayed in your boat.”

***

Earlier in the afternoon, Porcher had climbed into a boat with Chris Crolley. When Crolley was in his 20s, he carried around Porcher’s wildflower book until it was worn out. Now, years later, Crolley owns Coastal Expeditions, one of the few outfitters that take people into the delta.

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Chris Crolley, owner of Coastal Expeditions, left, and Richard Porcher, study a 19th Century map while trying to locate the ruins on Crow Island. Lauren Petracca/Staff

“Sometimes I wonder how come everybody doesn’t know about this place.” Crolley said. The delta’s stories help explain South Carolina’s complicated past and possibly the shape of things to come.

“There are secrets here that people should know about, mysteries. And the clues are still here.”

One of those clues was downriver: The ruins of a former slave village on Crow Island.

Porcher and Crolley had begun their search from Pole Yard Landing, a public boat launch on the North Santee. As they made their way downriver, they spotted stands of “cow itch,” a plant also known as orange trumpet flower. A black skimmer bird sailed by, its long beak just inches from the water’s surface. Bald cypresses lined a bank, and Crolley noted how their intertwined roots give the trees stability in soft mud. At low tide, the roots were exposed.

“You can see how they hold hands,” he said.

Before the Huguenots and British settled the Lowcountry, the Santee Delta was a vast forest of bald cypress and tupelo. So much freshwater poured from the mountains and Midlands that the river kept the saltwater at bay. As a result, the cypress forests grew surprisingly close to the beaches.

The evidence was still here in the form of a hulking gray cypress stump.

“That one there is older than Jesus,” Crolley said.

Porcher studied a copy of an 1875 map, searching for Crow Island, glancing up now and then, looking for trees.

“There it is,” he said.

Crolley piloted the boat toward a mud bank. An alligator drifted in the murky water nearby.

Fiddler crabs skittered toward shelter as Porcher stepped off the boat into the muck. His boots made a sound somewhere between a crunch and a squelch. He filled his nostrils with the smell of wet earth and brine. He pulled himself up a slippery embankment and into grass 2 feet above his head.

Then, instead of planting his stick to walk, he turned it sideways and used it as a plow, pushing down cordgrass to blaze a trail.

***

Slave settlements such as the one on Crow Island once were scattered across the delta. This one likely had eight or nine cabins that housed as many as 60 people in bondage. These villages were different from the alleys of cabins next to plantation homes you might find around Charleston. Slaves working the rice fields were much more isolated.

Porcher first found the Crow Island ruins in the early 1980s and felt as if he’d discovered a lost city. No one had documented its existence; no one had done excavations to better understand the lives of those who had been enslaved there.

Hunting for the ruins once again, Porcher pushed through the grass and branches of scrubby trees. Then he thought better of his direction and pivoted. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief; his map fell out of his pants pocket; the grass blades sliced his arm, his left elbow began to bleed.

“I’m a little discombobulated.”

Dragonflies and bees buzzed nearby. He took a swig from his canteen and confessed, “I don’t know where we are.”

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A flock of roseate spoonbills fly over a rice field at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 3

How the wealth was won

The Lowcountry is well-named, and the Santee River merges slowly with the Atlantic. As river and ocean meet, the lighter freshwater forms a layer that rides over the heavier saltwater from the sea. Like clockwork, the tides twice a day lift this freshwater layer several feet high. This lifting phenomenon triggered an agricultural gold rush that forever changed the delta.

In the early 1700s, planters chopped down the delta's great cypress forests. Using hand tools, oxen and muscle, their enslaved workers built hundreds of miles of rectangular dike fields. Then they harnessed those tidal layers, installing wooden gates called trunks at certain heights along the dikes. At high tide, you opened the gates so the freshwater layer flooded the fields. At low tide, you drained the fields and harvested the rice.

With the dikes and trunks, rice growers suddenly could flood and drain fields without worrying about droughts. It made rice cultivation more predictable and profitable, and spawned even more dike work across the Lowcountry.

