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The Waccamaw

                                    Randall A. Wells

Introduction to the poem: 
As countless vehicles hurtle impatiently over a river toward the Grand Strand, a major resort, their passengers little imagine that the Waccamaw and its swamps once promoted isolation rather than tourism—especially in a county attached to the rest of South Carolina by only a stub of land. The beach itself was once a worthless sixty-mile stretch at the end of the world, good only for launching fishing boats with seines or for making a low-tide road for travelers (including President Washington, who left sandy imprints of chariot wheels and horseshoes). Ironically this little-noticed river, now strictly a recreational treasure, once served as the area’s main road.

It begins in Lake Waccamaw near the bottom of North Carolina and twists along the Lowcountry, its slope averaging only half a foot per mile as it crosses the state line and proceeds through Horry (Oh-ree) and Georgetown Counties. A blackwater river, free of levees, it drains eight watersheds as it mirrors the overhanging trees—cypress, river birch, red maple, oak, sycamore, gum of several flavors—perhaps even a red-tailed hawk perching on a branch. Then it reaches Conway, earlier Conwayborough, originally the undemocratic Kings Town or Kingston in the reign of George II. This village was laid out on one of the rare parcels of high land, for as the first surveyors reported in 1732, “there are Swamps on both Sides of the River.” Two hundred years later a gigantic lumber mill operated at the site of the present marina.

Along this stretch of the river the tide kicks in so that vessels can ride it down or wait it out. Then a few miles below Conway the current rolls above a former transshipment spot, where merchandise was transferred from a schooner to a lighter. Then it glides past two or three once-bustling lumber towns that exist only as names, or as hardball-sized ballast rocks tossed overboard to make room for cargo, or as a lone chimney marking what might be called the Ozymandias Lumber Mill. (Although the founder emigrated from Maine, he held the largest number of slaves in the county in 1860.) Near the border between Horry and Georgetown Counties, the river passes the extinct Tip Top Plantation to join with the Yadkin-Pee Dee, another river originating in North Carolina. It grows broad in its final stretch to adorn a series of former rice-plantations where its tidal elevation was captured and held by sluice gates (not unlike the Africans who grew the plant). Having passed eight ferry-sites below the North Carolina line, it reaches Georgetown and a harbor deep enough for ocean-going steamships.

The river was plied by all manner of vessels such as dugout canoes, yawls, three-masters, and steamboats (until about 1920). Upstream came supplies from the outer world via paddle, oar, pole, engine, moon, wind, and winch—tree by tree. Downstream to the outer world went raw materials, sometimes on rafts (often as the wealth of resin-tapped pine trees), sometimes even as rafts of pine logs.

In 1974 the author and his wife moved to the area and rented a house along the Waccamaw, by then a playground for motorboats. One day the entire panorama was displaced by a ship moving upstream: a long empty barge carried vertical pipes (tall, rusty, and staggered and spooky), and behind it appeared a diesel-pumping tugboat that loomed over the backyard. As its nameplate grew smaller, he made out at the words Samson II. This was the last commercial log-hauling vessel on the Waccamaw, probably the last working boat, which not long afterward joined the Samson I around the foggy bend of history.

In 1990 the author published Along the Waccamaw: A Yankee Discovers a Home by the River (Algonquin). This book inspired what became a long-running oral history project, which in turn became one source of the memories quoted below. The other main source is the Independent Republic Quarterly, published by the Horry County Historical Society (1967-present). With these italicized memories the author has often taken artistic license but leaves untouched the social assumptions of the time and the authentic turns of speech.

