Local Knowledge: Timber Treasures
Aqua loggers find ancient prizes in Horry County’s muddy waters
While in the midst of heavy residential and tourist populations that swell into the millions each summer, it’s hard to believe that any of Horry County is still undeveloped wilderness. Closer to the coast, not so much, but the creeks and rivers that wind through the longleaf pine forests in the westernmost and southern portions of the county, and slowly meander toward the ocean, are relatively quiet and tranquil places. It wasn’t always that way, however, and two local men are finding treasures on the river bottom left behind from a bygone era when timber ruled.
Most of the navigable waterways of the back country regions of the county have returned to their antebellum meanderings since the timber, naval stores and turpentine industries of the 1800s disappeared. Now just a handful of fisherman can be found quietly cruising along angling for bass and catfish. They, along with the native alligators, look on with curiosity as aqua loggers Tom Collins and Dustin Smith of Reharvested Riverwood reclaim ancient cypress and heart pine from the muddy bottom. It’s not an easy job.
Many of the trees re-harvested by Myrtle Beach locals Smith and Collins were cut between 90 and 125 years earlier at the Eddy Lake Cypress Company, which was one of many area river mills. These 16-foot logs didn’t always make it to the mill. Sometimes the cut timber, ancient growth cypress and heart pine, would slip off the rafts or sink to the bottom of the 8-foot-deep creeks. Today the mills and the old growth timber are long gone, but some of their lost logs have rested on the river bottom, unmoved for nearly a century. With some of the trees 300 years old (or older) when they were first cut, it currently makes the oldest up to 400 or even 500 years old.
Already harvested by steam saw and brute force, the logs come neatly cut in 16-foot lengths, though some “storm trees” (those knocked into the river by age or weather), can reach lengths of 100 feet. They sit protected by the oxygen-depleted muddy river bottom and are highly prized by furniture makers, builders, and for use as architectural wood beams and interior paneling. While the international building slump has made the market soft, the logs that make up the biggest and best of this timber may be worth between several hundred and several thousand dollars each—some could be worth much more. But why? In a single word: rarity.
Ancient growth timber was once just another natural resource, but now very few old growth forests remain. The timber was stripped from the Colonial U.S. and used for building ships and structures, and was especially prized for its free-running turpentine, rosin and a dozen additional products used in shipbuilding called “naval stores.” This massive commerce helped build the region and put Conway and the Waccamaw River on the map. Eventually spurs from the late 19th century railroads that supported the industry led to the first tourist traffic to New Town, now called Myrtle Beach. Over the next 90 years or so, while the Grand Strand’s seashore grew exponentially, its back country was returning to the wild, waiting for the aqua loggers to take their turn.
Aqua Logging in Horry County
A new breed of aqua logger, made popular by History Channel’s “Ax Men” and Discovery Channel’s “Swamp Loggers,” are after only the most rare and largest lost timber of this once booming industry. Aqua logging is found throughout the U.S. but may be most popular in the Southeast and Deep South. In our area, diver, handyman and entrepreneur Dustin Smith first rigged his stripped down pontoon boat with a battery powered electric winch capable of hoisting these mammoth logs to the surface. A small jon boat moves the gangly craft through the sometimes shallow water with logs suspended just breaking the surface. His first find, a 15,000-pound, 7-foot-diameter cypress is on permanent display at Brookgreen Gardens. Subsequent finds, with help of partner Tom Collins, are waiting for the market to recover and for buyers to realize that the valued timber is ready for the mill. A few other choice logs with specialized cuts made by the lumbermen of the era are already in area museums.
Finding the logs was relatively easy—getting permission to re-harvest them was the real trick. It required a rather pricey permit from the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology, expensive sonar mapping of the river bottom, and periodic compliance checks. The re-harvesting is done without further molestation of the forest or river, and the occasional log poacher is dealt with severely. Only a handful of aqua loggers are doing this kind of work along the Grand Strand.
Overall, timber is still the state’s leading cash crop, and Smith and Collins are liscensed to aqua log a one-mile stretch of Big Bull Creek on the Pee Dee River near the site of this long abandoned Eddy Lake timber cutting enterprise. It’s hard to imagine a time when the rivers of Horry County were the highways of world trade.
When Timber Ruled Horry
Around 1850, Buck Mills, at nearby Bucksport, produced 3 million board feet of lumber annually. Great sailing ships from around the world regularly came to Horry County via the natural inlet of Winyah Bay in Georgetown sailing up the river to pick up goods. The traders came for timber and its byproducts, turpentine and rosin—these useful products were the petroleum of the day and created great wealth for many individuals and corporations, including Burroughs & Collins (later Burroughs & Chapin), which got its start in timber products. Those doing the manual labor in the first part of the 19th century were slaves, and then after the Civil War were among the poorest laborers in the U.S., earning 80 cents per day, and often paid with company store trade vouchers. But times changed, the trees disappeared, and the timber naval store business dried up. Now the only logging on Horry’s rivers and creeks is done by a very few with specialized skills, and a fair amount of courage.
The rivers of the region are tidal and the harvesting must be timed for optimal retrieval, though the deepest parts of the river require scuba gear and nerves of steel. “You can’t see anything,” said Smith. “I just feel along the bottom until I bump into something, then figure out of it’s a log.”
After Smith and Collins retrieve the logs, they’re eventually moved via trailer