The History of Lake Waccamaw
Bobby Powell Parker & Susan Prescott Little
A pleasant phenomenon is connected with Lake Waccamaw. On hot summer afternoons visitors on the northern bluff peer toward the southwest. Along about four o’clock – if it is on time – a line of dark blue extending all the way across the lake may be seen advancing. The blue wave rolls across the lake, finally breaking upon the northern shore as a slapping first wave. But before the water itself has been pushed across the lake, the wind has reached land and enveloped the town of Waccamaw in a cool constant breeze. It ordinarily continues throughout the afternoon and the night, dying down in the early morning hours of the next day. It is said that this breeze from the south will not fail more than four or five days in the course of a season.
Not all geologists believe Lake Waccamaw belongs to the Bladen Lake group, which may have been formed by meteorites. Dredges have brought up old charred tree stumps, and they support a theory that the lake is the basin left by a prehistoric peat fire. It is the largest natural Lake between Maine and Florida. Lake Waccamaw has a dam that serves to keep the Lake from shrinking in dry weather. The Waccamaw dam was built in 1926 by the state.
Lake Waccamaw has four feeders, called First Little, Second Little and Third Little Creeks and then Big Creek. Underground springs swell the creeks.
Before the white man’s arrival at Lake Waccamaw, it was inhabited by Indians. A place still called Indian Mounds is on the east shore and, on the site of one mound, it is said nothing will grow. From the “News Reporter”, the following article appeared in March, 1909. A writer for the paper had an interview with Kinchen Council, Columbus County Historian of the day. Mr. Council said that the great Indian Chieftain, Osceola, Who so valiantly led the Seminoles of Florida in their war against the whites was born on Lake Waccamaw. He was born either in Columbus County, or his mother gave birth to him shortly after the U.S. had moved the Indians from this section to Georgia. Mr. Council’s impression was that Osceola was a child at the time of removal. As history states, Osceola was a half – breed, his father being one of the leading men of that day in our county. So Osceola inherited the brain and valor of the white race, blended with the craft and strategy characteristic of the Indian. He was undeniably the greatest organizer and warrior that the prolonged struggle between the whites and aborigines produced. History concedes that, and the government has a heroic statue of Osceola on exhibition in the City of Washington.
Charles the Second originally granted this land to one of the Lord Proprietors who made individual grants to those willing to settle in this part of the new world. These large grants were divided among heirs and new settlers. By the mid – 1700’s, few of the early settlers or their descendants were left around the lake area. They were replaced by people such as John Powell, who brought cattle from Virginia to settle his grant of land.
John Powell’s son, Absalom, enlisted in March, 1776 in the Army and was engaged in the battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge, where the Tories were defeated. Captain Absalom Powell was at the fall of Charleston to the British. After the Revolution, Absalom started buying large areas of land. He was Register of Deeds of Columbus County in 1810. He served in N.C. House of Commons in 1814. A N.C. Historical Marker was placed near his grave on August 22, 1933 at Lake Waccamaw. John Powell’s son, Issac, of Lake Waccamaw was appointed first major for Bladen County militia in 1804 and a Justice of the Peace in 1806. He was appointed Lt. colonel of the Columbus County Militia in 1809. He was the largest landowner of his day in Columbus County, owning over 10,000 acres – most of his land in the area of Lake Waccamaw. There are many descendents of John Powell living at Lake Waccamaw and in Columbus County.
John Turner was another newcomer to the area in the mid 1700’s. He received a grant to the lands west of Lake Waccamaw on December 7, 1767. Twenty years later, a relative, Thomas Turner, was the recipient of a land grant to property on the north side of the Lake. Few transactions and grants were recorded for over 50 years until 1846.
In that year, Josiah Maultsby received a grant for the land east of Thomas Turner’s property. Six years later, Maultsby had mapped his grant showing streets, thirty lots, a commons and a public square. He called his newly planned village Flemington, and on the 13th of November 1852, he deeded some of his lots to various parties. Flemington grew slowly. The coming of the Wilmington -Manchester railroad had some effect on the settlement, especially in the summer when It was learned that a wonderful body of water existed here. However, with the sudden boom in naval stores and turpentine, the village began to grow. By 1869 Flemington had a post office and a hotel.
On January 26, 1869, Charles Oscar Beers recorded in his diary the beginning of his shingle industry along the southern shore of Lake Waccamaw. Another Shingle operation was begun south of the lake by Henry Bascom Short just after Beers started his company. These two eventually merged their operations in 1879 with a work crew of over 400. This new company formed by Short and Beers would eventually grow from the production of shingles to become the North Carolina Lumber Company.
In 1890 Flemington had grown to a population of 50 and became known as Lake Waccamaw. It incorporated in 1911. Short and Beers had acquired title to the Maultsby property north of the Lake. The land that on Maultsby’s map, had been assigned to a public square and commons was part of this tract. Since there was no incorporated Flemington and Flemington was only the name of a location, no formal action was taken by anyone to accept Mr. Maultsby’s offer to dedicate for public use the square and commons. By 1894 all legal rights to the square, streets, and commons proposed by Maultsby went to Short and Beers.
