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Built by enslaved people, Lowcountry rice impoundments now

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Rice fields of the Santee Delta (copy)

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

In the 1700s, planters chopped down the Lowcountry's great cypress forests and drained the swamps. Using hand tools, oxen and muscle, enslaved workers built hundreds of miles of rectangular dikes. They harnessed the tides, installing wooden gates called trunks, to flood fields behind those dikes. 

It made rice cultivation more predictable and profitable and turned the Lowcountry into the rice-growing capital of the world. In just one plantation along the Cooper River, enslaved workers built 55 miles of dikes, moving earth equivalent to three Egyptian pyramids.

By the mid-1800s, rice field impoundments in the Lowcountry stretched like a quilt toward the horizon. After the Civil War, many of these fields were abandoned. Yet, these ponds were perfect environments for ducks and other marsh birds.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, wealthy northern landowners scooped up large tracts and turned them into hunting preserves. Among these landowners were members of the duPont family, which bought more than 10,000 acres near Beaufort.

The family later created Nemours Wildlife Foundation, which manages the land, including a portion now set aside to attract eastern black rails.

This is the first project on private land to help eastern black rails, said Beau Bauer, the foundation's biologist.

"We don't want to lose a species on our watch." Ernie Wiggers, president of the foundation, added that they haven't attracted any black rails yet.

Then again, "you may never see this bird because it's so secretive."

- Tony Bartelme

Reach Tony Bartelme at 843-937-5554. Follow him on Twitter @tbartelme.

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