In the depths of the Great Depression, a small army of young men took to the wilds of South Carolina to turn untamed forestlands into sanctuaries of nature. They carved trails through the woods, hand hewed timber for cabins, constructed picnic shelters and boathouses and created lakes for swimming and fishing.
The toil of their labor is still enjoyed today in 16 South Carolina state parks.
A New Deal program created in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, put millions of unemployed men to work on environmental conservation projects over the course of nine years. In South Carolina, their legacy would give birth to the state park system.
CCC work camps were established around the state in military-style with barracks, mess halls and 6 a.m. reveille. The men, most aged 18 to 25, enlisted for a minimum of six months, receiving $30 a month plus room and board. At least $22 of their earnings had to be sent home to help support their families.
Under the guidance of the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service, they went to work building parks out of undeveloped land often donated by local entities. The first property in the South Carolina park system—706 acres in the town of Cheraw—was purchased in 1934 with the help of children, who collected pennies to build the park. Myrtle Beach was the first state park to open on July 1, 1936.
Using local stone and rough-cut timber, the CCC boys built a variety of structures in “parkitecture” style. The materials were not only inexpensive and locally accessible, they complemented the natural surroundings. Both Paris Mountain and Table Rock are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Not all of the park land was preserved wilderness. Some of the properties were abused and damaged farmland in desperate need of erosion control and reforestation. Thanks to the CCC, some of the state’s most scenic spots were returned to their natural beauty to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Below are some of the most notable examples of the CCC’s legacy:
Table Rock State Park: Built in 1938 and carefully restored in 2005, The Gaines Lodge is a stunning example of the rustic parkitecture style with its natural logs and chinking, stone chimneys, hand-hewn beams and heart of pine floors. The patio and second-floor balcony in the back of the house offer a commanding view of Table Rock. Nine of the park’s cabins also were built by the CCC.
Paris Mountain State Park: This park offers an extraordinary variety of historic CCC structures, including the original bathhouse that now serves as the park center, the superintendent’s residence, picnic shelters, a foot bridge, Camp Buckhorn Lodge, a spillway and maintenance latrine.
Lee State Park: During the construction of the park, CCC workmen drilled deep into the ground to reach pressurized aquifers that push water to the earth’s surface. The four artesian wells they created continue to flow 24 hours a day.
Lake Greenwood State Park: You don’t have to drive any farther than the entrance of the park to see the rock wall the CCC was building when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Called to service, the men left the job undone and today, a pile of unused stones still lay just as they left them in 1941. Be sure to stop by the Park’s Drummond Center, which houses the park office, to view an extensive interactive exhibit recounting the history of the CCC.
Aiken State Park: This park was built by two CCC companies, one of them an African-American detachment. Interpretive signs throughout the park tell their story. Among the original structures still used today is the bathhouse.
Kings Mountain State Park: You’ll see the craftsmanship of the CCC throughout the park. Among the most impressive is the rockwork of the bathhouse overlooking Lake Crawford and the dam they built to impound the 13-acre reservoir.
Chester State Park: The 160-acre lake the CCC built may be the centerpiece of this park, but the lake’s spillway is one of its most unique features. Water from the spillway pours out of a trough, creating a waterfall effect. To get a good look at the CCC-built attraction, take the short nature trail that winds along the top of the lake. The boathouse that serves the lake is another CCC standout.
Oconee State Park: Along with 19 rustic cabins, historic CCC structures include Shelter No.1, water fountains and a bathhouse and waterwheel located near the swimming lake. While the waterwheel is a replica of the original, the wheel is the one used by the CCC. Look for a statue outside the park office that honors the 3 million-plus CCC members who served between 1933 and 1942.
Givhans Ferry State Park: Perched on a bluff overlooking the Edisto River, the CCC-built Riverfront Hall has the look of a plantation home with fine wood paneling and a large back porch. You’ll also find four two-bedroom cabins the CCC built on the bluff along the banks of the river.
Poinsett State Park: Unlike the more traditional wood or stone bathhouses the CCC built in the 1930s, the one in this park is made of coquina. Some 200 men in three CCC camps built the park and its amenities, including six timber-framed cabins, picnic shelters, a campfire circle with coquina fire ring and benches and five coquina rubblework water fountains.