Congaree National Park has existed since only 2003, but the beauty and importance of the wilderness there were recognized long before then. When the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto passed through the area in 1540, he wrote about its intriguing wildlife in his journals.
A century and a half later, native Congaree Indian inhabitants were effectively wiped out by the arrival of smallpox with European settlers. The lands were subsequently granted to Europeans, who attempted to establish farms and grazing fields.
Unfortunately, the area was continually flooded and agriculture was consequently unsuccessful. But trees thrived in the excess waters which renewed the soil, and by 1905, the Santee River Cypress Lumber Company had acquired much of the land. Its logging efforts were stymied, however, when many cut trees, surrounded by perpetual dampness, remained too green to float down the river for processing.
Thus the land was ultimately left untouched for many years. Logging operations eventually resumed in 1969, but seven years later, Congress designated the area as the Congaree Swamp National Monument under pressure from local environmentalists and the Sierra Club.
Hurricane Hugo hit the land in 1989, toppling many of the tallest trees. What was first a disaster eventually became a boon as sunlight pierced the previously impenetrable leaf canopy, stimulating new growth on the forest floor below. In 2001, Congaree was recognized as a Globally Important Bird Area. Two years later, it was designated a national park.
Once upon a time, the bottomland forests of Congaree National Park flourished from the Chesapeake Bay to east Texas. Today only 13,000 acres of floodplain exist in South Carolina, where once there were 1,110,000 acres. Congaree National Park encompasses 11,000 acres of the surviving southern bottomland forest.
Park visitors often remark on the absolute silence that permeates Congaree. A wilderness respite just miles from the hustle and bustle of downtown Columbia, Congaree National Park provides an atmosphere of solitude and beauty.
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