By now roads had been cut through the woods on the north side of the Lake. Some provided access south from the east – west rail line to the lake. Some roughly paralleled the lake shore, leaving a thick mesh of cypress and pine through which one glimpsed the lake. There are records of five general stores at Lake Waccamaw in 1890 an active lumbering business, schools, and two churches, one of which used the lake for baptisms.
The train played an important role for the town in the daily life of the town. In fact, arrival of the eastbound “noon” train and westbound “afternoon” train each day were the big events of the day and always attracted a crowd of onlookers.
The Flemington Hotel was listed in the 1890 directory as a boarding house and was operated from then on by Mrs. M.C. Carroll, called Miss Lizzie. Twice a day trains halted long enough for passengers to refresh themselves at Miss Lizzie’s and for the train to take on water at the depot. The hotel-boarding house stood close by the tracks, right in the path of what is now U.S. Highway 74 – 76, Porches along both floors of the building looked out toward the lake. The story is told that all was hustle in Miss Lizzie’s kitchen when the early morning and late afternoon train whistles blew. Help scurried about preparing meals for an unknown number of hungry train passengers. Miss Lizzie is said to have kept a parrot in a cage in the dining room. Polly became familiar to passengers who rode the route often. With the hurrying about and the sound of the whistle Polly would loudly squawk. “Good Lord Miss Lizzie, the train’s a-coming”.
Dr. J.R. Thomson came to Lake Waccamaw shortly after the turn of the 2Oth century. He was driving a horse and buggy and went to the patient instead of the patient going to the doctor, as it is now. At that time there was no road into Crusoe Island. When anyone needed a doctor, a man would paddle a dug-out boat ten miles up the Waccamaw River, across the Lake, pick up the doctor, and paddle him to Crusoe. With the return trip, It meant the paddler traveled about 50 miles by boat.
Sometime after 1890, Sam Potts moved to Lake Waccamaw with his wife, two sons, and daughter. A colorful man of many talents, Sam was probably one of the most diverse people to ever live at the Lake. He himself listed his professions as veterinarian, taxidermist, salesman of fine jewelry, fishing guide, railroad agent, telegraph operator (reportedly, he was Robert E. Lee’s Telegrapher in the Civil War), teacher of telegraphy, photographer, and film processor. But of all of these, Sam Potts was most at peace with the world when he was skippering the lake steamer “The Bohemian Girl”. “The Bohemian Girl” was the third such boat designed and built by Captain Potts. It was over 35′ long and had a flat bottom for cruising the shallow lake. It was powered by a single cylinder steam driven engine. People from all parts of North and South Carolina and Georgia came to the Lake on Atlantic Coast Line excursion trains to enjoy bathing and riding on the Bohemian Girl.
About this time two large, open-sided pavilions were built at the foot of Broadway, the main road from the railroad station south to the lake. These twin structures, occasionally whitewashed, were built by the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and were used for picnics, dancing, and as resting places and gathering places for the Fourth of July. ACL used to run excursion trains from various areas of North Carolina and South Carolina to Lake Waccamaw during warm weather.
There are two villages on the north shore, eastward where Lake Waccamaw merges with Wananish. The late John Pickett Council purchased the site from the Bridgers family of Bladenboro, who had it from the Powells and Maultsbys, original settlers. Council moved his factory for the manufacture of turpentine tools to Wananish from Council, in order to be near his favorite fishing spot, and named it “Quananiche,” an Indian word said to mean “landlocked salmon”. The Post Office Department greatly improved its spelling.
It was in 1900 that the village of Wananish came into being, because of one man’s love for the lake and fishing. Upon the death of J.P. Council in 1929, K. Clyde Council, his son, became president, and he was succeeded by John Monroe Council, both of whom had been active in the business. In 1930 a new office building and manufacturing plant was built. In the early thirties the company began to diversify into such items as bush axes, ditch bank blades, single bit axes, and a line of specialized fire fighting tools. In 1940 most of the manufacturing facilities were destroyed by fire. Since then a new plant has been built and employment in the new facilities is approximately 100. The Council Tool Company stands today and is operated by great grandsons of the founder, John M. Council, Jr., president, and Edward Land Council, vice president.
Some old names appearing as residents in the early 1900’s were Council, Gault, Bardin, Thomson, Maultsby, Schulken, Springs, McGurgan. Stanley, Chauncey, Edwards, Gillespie, Powell, Brinkley, Beatts, Wayne, Burney, Smith, and Sutton.
In 1911 K. Clyde Council represented the town in opening what is now Lake Shore Drive. He, along with H.J. Bardin and W.H. Chauncey, laid out the road along the lake front since land owners would not agree for the road to be run behind their residence and across their land.
