ACE Basin — Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers, South Carolina
SC Picture Project | Charleston County | ACE Basin
South Carolina’s ACE Basin encompasses over 1,000,000 acres between Beaufort and Charleston and even stretches up to Orangeburg County and Bamberg County. As of 2015, 217,156 acres of the ACE Basin are protected. Through a joint effort by numerous federal, state, and local agencies, as well as conservation organizations and private landowners, the basin is one of the largest protected estuarine systems on the East Coast. It provides a safe haven for wildlife and remains a buffer from encroaching development. The ACE Basin gets its name from the three waterways that flow through its varied landscape: The Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers.
Prior to the Civil War, much of the ACE Basin was planted with rice. Nowadays, many of the hiking opportunities in the area make use of former rice field embankments or dikes, providing visitors a nice flat walk with numerous opportunities to spot wildlife. Winter provides visitors with a wonderful opportunity for wildlife viewing, as many migratory birds call the ACE Basin home during the colder months.
The Bear Island Wildlife Management Area, which is about 11 miles south of US 17 on Bennett’s Point Road, provides 12,000 acres of managed property for wintering waterfowl and other wetland wildlife. The area is open to the public and is a great stop on an ACE Basin roadtrip.
Further down Bennett’s Point Road, there is a peaceful community in the heart of the ACE Basin. Docked at Bennett’s Point boat landing, you may find the lovely shrimp trawler pictured below.
Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge
Formally called the Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin National Wildlife Refuge in honor of former governor and United States senator Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, this refuge occupies 12,000 acres of the ACE Basin on a former rice plantation called Grove Plantation.
Its erstwhile rice fields, untouched since the Civil War, help create the diverse ecosystem found within the refuge. The plantation’s 1828 home – one of only three antebellum plantation homes in the ACE Basin to remain intact after the Civil War – now serves as the refuge’s headquarters.
The rice trunk seen below demonstrates how slaves controlled irrigation of the rice fields, which was dependent on tidal rivers. Rice, a particularly labor-intensive crop, was dependent on slaves for its cultivation. Following Emancipation, the rice industry collapsed in the absence of forced labor.
After the war the acreage was purchased by wealthy sportsmen for hunting grounds, and the land remained pristine and well-managed by its new owners throughout the years. The plantation was purchased by The Nature Conservancy in 1991, who sold it to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service the following year to be managed as a wildlife refuge. Both natural and cultural history are preserved at the refuge. The antebellum house, rice trunk, and slave cabin (pictured below) all tell the story of rice culture and slave life on a Lowcountry rice plantation.
Along the Ashepoo River
The Ashepoo River flows through the swamps of Colleton County and its basin is the “A” of the ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge. Its name comes from the Ashepoo Indian tribe. Crosby’s Landing, pictured below, was a well-loved landmark located on the south side of the US 17 bridge over the Ashepoo River; it was destroyed when that portion of 17 was widened by the South Carolina highway department.
Cruising the Combahee River
These two streams meet below Walterboro and form the Combahee River, which then rolls into St. Helena Sound above Beaufort.
This blackwater river makes up the “C” portion of the ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge and was named after the Combahee Indian tribe.
Eddying the Edisto River
At 206 miles long, the Edisto River is the longest blackwater river in North America. The river begins in Saluda County and flows down the state, finally emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. The ACE Basin rests at the mouth of this amazing water system.
Named for the Edisto Indian tribe, the Edisto River is represented by the ‘E’ in ACE Basin. The photo above shows the Edisto River at Green Pond, part of the ACE Basin.
Reflections on the ACE Basin
Contributor Brittany Callahan, who captured the photo below of Grove Plantation, shares: “I took this while on an adventure driving through the ACE Basin. I felt very alone on the property, which was both eerie and peaceful. The highlight of my visit was seeing a family of wild boar on the way back to my car! This image was made using a large format film camera- similar to those used during the plantation’s heyday.”