Nestled along the banks of the Catawba River in Chester County, South Carolina, lies the small town of Great Falls. The tranquil water landscape lends itself to hawks circling overhead while bass and catfish swim below. This historic community is on the verge of a renaissance thanks to several large outdoor recreation projects.
The Great Falls Rail Trail is set to open along the river in the spring of 2023 and will connect to the existing 1.6-mile Rocky Creek Trail as part of the Carolina Thread Trail network. According to Thread Trail Director Bret Baronak, the 3.5-mile crushed gravel trail that was formerly a CSX railbed will begin in downtown Great Falls and wind gently toward the Nitrolee Access Area to the north. “The trail will offer wonderful views of the Catawba River and protected conservation lands, as well as rock outcroppings and Fishing Creek Dam,” Baronak said.
In the summer of 2021, the Catawba Lands Conservancy helped the town close on a $190,000 land deal for the new trail. The Thread Trail contributed $100,000, while Chester County provided $75,000 and Great Falls the additional $15,000. Trail construction funds will come from a $100,000 grant from the South Carolina Parks, Recreation and Tourism (SCPRT)’s Recreation Trails Program, as well as a grant from Great Falls and the Thread Trail of $25,000.
A park of dreams
The Great Falls Rail Trail will also create biking and pedestrian access to a future state park on Dearborn Island, which should open by
2024. The island has long been home to the Mount Dearborn Armory and Arsenal, a military facility built in 1803 under President Thomas Jefferson’s orders. President George Washington initially selected the location to be one of America’s three arsenal-armories tasked with storing ammunition and making weapons for the South. In the early 1800s, most of its troops transitioned south to defend Charleston, and the position was officially abandoned by 1825. Now this area will transform into a historic interpretation site for hikers and campers to enjoy.
“Elevations are dramatic on the island, so there will be everything from easy walking trails to difficult trails,” said Glinda Coleman, Great Falls Home Town Association Executive Director. “There will be three observation areas, two where you’ll see the whitewater areas. There will also be a yurt village for campers on the south side of Dearborn Island.”
Dearborn Island State Park is being financed by Duke Energy as part of its 2015 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing agreement for the Catawba- Wateree Project. The license requires the power company to enhance the water quality, recreation opportunities, land conservation and wildlife habitats of the areas where it operates.
It also will build a pedestrian bridge to the island from the Lower Great Falls canoe and kayak launch and develop a trail to the bridge. Moreover, it has committed to forming trails through the island’s mature forests and past its enormous rock formations.
The timing for the project is ideal as in 2021 South Carolina state park revenue increased 47 percent over the previous fiscal year and COVID-19 also brought more people to Chester County for outdoor recreation.
“Ever since COVID-19 hit, we immediately saw an influx of people from Columbia and Charlotte walking the Rocky Creek Trail,” Chester County Commissioner Mike Vaughn said. “Folks are looking for outdoor recreation where they’re able to be in the fresh air. Nature-based tourism has boomed across the board. We’re opening up a previously inaccessible area that’s gorgeous.”
Get ready for whitewater
To add to the excitement, Duke Energy is introducing water flows on previously dammed stretches of river to recreate the stunning rapids that gave the town its name. This will offer an opportunity for outdoor enthusiasts to kayak and whitewater raft. S2O Design, the company that envisioned Charlotte’s U.S. National Whitewater Center, and HDR Engineering will create two bypass channels for public access. The long bypass will run roughly 1.5 miles and contain Class II and III rapids. The shorter, three-quarter-mile bypass farther south will boast quicker-moving Class III and IV rapids for advanced paddlers. The re-engineered dams to provide controlled flow on the rapids are under construction and should be flowing by the spring of 2023. A canoe and kayak launch at Nitrolee Access Area will serve as the primary location for reaching Great Falls Reservoir and the bypass channels.
Additionally, Duke Energy will construct the Nitrolee Interpretive Center on the ruins of a nearby nitrogen-processing plant from the early 1900s that was known as the Nitrolee facility.
“These projects together will make Great Falls a nature-based tourism magnet for the Southeast,” Vaughn said. “Because of the level of difficulty of the whitewater runs, the whitewater community will begin coming to the area. We’re opening up sections of the river that have been closed for 100-plus years. These are wild and scenic places that will be a draw for their difficulty and won’t cost people a dime to experience.”
From textiles to tourism
More than a century ago, Great Falls was founded by J.B. Duke, who built hydroelectric power plants along the Catawba River and developed three Republic Cotton Mills. When the textile mills left in the 1980s, the town became economically depressed. Two decades ago, Coleman began dreaming up ways to make her home prosperous and vital once more.
“My organization started a nature-based tourism initiative over 20 years ago,” she said. “Part of that from the very beginning was to turn an old railbed into a trail. The whole idea was to use this type of ecotourism as an economic engine to revitalize Great Falls. The idea for whitewater opportunities came about later as the Duke relicensing agreement was coming into focus. Duke has to provide recreation opportunities to help communities as part of it, so we found a way we could enhance the river.”
In the heyday of textiles, workers could visit the Republic Mills Company Store to buy sugar, coffee, blankets and anything else they might need. Soon, after a $2.6 million renovation project, the space will become the Great Falls Whitewater, Trails and State Park Visitors Center thanks to a 2020 Chester County capital projects bond referendum. The visitors center will pay homage to the textile industry and have a feel of its former glory.
“We’re confident once the whitewater area opens up, people will come,” Smith said. “It’s not a recreation opportunity that’s available anywhere else for about 100 miles or so. Our challenge as a town is to make it an enjoyable place to spend time and money, to make it a destination. We’ve already had developers interested in opening new restaurants in the area.”
Revitalized economic interest in the community is beginning to unfold, added Vaughn.
“We’ve already seen a lot of interest in the real estate on Main Street in Great Falls with people buying properties for use in the future,” he said. “We plan for real estate in Great Falls to boom because of the quality-of-life factor. It will be a place young people want to come raise their families. And because of the conservation of land in this area due to the Katawba Valley Land Trust, the scenic environment is not going to change.”
Coleman said those who visit Great Falls relish its natural beauty and quaint, smalltown feel.
“Our whole goal is to hang onto that, so visitors will love Great Falls as much as the people who live here,” she said. “The rail trail is going to be essential for making everything connect to Great Falls.”
Photo by Grant Baldwin