Swallowing History

Lake Waters Bury An Unparalleled Political Record

Growing up I watched old cowboy movies about ghost towns out West and even went to Ghost Town in the Sky up in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. Tumbleweeds rolling through Dodge City kept me glued to the television. Well, I was a clueless lad. Little did I know that if you grew up in Lincoln County you lived in an area with ghost towns nearby and they were real, and what politics and history once lived there.

Map of the Upper Savannah River in 1795 (public domain via wikipedia.org).
Upper Savannah River in 1795 (wikipedia.org)

Three vanquished towns, two barely outside the county and one within, sprang up here long, long ago. And then the fates conspired to do them in. Petersburg was in Wilkes County (later Elbert). Lisbon was in Lincoln County, and Vienna was near Mt. Carmel, South Carolina. Look at an old map and you’ll see these towns weren’t far apart. The New Georgia Encyclopedia says residents of Lisbon, Petersburg, and Vienna could all see each other’s town. No doubt, only water lay between them. The Broad River separated Petersburg from Lisbon. The Savannah River set Vienna apart.

Suppose these three towns had prospered and grown over the many decades into one “rivertropolis” or “River City” let’s christen it. Imagine a Georgia-South Carolina version of Venice, Italy, where waterways connect two states’ shining cities. Think of the tourism sure to come. Suppose, as a result, the lake had never been created or at least designed not to inundate this area at the tip of Clark Hill Reservoir’s watery grasp? (No Georgian in his right mind will ever refer to Clark Hill as Lake Thurmond; nor should any South Carolinian easily swallow “Lake Russell.” At least Lake Hartwell is named for a woman, and a woman who was a Revolutionary War heroine.)

It’s tempting to speculate how Lincoln County and the immediate region might be today had fate left a few things alone. One, suppose destiny had not changed the routes people followed back in the late 1700s. Two, what if providence had not changed the region’s economy back then? (Farmers gave up tobacco for cotton, and cotton unlike tobacco didn’t have to be inspected. Thus did cotton farmers bypass Petersburg, toppling shaky economic dominoes that began the area’s demise.) Third, outbreaks of Western and Yellow Fever caused folks to flee Petersburg for good.

Had the stars not made ghost towns of Petersburg, Lisbon, and Vienna would Lincolnton exist today? Would the lake have been allowed to swallow prosperous places that expanded into one city over 170 years or so?

Clark Hill Reservoir aka Lake Thurmond (creative commons license via wikipedia.org)
Clark Hill Reservoir aka Lake Thurmond (wikipedia.org)

All we know is that Petersburg got all the attention as the three vanquished villages go. Petersburg isn’t quite in Lincoln County but it’s close. Very close. Petersburg sprang up in the forks of the Savannah and Broad Rivers. For ten years, it ranked as Georgia’s third-largest city behind Savannah and Augusta. Petersburg rose to prominence as a tobacco inspection site and had a post office and newspaper. Entertainment in the form of plays, balls, promenades, picnics, and community celebrations made life interesting. Doctors, lawyers, and politicians lived there. Petersburg alone can claim a slice of political history: it clings to the distinguished honor of being the only town in the nation’s history to produce two U.S. senators, William Bibb and Charles Tait, who served at the same time.

Petersburg and the Broad River valley served as a breeding ground for political alignments in Georgia during the early national period, especially between factions claiming Virginian ancestry and others connected with North Carolina families.

A series of bad things happened to this good place of powerful politics. Cotton replaced tobacco as a cash crop, the steamboat’s arrival robbed Petersburg of commerce beyond the fall line, and the Savannah and Broad Rivers prevented railroads from reaching it. New land to the West lured people away and Western Fever caused many remaining residents to abandon the area.

Until all this misery arrived two sister towns had helped Petersburg grow. Tiny Lisbon, founded by Virginian Zachariah Lamar in 1786, sat just across the Broad River in Lincoln County. Vienna was founded around 1795 across the Savannah in South Carolina. Lisbon and Vienna competed with Petersburg for trade, but neither town achieved Petersburg’s success.

The trio of towns shared connections: a ferry service regularly connected all three and it’s only natural that commerce flowed among them. As long as tobacco remained an important staple crop in the Broad River valley, Petersburg flourished and one would imagine the prosperity spilled into Lisbon and Vienna. After being inspected in Lisbon or Petersburg, tobacco boats (They were called Petersburg boats) made their way to Augusta and back, a trip that took about a week.

Lisbon was a spot. Just a spot. Vienna surpassed Lisbon in everything wrote the president of Emory College, the verbose Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, pointing out that, “Lisbon we believe could never boast of more than two stores and a groggery, and as many dwellings. Vienna surpassed Lisbon in everything, but exactly how far, and in what we are not able to say, except in John Glover’s house and store, which had no match in Lisbon.”

Vienna was a lumber town, but research uncovers the fact that it also had an exclusive academy founded by Dr. Moses Waddell. At one time he was South Carolina’s foremost educator, and he would become the fifth president of the University of Georgia. Without doubt the vicinity of Petersburg, Lisbon, and Vienna held enough intellectuals, leaders, and people of distinction to survive most anything and yet they didn’t.

Lisbon, Petersburg, and Vienna suffered similar fates. When new people quit coming residents left. In time a massive wall of concrete and steel would rise and Clarks Hill Lake would give all three a watery grave. The very water that birthed and separated them and connected them would bring the final insult but not without moments of fame.

