The Lake Murray reservoir in South Carolina is popular for boating, fishing and general waterside merriment. But there's an untold story that lies beneath the lake's surface: there were once towns where the reservoir now stands. In fact, remnants of towns abandoned during the reservoir's construction still stand in the depths of Lake Murray, including a bridge, a graveyard and a stone house.
A whale of a dam
Stretching for about 50,000 acres with 500 miles of shoreline, the Lake Murray dam was constructed between 1927 and 1930 to create a source of electricity for the city of Columbia and the ever-growing number of mills that required power. Upon its completion, it was considered the largest earthen dam in the world. To build it, the power company bought more than 1,000 tracts of land — much of it forest land — from more than 5,000 people. These people, descendants of German, Dutch and Swiss immigrants who settled the area in the mid-1700s, were all relocated to make way for the dam. During their time there, the settlers had created nine small communities.
Crews laid down railroad tracks to move the earth around and likely razed buildings, but plenty of markers from the lost towns remain in Lake Murray as you can see in the video below (which looks like it might not work working, but it is.) Even the railroad tracks remain.
As a result, Lake Murray offers activities that go deeper than just cruising on the surface of the water during the height of South Carolina's dog days of summer. If you have some scuba training, you can essentially go back in time by diving under the lake.
What was left behind
In their free time John Baker, a scuba shop owner, and Steve Franklin, a commercial pilot, have spent hours exploring the depths of Lake Murray. Speaking to local CBS affiliate WLTX 19, the two shared their recollections of dives.
"There are a lot of towns throughout the lake. Churches, schools, cemeteries," Franklin said.
The cemeteries were left behind as a result of the the relocated townspeople not wanting the power company to dig up and move the remains of their loved ones. More 2,300 graves sit at the bottom of Lake Murray.
"Most of the cemeteries are from the 1800s," Franklin said. "There's three different kinds of cemeteries: old slave cemeteries — because of slavery in that time; smaller family plots, 4 or 5 family members buried there with small headstones and markers; then you have the large multi-family plots."
One remnant of the towns is a stone house constructed in the 1800s that you can see at right. Even though most of the structure is still standing, the murky waters of Lake Murray make it difficult to find, even for experienced divers like Baker and Franklin.
"When we found it, we swam through the front door and hit our heads on the back walls. but that was neat to find that and see how it's still kind of preserved," Baker said. "You've got four walls and the roof still there."
One of the more impressive things in Lake Murray is the Wyse Ferry Bridge. Built in 1911, the bridge's lifespan didn't amount to much on land, but as an underwater attraction, the Wyse Ferry Bridge is a sight to behold; it's something that divers like Baker and Franklin seek out on a regular basis.
"What was really cool recently was a stamp on the side of the structure that says 1911, when the bridge was built. We were dusting off some of the old concrete and found a bunch of the construction workers names that was drawn in there," Baker said. You can watch the dive during which they made the discovery of the 1911 date stamp in the video below.
Not everything found in the reservoir was there when it was built, however.
The military conducted B-25 Mitchell plane training exercises near Lake Murray during World War II. In April 1943, one such plane crashed in Lake Murray, and after about seven minutes in the water, the craft began its descent into the lake. It settled at a depth of 150 feet, too deep for the Air Force to recover it.
Renewed efforts to recover the B-25 began in the 1980s with the Lake Murray B-25 Rescue Project. Sonar information combined with witness accounts from the 1943 crash finally located the plane. It was a long road to raising the necessary funds to salvage the plane, but a worthwhile one. The B-25 was used in both the European and Pacific theaters for WW II, and there were 10,000 of them at one point; however, the B-25 is hard to come by these days, with only some 130 remaining as of 2007.
The front section of the plane is now on display at the Southern Museum of Flight in Birmingham, Alabama.
Artifacts from the plane's cockpit survived the crash and the many decades spent under water. Navigation charts and a local newspaper were still readable. Firearms, including four machine guns, were also recovered. Perhaps most the meaningful recovery was the watch of the plane's co-pilot, Robert Davison. Davison's wife, Ruth, had given him the watch and was still paying it off when the crash happened.
In all, Lake Murray has proven to be a wealth of historical interest to divers, but not all the locations are for weekend divers, as Baker explained to WLTX 19.
"Some of these dive sites are really challenging to get to," he said. "Some of these dives are past recreational diving limits. we had to get specialized training so we could extend time at these depths. So you've got the exploration that keeps driving us to come back and we also have the challenge of the dives. It's cold. It's dark. It's deep."
Inset photos of the stone settlement house and Wyse's Ferry Bridge/Wikimedia Commons