In just one plantation along the Cooper River, enslaved workers built 55 miles of dikes, moving earth equivalent to three Egyptian pyramids. The swampy and wide Santee Delta was even better suited for tidal control. And, by the American Revolution, the delta's rice fields stretched like a handmade quilt toward the horizon.

Demonstration of mortar and pestle to separate rice grains and hull

Rice field workers, used heavy wooden mortars and pestles to separate the husk from the grains. This photo was taken at the Santee Gun Club in 1923. Photo provided by The Charleston Museum, www.charlestonmuseum.org

The rice was called "Carolina Gold," and worldwide demand triggered a rush that turned the Lowcountry into a landscape of misery and money. Planters built great houses on bluffs overlooking the dikes; they built mansions in downtown Charleston. Away from the white columns, they established slave settlements in the swamps, such as the one on Crow Island and another just upriver on Tranquility Island.

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A rice trunk at the state-owned Santee Coastal Reserve still uses the rising tides to irrigate old rice fields. Lauren Petracca/Staff

It was a miserable place to live and work. Standing water bred clouds of mosquitoes. Dikes were in constant need of repair. A British observer wrote in 1775 that slaves stood “ankle, and even mid-leg deep in water which floats in oozy mud; and exposed to a burning sun which makes the very air hotter than the human blood; these poor wretches are then in a furnace of stinking, putrid effluvia.”

Hurricanes came without warning, and one in 1822 hit the Rice Kingdom like a sucker punch. Nearly every house in Charleston and Georgetown was damaged or destroyed. Slave villages and plantation homes alike were swept away. Survivors were found drifting on pieces of lumber. Hundreds of slaves died. On Murphy Island, near the mouth of the delta, 50 slaves drowned or were crushed by falling debris. The headline in The Charleston Courier said simply: “Dreadful Hurricane!”

Rice harvest

A woman carries a bundle of rice at Annandale Plantation in 1938. Kinloch Gun Club/Georgetown County Digital Library

Malaria, yellow fever and dysentery were rampant. In these harsh and exposed conditions, many enslaved workers survived just a few years, so planters sought replacements, paying more for those with rice-growing expertise in West Africa.

“Gold Coast or Gambias are best,” Henry Laurens, a Charleston planter with Huguenot roots, wrote in 1755.

Rice cultivation made Laurens and other Lowcountry planters rich. By the American Revolution, Charleston was per capita the wealthiest city in North America. The Lowcountry exported 60 million pounds of rice a year. And the sweat-soaked Santee Delta was the Rice Kingdom's beating heart — a kingdom that would become even more profitable and entrenched after an English inventor’s rough arrival.

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A chimney is the only thing left of an old Lucas rice mill at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 4

The Eli Whitney of rice

Not too far from where Richard Porcher pushed through the cordgrass on Crow Island, a storm in 1786 blew a ship ashore. On board was a British inventor named Jonathan Lucas, headed to Charleston to make a new life.

Lucas was 33 at the time and came from a family of well-to-do millwrights. After the shipwreck, Lucas noticed the agonizing way slaves separated hulls from the grain: Using heavy wooden pestles, slaves pounded like pistons on the grains, hour after hour. It was tedious and back-breaking work. Slaves eked out a few pounds of rice per day. Lucas had a better idea.

Combining existing technologies, he designed new mills that for the first time used huge millstones to remove the hulls. These millstones replaced the pounding work done by slaves and their mortars and pestles. Lucas also harnessed tidal currents to turn the millstone and power a system of buckets, pulleys and wind fans that separated and polished the grains, which poured down chutes, ready to ship.

His automated mills revolutionized rice production. Just three people could run a Lucas mill, allowing planters to deploy more enslaved workers to their fields. Landowners across the Rice Kingdom were eager to cash in and sought Lucas out. Within a few years, he’d built 15 water-powered mills across the Lowcountry.