Vienna made the New York Times way back in 1851. The subject was dueling, that chivalrous-if-deadly custom gentlemen used to settle their differences long ago. (At least you knew who was shooting whom unlike a drive-by shooting. Even when it comes to shooting a fellow man how far we’ve fallen.) Dueling was long legal in South Carolina, but apparently it wasn’t legal in Georgia. That’s the conclusion I draw from the October 1, 1851, article in the New York Times. It’s short and to the point.

The headline reads, “Duel at Vienna, South Carolina.” The article carries a Charleston, Tuesday, September 30 dateline. The story reads: “A duel was fought on Saturday between Mr. Smyth, an associate editor of The Augusta Constitutionalist, and Dr. Thomas, of Augusta, at Vienna, S.C. The cause of the duel was an article signed, “Doctor,” in The Chronicle and Sentinel, offensive to Smyth, of which Thomas avowed himself to be the author. Upon the third fire the ball passed through Smyth’s right thigh, and nearly through the left, but the wound is not considered mortal. He reached Augusta on Sunday night and is doing well. Thomas was not touched.”

Well okay, two Georgia boys crossed the Savannah to duel. No one died and I suppose Smyth regained his honor. I suppose too people talked excitedly of this settling of accounts as they traveled the ferry from Vienna to Lisbon to Petersburg. Dueling would not be part of Vienna’s future because it didn’t have a future. Nor did Petersburg or Lisbon. As Petersburg declined its post office moved to Lisbon in 1844 and closed in 1855. Vienna disappeared.

One summer several years back when the lake was way down, I went there by water. I saw streets, sidewalks, and foundations where homes once stood, where businesses once thrived. But now they were ghosts, relics of another time. I saw much flotsam, evidence of man’s presence. I came away with a near-perfect milk glass disk. Held in the light just so, you can read “Genuine Boyd Cap For Mason Jars.” Some long ago dutiful woman stored tomatoes with it perhaps. Whatever it preserved, it wasn’t Petersburg.

Petersburg I’d like to think could have and should have survived. Not only did it have river transportation but it was also part of the stagecoach route that ran south to Augusta. Another line ran from Milledgeville, Georgia, all the way to Washington, D.C. The future sure looked bright. And then a rapid decline and outright collapse ended everything.

One of my Christmas gifts is the book on Lincoln County by Beatrice Kovacs Mitchum and Dianne Morgan Poteat. The first thing I did when I got home was read it from cover to cover. I came across references to Lisbon and Petersburg. I enjoyed the photos of the old Petersburg Road, noting how the Lisbon Ferry connected it with Petersburg. On page 39 is a photo of more modern-day ferry in action. A nervous driver stands holding onto his car door as he watches the ferry approach the other bank. (Wilson Edwards and his wife ran the ferry though others contend this wasn’t the case.) On page 45 of Mitchum and Poteat’s book you will see a photo of Wilson Edward’s store with an old car out front. Soon, pent-up water will come calling.

I’ll leave it to history to decide whether the lake was and is a good thing for the county but we sure lost a lot of history when that lake covered the land. Big things like towns and natural gems like an old oak tree my Mom remembers up near Lisbon. “It was so big,” she said, “five men could not link hands and reach around it.”

Ferries, ancient towns, and massive oaks: they’re all gone now. Spots across the Savannah where Georgians paced, turned, and fired to settle their differences? They’re gone too. I’m glad writers don’t have to fret over offending some fellow who will challenge them to a duel. I’m grateful that less savage manner of salvaging one’s honor is passé. Perchance a spiteful letter to the editor will suffice or possibly the hurled rock-shattering glass. Still, I’ll choose my topics and words with care. And I like to think that when I write about places that once lived in glory no harm’s done and no thin-skinned pill-popping descendant will take offense.

And still I wonder. What might Lincoln County, Lincolnton, and even the Central Savannah River Area be like today had three settlements prospered? What if these places with memorable European names—Petersburg, Lisbon, and Vienna—had not just survived but forged a regional focal point? Would that achievement been enough to discourage politicians from building a lake they could one day plaster their name on after the waters have buried a once-proud history?

Without doubt the answer is “no.” Flood control and hydroelectric power would be rationale enough in their view to inundate Paris.


Tom Poland

Tom Poland, A Southern Writer – Tom Poland is the author of twelve books and more than 1,000 magazine features. A Southern writer, his work has appeared in magazines throughout the South. Tom grew up in Lincoln County, Georgia, where four wonderful English teachers gave him a love for language. People first came to know Tom’s work in South Carolina Wildlife magazine, where he wrote features and served as managing editor.Tom’s written over 1,000 columns and features and seven traditionally published books. Among his recent books are Classic Carolina Road Trips From Columbia, Georgialina, A Southland, As We Knew It, and his and Robert Clark’s latest volume of Reflections of South Carolina. Swamp Gravy, Georgia’s Official Folk Life Drama, staged his play, Solid Ground in 2011 and 2012.He writes a weekly column for newspapers and journals in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia.Tom earned a BA in Journalism and a Masters in Media at the University of Georgia. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina where he writes about Georgialina—his name for eastern Georgia and South Carolina. Visit my website at www.tompoland.net Email me at [email protected]