The ruins sit overgrown on an island in the dammed-up Catawba River, long forgotten by all but the most ardent historian.
It seems almost unbelievable now, but the area known as “Big Island” or “Mount Dearborn,” (depending on which local you ask) was once a United States arsenal 200 years ago and was even briefly considered as a potential military academy on par with West Point in New York.
If South Carolina tourism officials have their way, the public will soon know a lot more about this short, but notable chapter in state history. It also helps that the remote corner of southeast Chester County is gorgeous even if you do not know its past.
The state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT) is finalizing a master plan for a future 900-acre park at Mt. Dearborn island, located just outside the small town of Great Falls. A half-dozen agencies are partnering to bring the vision together, helped by $1.1 million from Duke Energy.
“This will be a different kind of state park, because of the topography and the difficulty of getting on the island,” State Parks director Phil Gaines said. “So we see that as an opportunity to provide this really neat park that we don’t have in South Carolina.”
Mt. Dearborn is named for former Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, who proposed building the United States’ southern military arsenal at the site in 1802. However, disputes with a company which owned navigation rights along the Catawba and questions about the site’s feasibility compared to coastal forts in Charleston prevented Mt. Dearborn from ever fully operating as planned. A military installation was eventually built, but most of the troops stationed there were moved to Charleston during the War of 1812, according to a 1980 article in South Carolina Historical Magazine.
The article also states Congress considered building a military college on the site in 1816. However, the measure failed in committee and lawmakers instead decided to provide more funding to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Fast forward 100 years. A power company which eventually became Duke Energy built a series of canals and dams along the Catawba, turning Mt. Dearborn into an island inside what’s now known as the Cedar Creek Reservoir (or “Stumpy Pond” to locals). Fast forward to the present and now local leaders are hoping the park can create a small tourism-based economy in the struggling region.
Mt. Dearborn is not currently accessible to the public. Even the remote reservoir can only be explored by small boats, canoes or kayakers who put it on the opposite side of the Catawba River from Great Falls.
Great Falls Hometown Association executive director Glinda Coleman said the old mill town hopes to get a boost from the future park. “This is an opportunity to use what we have,” she told South Carolina Radio Network. “Great Falls is located right on the Catawba River. There are destination places all over the country that take advantage of being right on the water. This is something that we’re trying to do.”
Gaines said the State Park Service is deciding where to put facilities on the island and plans to develop hiking and biking trails, campsites and small boat sites. “We’re looking at it being a high adventure park because it’s going to incorporate some of the paddling opportunities along the Catawba River,” he said. “It is a beautiful, gorgeous place.”
Duke Energy will lease the island to PRT and has also applied for the site to be listed on the National Historic Register. The state Department of Archives and History signed off on the designation this summer, but the U.S. Department of the Interior is still considering it.
However, access to the island remains the biggest issue to be resolved. Gaines said his agency is working with Duke and the town of Great Falls on a future bridge connecting the town with the island. However, the bridge will need to avoid the Dearborn Hydroelectric Station dam which has sat between the town and the would-be park since 1923.
But town leaders are excited about the future. “Being a textile town, when the textiles went away there wasn’t much left here,” Coleman said. “Being able to have the historic aspects of Mt. Dearborn and the beautiful natural area around the river, that is something we feel we can use to build the economy and improve the quality of life for the residents of Great Falls.”