Just 20 miles south of Columbia outside the rural town of Hopkins sits the largest untouched stand of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the Southeast. Named for the Congaree River that periodically floods the floor of this ancient forest, the pristine woods are replete with a variety of trees towering more than 100 feet tall.
The floodplain is home to a diverse ecosystem which includes its famous bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), and loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) trees. In fact, the virgin forest boasts several state and national champion trees, or trees that are the tallest of their species. Its celebrated National Champion loblolly stands at 165 high with a circumference of 14.66 feet.
Were it not for the foresight of Chicago businessman Francis Beidler, also responsible for preserving the world’s largest stand of virgin bald cypress – the Francis Beidler Forest in Harleyville – the trees at the Congaree National Park would have been lost to the timber industry decades ago.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Beidler purchased thousands upon thousands of acres of hardwood and cypress stands in South Carolina, including the property that is now the Congaree National Park. At the time, the timber land was quite cheap due to the poor local economy, and much of the property was bought at auction.
Despite the value of the trees – in particular the long-lasting cypress timber – Beidler’s employees found the harvesting of the wood to be too difficult to continue. The ground’s constant moisture, due to both flooding and humidity, prohibited the use of traditional logging equipment which would get stuck in the bog. Also, the immense girth and density of the trees made the usual method of transporting timber – floating it down the river to be milled – impossible; the cut trees usually sank to the bottom. Eventually, Beidler determined that harvesting timber within this tract was futile. His company, Santee River Cypress Lumber, completely phased out timber harvesting in what is now Congaree National Park by 1915.
Fortunately, Beidler did not opt to sell the land but instead kept it in a timber reserve. Knowing that thousands of old growth cypress stands were being harvested elsewhere in the state, Beidler figured he would hold onto his tract and allow the trees to continue maturing so as to increase their future value. Following Beidler’s death, his land holdings were bequeathed to his family. As timber prices rose in the 1960s, the family was persuaded to harvest the remaining old growth hardwood and cypress stands that their forefather had preserved. As Beidler predicted, the surrounding stands had been cut, making this tract invaluable to the lumber industry.
Yet locals wanted to protect the forest. After witnessing the damage that logging had inflicted on the surrounding land, local conservationists formed the Congaree Swamp National Preserve Association in the early 1970s. The group’s goal was to make the forest into a national park, allowing it to be preserved, maintained, and enjoyed by the public.
The group succeeded in having the property designated as a National Monument in 1976. The forest was re-designated as a National Park in 2003. The difference between the two is that a National Monument protects one resource within an area, while a National Park protects a larger area. The Beidler family was compensated by the federal government in exchange for the land.
Today the park of nearly 27,000 acres allows visitors to walk its many trails, including the 2.4-mile-long boardwalk trail, fish in its waters, and even launch a personal canoe or kayak. Dogs are welcomed, and people can find identification guides and other materials within the Harry Hampton Visitors Center. The center is named for a leading conservationist in the effort to preserve the forest. Other landmarks within the Congaree National Park also bear the names of those who worked to ensure its survival.
More Pictures of Congaree National Park