Rice fields of the Santee Delta

African American workers toil in the rice fields of the South Carolina Lowcountry around Georgetown in this undated painting. The Rice Museum of Georgetown/Provided

Lucas’s contributions to agriculture were akin to Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, also invented in the 1790s. They were “monumental and ingenious,” Porcher wrote in his book “The Market Preparation of Carolina Rice.” But while Whitney's cotton gin is cited in schoolbooks, the Lucas rice mill faded into obscurity. 

Yet the evidence of Lucas’s impact is as real as the mansions in Charleston that face Fort Sumter. Like Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, the Lucas rice mill increased demand for more slaves, binding the South’s fate to agriculture. By 1850, Joshua John Ward of Georgetown County alone owned 1,100 people in bondage. (His land includes what today is Brookgreen Gardens.)

Rice planters such as Ward grew richer by the year, as the South moved ever closer to a collision with the industrializing North.

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"I'm a little discombobulated," says Richard Porcher, as he tries to orient himself while looking for remnants of a slave village on Crow Island on Tuesday, June 4, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 5

Treacherous tranquility

On Crow Island, Porcher pushed deeper into the cordgrass, still hunting for the ruins. By now, the late afternoon light was the color of honey. He came to a clearing, and as if someone had opened a door, a lake of grass spread out before him. It was a remnant of an old rice field. The sense of isolation was as fresh as the wind gusts that ran along the grass.

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Vennie Deas Moore poses for a portrait in the Rice Museum in Georgetown on Friday, June 21, 2019. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Four decades ago, on his first trip to Crow Island, Porcher tried to imagine what it was like for those who lived here. The questions spun in his mind: What did they talk about at night? What kind of aspirations did they have? What did the numbing work in the fields do to them and their children?

Like Porcher, Vennie Deas Moore also wondered about these forgotten lives. It was personal for her, though. Her descendants once toiled at Hampton Plantation, now a state historic site, and possibly the rice fields of Tranquility Island, just upriver from Crow. As a cultural historian, she spent years studying the lives of African Americans in the delta, telling their stories in books, on film and in oral histories.

Then, one day a few years ago, she traveled with Porcher to see Tranquility Island for herself.

It was thick with flies and cordgrass. She was terrified and feeling the island's isolation. Were there snakes about? Wild boars? She didn't know. One thing was clear, the mosquitoes were vicious. She thought about her ancestors working in the unforgiving sun, day after day, as mosquitoes and flies feasted on them. Anything but tranquil. Then she took a step and suddenly was up to her waist in pluff mud and sinking fast.

She yelled for Porcher to help. He rushed to her aid with a switch of thick grass. Grab on, he told her. And don’t move. You’ll only sink more.

Using the grass, Porcher pulled her to safety. She was covered with a crust of sour-smelling goop.

Later that night, Moore told her mom what happened. Her mother gasped.

“Don’t you ever go back out there again,” she scolded Moore. “Do you know we lost whole cows out there?”

Moore, now 70 years old, ponders about the legacy her ancestors left behind, the sprawling dike work, the courage and determination it took to survive, the riches they created for others.

Yet, while mansions and monuments to this wealth still stand in downtown Charleston's old streets, she knows that deep in the delta cordgrass and time are erasing what her ancestors built, and that their stories, if preserved, may be their only surviving trace. 

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Photographs of baseball greats still hang in former Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey’s “Playroom." Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 6

Saved by ducks

As the Civil War loomed, Lowcountry rice planters reaped more riches, producing 119 million pounds of rice the year before the first shots on Fort Sumter.

But after the war, their former slaves left the fields in droves. Dikes failed; weeds choked ditches; Europeans imported cheaper rice from Asia; more hurricanes swept through.

Then, rice farmers in Texas and Louisiana began using mechanical threshers. But these more efficient machines sank in the Lowcountry’s soupy soils. The Carolina Gold rush was over, and the Santee Delta began to empty its people.