The Waccamaw

              Like poetry this river
arises in mystery
(springing from the same-named lake,
itself perhaps an outsized, sailboat version
of the perplexing elliptical Carolina Bay),
              and like poetry it hints at magic—
swelling from a trickle
by tributaries and swampwater,
making the two-state border between North and South indeterminable,
struggling to cross its own path as it twists
in every direction toward the southwest
(as the compass-busting sunset turns the east to orange),
through mistletoe-adorned forests once pristine and twice-logged,
a dark organic tea, an infusion not a slurry,
rare river to spend its endless life on a coastal plain.
Over a hundred miles (as the drunken crow flies) from springwater to salt,
its flow sometimes reversed on its wind-scoured surface,
in a rain-stingy year narrowing enough upstream for cartwheels to cross muddily,
after Hurricane Noah turning an island into a field of treetops,
now sparkling of sky, now of onyx, now the mist-heavy iron gray urges suicide,
punctuated by cypress knobs, negotiated by finless wriggling muscles,
concealing its only rocks—a petrified shark’s-tooth, an arrowhead,
a pile of Atlantic-flattening ballast (good exchange for lumber)—
and obscuring both sight and scent of a yellow gummy clump
that once sank between turpentine cart and raft to outlive its barrel-tomb,
the river itself gliding above the very earth that holds it tight—
although subject to the moon as well, below Conway,
and flowing backwards daily as it now veers south,
to divide the broad swamp inseparable from it,
that feeds and is fed by it and (as revealed through the aerial window)
tends parentheses of its former self,
merging with the Pee Dee, another Indian-named river
that carries brown particles of Blue Ridge,
it widens in its lower reaches as if from slave-sweat
past the absence of trees cut by black hands for white gold,
the same water soaking the impounded crop
that had floated labor and expertise from rickety ship to plantation-prison—
to reach harbor, bay, and oceanic oblivion,
              this inky medium also like works of verse—blank, free, or rhymed—
a wet world, copia circumscribed,
loosely bound here and there by the peopled bluff or bank,
everywhere by the lie of the land, the tug of gravity, the whim of rain,
its turtles log-sunning well before timbermen shuttled a bucksaw,
its dugout canoe rotting long before the rowboat, schooner, flat, raft,
Union gunboat (a few swam to it and became ex-slaves),
or sidewheeler that could turn on a bream,
its speedboat towing a skier cooled by tan droplets that draw envy,
its pontoon-barge poking, its fisherman’s johnboat extending a patient invitation,
its watercycle roaring and weaving with aggressive pleasure—
it carried the first explorer-surveyors to near-extinction amid profusion
(just before the Third George shook his tyrannical baby-rattle)
and carried barrels of pine-pitch to the ship
as ladled-out resin or as its secret and heated-out fractions
(high-proof spirits of turpentine, amber chunks of rosin),
barrels of sticky black smoldered out of deadwood iwand smeared on a deck—
former rain that floated logs to mills, coins or tokens to pockets, food to mouths,
nourished the pole-protein, fed both Taxodium and Plasmodium
(the massive cypress then sliced volume-to-surface into enduring shingles,
the parasite turned into recurring chills),
and for early travelers made a welcome path, or a fence, or a lowcountry Styx— 
a world remembered for the eye or ear:

Encamped there, we found a great deal of good oak and hickory,
the pine land very valuable, as is the cypress swamp,
counted the best for rice; and while a few surveyed the land,
others took the boat upriver leaving us one bottle of punch
and a biscuit apiece, and never came back
for two days, till we had built a raft to cross 

          In the creek was a raft of pine timber laden with some
          two hundred barrels of rosin, a rude conveyance
          by which the turpentine-maker sent his produce to Conwayboro’

The Negroes rowed us merrily
through the heat, against the tide,
occasionally singing

          Three flat gone ’round wid all the vittles,
          git Tip Top plantation, to rice-field trunk

Seeking the road at night, we coaxed our horse
into the overflow—and into the current,
which tangled us in the reins and bore
the neighing and groaning Maude toward the sea 

          Usually when I got to the landing, the ferry was on the other side,
          and the land approaching was sloping, muddy and slick

I had a cable across the river with a flat, and I’d pull it,
and the boat had a paddle, anybody holler they wanted across,
they would put them ’cross

          From field to boxcar I rowed crates of strawberries

The blast of the whistle down the river
brought many spectators to the wharf

          White passengers traveled on its upper deck,
          its promenade constricted by sidewheels

Barrels Flour, Lime, Cement, Plasters, Fertilizers, Apples, Onions, Potatoes, Fruit

          At certain landings cordwood was stacked for firing the boilers,
          and the Negroes would form sort of a bucket brigade, women, too,
          and they would sing and cut steps

To a boy, the wood-burning furnace in the boiler room
seemed to be the Inferno itself

          Oooh! Friday was the excursion: danced to Georgetown
          while Mama ran a table—used to come crackers
          in little boxes and she’d fry that box full of fish

My first and favorite volume of Shakespeare
was edited by a Chautauqua lecturer
who paid me attention on the F.G. Burroughs,
a special excursion in two senses

          Cupid was aboard with maneuvers,
          strategies, charges and victualed sieges

The dark, mercurial stream seemed held in its banks
by living walls of green, light shades of the cypress
outlined against the crowding pines of the hill beyond

          As the boat docked, a man doffed his hat and extended it
          to the captain, enquiring, “What do you charge preachers?”
          and learning, “The same as I charge fiddlers!”