Wilmington YMCA built a boys camp at the Lake in 1910. ‘They used the public pavilions as a mess hall and assembly place. The camp baseball diamond lay where the canal now runs and on a portion of higher ground north of the canal.
The biggest event of the year at the lake was the Fourth of July celebration. White people came on the 4th, and Black people came on the 6th. They arrived sometimes more than 1,000 strong by every conceivable conveyance, from special trains to wagons and buggies and by foot. Local churches and other organizations and groups set up stands and tents along the back edge of the public beach and sold homemade food of every description, candy, and lemonade. There was usually a traveling carnival present for the occasion with a merry-go round and various innocuous sideshows, such as a snake pit or trained dogs. In earlier days, many of the visitors retired to the swampy woods behind the beach to change into swimming clothes and to dress again. One of the biggest problems of the July celebration was space to park horses, mules, vehicles, and later cars. Many local residents opened their yards for this purpose some charging a small fee and others not. Later the Weavers opened a bathhouse with several hundred dressing stalls and rented bath suits and accommodated thousands of bathers. A broad boardwalk was built along the waterfront as well as a 200 yard pier extending directly out from Weavers with a covered pavilion and diving boards at its end. Later this was lengthened another 400 feet, and out beyond that were slides and a diving stand. Typical of the accounts of the 4th are this one in the News Reporter: BIG DAY AT LAKE MONDAY THE 4TH. There were bathing beautiesm, dashes of various distances, climbing the greased pole, the fat man’s race, Charleston contest, and numerous other amusements for the crowd who flocked to Lake Waccamaw on Monday for the annual 4th of July celebration. Traffic was easily handled because of the fact that competent policemen were placed at various points to regulate the traffic on all the one way drives. No arrests were made during the day. Hundreds of people cooled themselves in the waters of the Lake where it is safe for the smallest of children to go bathing. Those on the shore were able to see everybody they knew in the whole territory for they were all there.
Around 1910 a local group joined to form the Waccamaw Club. The club served as a gathering place for hunting parties and house parties. Later the Club was abandoned, and the building became the Waggaman Hotel. About 1910 a two story pavilion was built a hundred feet or so out in the lake in front of the Waggaman Hotel, housing a bathhouse and a dance floor where orchestras played during warm summer evenings and large public dances were held. On occasion articles appeared in The News Reporter discussing the morality of this resort town. ” ‘Is Lake Waccamaw That?’ ‘During the present summer there has been some complaint on the part of people over various parts of Columbus County that Lake Waccamaw is not just exactly as moral as it should be. Various accusations have been thrown at those who attend the fast growing resort. It is a fact which cannot be denied that during the course of human events some liquor has been consumed by men who gather there. Possibly some women have attended house parties and dances downthere who weren’t altogether so conventional as they should have been. We forget to stop and think, however, that folks who are on vacation supposedly carefree, making every effort to enjoy their outing, are not so particular to guard every action to keep others from thinking they are not what they seem. All parties are chaperoned at Lake Waccamaw, and aptly so we are informed; and just because we hear that convention is slightly forgotten, we should not be so eager and willing to draw out hasty conclusions. Anyway those who are so critical are the ones who never attend any events at the Lake and really know nothing of what takes place.
There were then as today efforts to get a state park at Lake Waccamaw since it was a state-owned lake. The June twenty-fifth, 1925 issue of The News Reporter featured an article, “First steps are Taken to Make Lake State Park”. Besides documenting efforts underway to secure land for a park and relating the many reasons the state should own at least some land on a 9,000 acre lake it administers, the article tells of a huge heronary at the lake where there are a great number of nests of the white heron, then an endangered species.
In 1898 Frances Beers Gault came south from Minnesota to join his Uncle Charles Beers and Mr. Short in the lumber and shingle business. In 1910, at the death of his uncle, Francis Gault became the principal stockholder in the organization and reorganized it as the N.C. Lumber Company. By 1920 the new company was valued at a half million dollars.
In 1924 and 25, Mr. Gault designed and had Flemington Hall built on the hill overlooking the lake. He had the choicest lumber laid aside at his mill for a number of years in anticipation of building his own home. In most of the construction he insisted on doubling the supports and size of the timbers normally used. Even the number of cypress shingles used for the siding was doubled. Gault acted as his own contractor and actively supervised construction during the two years it took to complete the house. This home is now the offices for Boys Homes of North Carolina.
The winter of 1917 -1918 was one of the most severe in the recorded history of Lake Waccamaw. Weather records for the area indicate that the temperature dropped below freezing every night but one from December 7 to January 6, and on the majority of the mornings the temperature was recorded at below ten degrees. This extremely long period of cold days and nights was accompanied by one of the largest snow storms ever to hit Lake Waccamaw.
These extreme conditions caused the nine thousand acre lake to freeze completely over for the first time in living memory. The lake remained frozen for over a week, with the ice measuring between four and five inches thick. While the lake was frozen, Mr. Kinchen Council won the distinction of being the only person ever to walk across Lake Waccamaw.