In this emptying land, clouds of ducks still descended on the fields, millions of migrating waterfowl — and hunters followed. President Grover Cleveland was one of them.

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William Garrett, a former duck hunting guide, holds a duck call whistle at his home in McClellanville. Lauren Petracca/Staff

On a trip in 1894, Cleveland, weighing about 260 pounds, got stuck up to his thighs in the marsh muck. A local African American guide wrapped his arms around the president and wrestled him out of his hip boots and onto solid ground. Cleveland took a swig of whiskey and laughed it off. But newspapers told and retold stories of Cleveland's hunting exploits, stories that also revealed how former rice plantations were being sold at dirt-cheap prices.

Word spread about skies full of ducks, the cheap land, and soon trainloads of hunters left New York for South Carolina when the weather turned cool. Hunting clubs formed to cater to these new well-heeled hunters, including the Santee Club, created in 1898, and later known as the Santee Gun Club.

Members of the Santee Gun Club were among the nation’s wealthiest people: oil company presidents, telegraph moguls, department store magnates, du Ponts, a Rockefeller. By 1900, the Baltimore American newspaper described the club as “the most influential gunning club in the United States.”

The Santee Gun Club would eventually encompass 12 former plantations and more than 24,000 acres. More wealthy industrialists arrived, snatching up other nearby plantations. This new land rush generated some tension.

A Charleston News & Courier reporter wrote about the Northerners arriving in private train coaches, "bringing with them white servants who turned up their noses at everything they saw around the countryside" along with their "polo ponies, snooty foxhounds ... imported whiskeys, antique furniture and sporting clothes fashioned in London that never seemed to fit."

Locals called the land rush "the second Yankee invasion."

Newcomers included William Yawkey, a lumber and mining millionaire who acquired large tracts near the mouth of the delta. Yawkey also owned the Detroit Tigers, and baseball legend Ty Cobb spent time at Yawkey’s Santee plantation, practicing on fields next to giant live oaks. Yawkey’s son, Tom, later learned to hunt there, and when he inherited the land, he reportedly said: “I hope I can do some good with it.”

Tom Yawkey eventually bought his own baseball team, the Boston Red Sox, and photographs of Red Sox great Ted Williams still hang in the "Playroom," a stately wood-paneled building where Yawkey and his wife received guests. The Yawkeys lived in more modest digs nearby — an early iteration of a mobile home. Yawkey, an introvert, joked that they lived in a trailer so guests had nowhere to stay.

***

Over the decades, farmers and developers and dam builders drained wetlands across the Carolinas and the country. As wildlife habitat disappeared, so did the ducks, and Yawkey grew concerned. He'd seen declines in the delta, as well, especially after Santee Cooper built the dams for Lakes Moultrie and Marion.

He stopped hunting and started managing his land as a refuge. He opened it to researchers, including those who studied alligators. Like human beings, alligators have long life spans and accumulate pesticides and other industrial chemicals in their tissues. So long-term studies on alligators and pollution also could tell us things about ourselves.

In time, researchers knew the gators by name: Big Bertha was the oldest and largest female — nearly 10-feet long. They called others Bette Davis Eyes, Truck Biter and Grover. As years passed, this work grew more valuable and rare — precious because there were so few large coastal areas that had been set aside for wildlife for so long.

Then, in the mid-1970s, two events converged like rivers: First, in 1974, the Santee Gun Club donated its massive holdings to The Nature Conservancy, and the conservation group deeded most of the land to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. An editorial in the New York Times called it “one of the most valuable single gifts made in the interests of American conservation—almost comparable to the Rockefeller gifts of entire national parks.”

And in 1976, Tom Yawkey died. In his will, he left an additional 20,000 acres to South Carolina. Yawkey also bankrolled a nonprofit foundation to manage the land as a wildlife preserve, a boon to taxpayers who suddenly had a large new protected space but didn't have to pay for its upkeep.