The alligator, shot several times, revived to fight
the captain and crew, who subdued the old fellow,
brought him aboard, and measured him at eleven feet

          On their honeymoon the boat got hung up on a sandbar
          for days and nights, and for her husband the mosquitoes’ feast
          turned to fever and death

As I sailed down dear old Waccamaw toward college
on that lovely September day, I did not know that I was leaving
my family, Conway, and Horry County forever

          On the
Comanche my grandfather got along well
          with the cabin boy, Joe Horry, who later worked on the company tugboat
          to pull log rafts into Conway and the saw

On the vessel docked in its black highway, lanterns lit
the bound feet of the women, and I (a child) bought a junk
with paper sails that would follow you around in a bowl

          In North Carolina the fertilizer boat trailed seven-foot-Ben
          from landing to landing: as he dog-paddled with a rope around him,
          the water might fall below his tits, so he turned and waved
          in arm-language, “Back up and try a deeper place” 
          near the boiler they’d rub his dark skin down and he never did catch a cold 

The families of Eddy Lake would be invited downriver
to the logging camps, where callused hands filled great sheets
of metal with oysters that roasted over coals

          We was fifteen miles up the river when one tooth o’ the saw
          cut through to the pult of one of the [Negroes'] arms;
          blood stream off just like you stuck a hog,
          so while I repeated the same Bible verse,
          another man pasted shaved-up bark over it,
          and it stopped

You bored you another hole through the log,
and drove your peg in that, and you’d shove it further out,
till you had you a whole big raft for me out of that tree

          The rafts were chained together, one man and a pole
          on each for crooked places; if you had dry wood
          you could build a fire on a few pieces of tin, maybe sleep in tents
          made out of sheets rendered semi-waterproof with flour-powder

He awoke in an igloo, his bank-side shelter,
and found his raft under two feet of snow,
a beautiful contrast to the black water

          Joy unbounded to find a raft poled down at ebb tide
          by a farmer and fastened a trunk, then we children
          would walk on the logs and sway with the rhythm of the river

Trying to swim under three rafts of logs, she hit her head
and in fear switched directions, ran into the bank, and finally swam out—
as did a huge water moccasin the next day

          I worked on the locomotive as flagman and engineer,
          hauling logs to the river where they were pulled off the flat cars
          and dumped in by a big tackle in a high tree (wood traitor to wood),
          then tied as a raft and pulled to Georgetown harbor by a tug

On a Sunday afternoon my cousin and I would swipe a handcar
and pump it to the river, climb a log-loader and dive off the boom

into the home of largemouth bass, shortnose sturgeon, sun-and mud-fish, crappie,
and pickerel (redfin and chain), the demise of worms earth-, grub- and sap-

We didn’t know what a cricket was back then—a cockroach, I'd catch it
in a Pepsi bottle on the glue room of the veneer mill, it'd run on a light-hook leash

until one of those big old morgans would swallow him

          This black man would sit right in the front of the boat, semi-sculling,
          and shake that jigger while I would sit in the back and watch him

I went down to the fish trap thinkin’ maybe I’d have one or two,
and I opened it up and the fish was jammed in there wigglin’
just like that

          Gripping the gunnels with arms as massive
          as they were useless in water, eyes wide, tongue paralyzed
          by fear and alcohol, legs unable to touch, he could grab us
          fee-fi-fo-fum and tramp on us like sunken logs
          to the nearby bank, so we tried life-saving of a wary kind
          and swim-kicked the boat ashore

After she was baptized, they said she put the polio-stick down
and began walkin’. 

Also by the author: Swamp, Strand, & Steamboat: Voices of Horry County, South Carolina, 1732-1954 (Horry County Historical Society, 2004) and Old Times in Horry County: A Narrative History (The History Press, 2007). 

Other books: Charles Joyner, Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (Urbana: U. Illinois Pr., 1984) and Franklin Burroughs, Horry and the Waccamaw (New York: Norton, 1992), reissued as The River Home: A Return to the Carolina Low Country (Boston: Houghton, 1992).


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