Soon, private plantation owners began donating conservation easements to The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and Lowcountry Land Trust. (These landowners include White Oak Forestry, a subsidiary of The Post and Courier's parent company, Evening Post Industries. White Oak manages 17,000 acres bordering the delta, mostly for timber and wildlife. Members of the Manigault family, majority owners of Evening Post, also own about 3,000 acres in the delta.)

Together, this combination of public and privately protected land formed a massive preserve, one sandwiched between two of the fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, Charleston to the south and Myrtle Beach to the north.

Today, on guided visits at the Tom Yawkey Center, you can see a flock of pink roseate spoonbills explode from the marsh in flight, far from their normal haunts in the Everglades.

You might see the Carolina hedge-nettle, which grows only in one spot in the Yawkey refuge. The federal government calls the plant “critically imperiled.”

And you might stand on one of the center's dikes, and with that small bit of altitude, look onto a prairie of luminescent yellow and green that's so expansive it seems to end only when it meets sky.

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A flock of roseate spoonbills fly over a rice field at the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 7

Rain bombs and rising seas

The sky, like the climate, is ever changing. But the delta in the past four years has experienced unusual motion, a faster pace, as if its chapters had been shortened.

Year after year, skies turned heavy and gray. Clouds moved into the Lowcountry like invading forces and then unleashed massive amounts of water and disruption: The "thousand-year" storm of October 2015; Hurricane Matthew in 2016; Irma in 2017; Florence in 2018; and, just a week ago, Hurricane Dorian.

The storms felled its trees, and the ocean ate into its barrier beaches. Because it’s flat and porous and mostly unpaved, the delta absorbed these storms like a sponge, limiting the damage. But rising seas could, in a few generations, reshape the landscape for good.

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Cedar Island's beach is eroding under the onslaught of rising seas and a decrease in silt flushed down the Santee River. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The sea level in South Carolina has risen a foot since the late 1800s, and a rapidly warming planet may add another 3 to 6 feet by the end of the century. Nearly a third of the delta is less than 3 feet above sea level, according to Norman Levine, a College of Charleston geologist who analyzed data for The Post and Courier. The delta already is seeing the effects.

In the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center, rising seas have eroded river banks and made it more difficult to drain ponds. Saltwater is finding its way farther up river, winning its long tug-of-war with the freshwater coming from the mountains. Compounding the problem, Santee Cooper's dams have bottled massive volumes of silt that once helped build Cedar and Murphy islands. Starved of beach-building sediment, they're quickly losing ground.

The delta faces other threats, but not from the sea.

Earlier this year, a South Carolina lawmaker introduced a bill to open waterways in state wildlife refuges to hunting. Given that preserves such as Yawkey are riven with small creeks, the legislation could have torched decades of alligator research that depend on the area remaining relatively free of human intrusion. After a Post and Courier report, other lawmakers killed the bill.

The region's utilities recently revived a plan to build transmission lines to McClellanville, plans that met stiff opposition during two earlier attempts. One route would cut through some of the wildest parts of the delta. Another would go through the Francis Marion National Forest.

Neglect is another threat, witness what's happening at The Wedge, a 1,500-acre tract owned by the University of South Carolina. The plantation includes a grand house once owned by William Lucas, son of the rice mill inventor Jonathan Lucas. It was built in 1826 and for a time was home to a globally recognized insect research program.

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Vegetation threatens to swallow an historic hurricane shelter built for enslaved people on Murphy Island. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Now, the house stands empty. The university put it up for sale in 2014, asking $4 million, but there were no takers. It’s unclear what will happen to the property now; the university won’t discuss The Wedge's future other than to say it’s for sale.

In this vacuum, nature has reasserted its control. White paint curls in strips from the siding. The porches sag and buckle. Missing slats dot the sun-warped shutters that remain, like a mouth with broken teeth.

And on Murphy Island, an important African American historical site also is under the gun.

After the devastating hurricane in 1822, planters built circular brick towers in the delta for enslaved workers to ride out storms. During his rambles through the delta, Richard Porcher identified three. One was a pile of bricks, another had been converted into a hunting lodge, and the third was on Murphy Island, now part of the state Santee Coastal Reserve.

Plantation owners in the Caribbean built hurricane shelters for themselves and their families, but the Santee towers were built solely for enslaved workers, said Brent Fortenberry, a Texas A&M University architecture and preservation professor. This makes them unique.

"There's nothing like them anywhere else."

The Santee's planters didn't build them necessarily out of compassion.

“They did it to protect their labor force," he said. "They’re an indelible piece of the Santee Delta puzzle and South Carolina’s past."

On a recent visit, a drone was launched, and from above, the storm tower looked as if it was about to be swallowed by a jungle. Brick thieves have removed whole sections. A dying tree grows in the middle, poised to fall in a strong wind. State Department of Natural Resources staff have worked hard to beat back vegetation and thieves. But money is tight for preserving such an isolated piece of the state’s history.

The Wedge's disrepair. The isolated ruins on Murphy Island. The lawmaker's attempt to open a place that had been set aside. All are reminders that old buildings and wild places share something in common: they exist only through the persistence of people driven to protect them.

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Richard Porcher examines a pile of bricks left over from a former slave cabin on Crow Island in the Santee Delta. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Chapter 8

Discovery

On Crow Island, Richard Porcher was still hunting for those slave ruins, still lost. Time to backtrack.

With his sideways walking stick, he marched back toward the river where Chris Crolley waited in the boat. Porcher climbed in, sat for a few minutes and took another swig from his canteen.

“I was lost, and I don’t mind admitting it,” he said.

Crolley smiled as Porcher rested. They both understood how wild the Santee Delta is, even though human hands have shaped it for centuries — and how rare it is to find places so undeveloped that you can so easily lose your way. Crolley had been reminded of this isolation a few days before during a trip to nearby Cape Romain.

He'd been helping volunteers with a sea turtle project when one mentioned he was a pilot who regularly flies along the East Coast. From above, the pilot said, the entire East Coast seems heavily developed — with the Santee Delta and the adjacent federal wildlife refuges a notable exception.

He told Crolley, "From Florida to Maine, that's all that's left."

Sitting in the boat, Porcher wasn't about to give up on those slave ruins. He’s always had a motor, but at 80 he has the urgent rev of someone who knows his journey will end sooner than later. He and Crolley agreed on a new plan: head upriver toward Tranquility and then float back to an inlet near Crow.

They landed near the inlet. With his bearings reset, Porcher stepped back onto the old dike, mowing a new path with his walking stick. He came to a clearing. The grass was shorter here and opened onto a wider savanna that once grew rice.

And there they were in the shorter grass, the ruins: piles of old bricks from fireplaces and chimneys, old bricks that warmed the enslaved people who worked in those dike fields. A thick cypress post, hand-hewn into a beam, was planted into the soil nearby.

“I have no idea what it was used for. There’s so much we don’t know about this place."

Piled there in the grass, the bricks weren’t much to look at. But around him, everything felt open, the eroding old rice fields, the waves of cordgrass, the quiet. It was enough to get his mind spinning again: What was it like at night, when the stars came out? What was it like in August when the heat never died? What was it like for an enslaved mother to tend to her sick child? Where did they bury their dead? He’d seen no evidence of graveyards. Did they ever go to the mainland? Or were they confined their whole lives to the delta?

“The cultural history, the slave history, how it changed, everything fits together out here," he said.

But those stories are easily forgotten.

"History closed its pages on the Santee Delta."

But professors like Porcher know that books are designed to be opened again and again. And the Santee Delta — so manipulated by human hands yet so wild despite it — is no different. Porcher turned back toward the river, a smile on his face, energized by the rediscovery of Crow Island, the sun sinking lower as he plowed through the last stand of cordgrass, now turning a richer shade of green in the gathering twilight.

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556. Follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.