Wateree Passage -- Mystical Encounter By Mike Bailey
Library Rules: All works/images are Copyright (C) 1980-2016 by Michael T. Bailey Sr., Marietta, Georgia. All rights reserved. Reproduction, adaptation, or translation without prior written permission is prohibited, except as allowed under copyright laws. Contact information:
Click here to see a map of the Wateree Passage section of the Palmetto Trail in SC
And so it begins … One of the neatest hiking trails in South Carolina is one called the Palmetto Trail. It travels through many counties starting in up-state SC and works its way south down through the center of the state past Columbia, then east across the Wateree Swamp and then on down south through Poinsett State Park. From the park, you can follow it on down further south in the state and ending up near Charleston.
Along the way, the trail has multiple names as the overall trail is a system of interconnected trails known locally by various names. Hence, it is hard to pinpoint exactly where one might be if all you said was, “Yes, I hiked 5 miles on the Palmetto Trail yesterday.” You could have been near Anderson, Columbia, Poinsett State Park, Summerville, or any of other dozens of nearby towns along the way.
This story is not about the Palmetto Trail system itself but a recounting of an event witnessed along one of its many sub-trails -– specifically the one called the “Wateree Passage.”
This path/passage, if starting at Poinsett State Park and going back towards Columbia, is a 7.2-mile trek with 4 of the last miles actually crossing over the Wateree Swamp itself. This last 4-mile section uses rebuilt wooden and old steel bridges, dikes, and flooded swamp lands in between some of the bridges for the trail. In some places, you are amongst remnants of gigantic posts still standing tall that were once the supports for the many trestles that were needed to get a railroad, built by the South Carolina Railroad Company in 1848, safely through the swamp. The Wateree Passage trail section ends when you cross over the Wateree River itself on a steel bridge high above the river below.
Back on the east side of the swamp at the curve in the old South Carolina Railroad tracks that came down from Camden and curved west to go across the swamp towards Columbia, there are the remains of and old wye track layout that was used to let trains that later came from Sumter to the east and the south from the Charleston area to be able to stop, backup on a different leg of the wye and then go out a different direction from the wye. Click here to see a diagram of a wye track layout.
This place was (and still is) called the “Sumter Junction.” On a historical note, in April 1865 (actually on the very same day that Lee was surrendering to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia to end the war), Union General Edward E. Potter's forces discovered nine locomotives and 200 units of rolling stock belonging to both railroads (SC RR and the Wilmington & Manchester) parked near the junction, which they thoroughly destroyed. The explosions scattered all sorts of artifacts, from cannonballs to buttons, into the woods and swamps. These are still being found to this day.
Meanwhile, back at the junction. When you first encounter this area on the trail, it is to say the least, spooky looking -- even in broad daylight with the sun trying to break through the heavy forest canopy above you. The old trestle pilings that you come across have all turned a deep black color with a green moss type covering the top section and most of them still stand anywhere from 10 feet to 20 feet up in the air. With these all mixed in with the natural forest growth of trees, bushes, etc., they look like sentinels –- sort of like a modern day wooden “Stonehenge” –- that are standing guard to protect something beyond them.
On this particular day’s hike, it was a partially overcast day at times with the sun breaking out every now and then. Bright beams of light -- like a gigantic flashlight beam -- would pierce down through the canopy and light the ground up. It had rained earlier that day and the grass and bushes around the trail as well as the wooden bridges were still wet and at times, in clearings where some of the sun beams could reach, the ground or wood heated up and would generate a light mist -- like a fog generator.
After leaving Sumter Junction (a little over 4 miles from the start of the trail at Poinsett), I approached the old trestle bridge across Beach Creek about a mile away and near halfway across the swamp. As I started walking out on the bridge over the flooding creek down below, I thought I could hear laughter –- children’s laughter -- coming from out on the wooden bridge somewhere.
With the misty fog around me at the time, I could at first only see about halfway across the bridge. At first, I thought I was just hearing things -– no way kids could be out here. A few seconds later, I heard the laughter and giggles again. My mind was saying, “You have got to be hearing things Mike ... ain’t nobody out here except us two tired souls.”
A few seconds later, the mist seemed to lift up and boom -- I saw them -- two little girls about 10 years old standing there on the bridge and throwing what looked like small pebbles over the side and giggling when they hit the water near whatever they were trying to hit.
Believe me, seeing these two girls there on this old abandoned railroad bridge in the absolute middle of nowhere swamp was starting to freak me out. All I could think of was where in the heck was a parent or some other older adult? We were miles from anywhere and nowhere.
Upon seeing me, they both smiled and called out together, “Hey Mister, welcome to our bridge.”
Still not quite sure of what was happening, I smiled back and said hello and then hesitantly asked, “Where’s your mom and dad?”
“They are down there,” said the older looking girl and pointed down below the bridge.
I looked below but saw nothing. Maybe they were fishing and had just moved out of local sight range. Since both girls were happy and laughing and seemed to be OK, I started to feel more at ease with the situation. Being a parent myself, I guess you can understand my initial caution and concerns I had when I first walked up on the girls.
As we stood there on the bridge and talked for a while, I began to feel like that I had hiked enough for one day and was no longer keen on the idea of hiking 2.5 more miles through the swamp to the Wateree River bridge.
As I started to leave, I took out a couple of dimes from my pocket and threw one over the side and watched it strike the water below. I’ve been doing this for years at the end of any trail I hike -– and can’t remember why I started doing it -- but have reached the point now that I feel guilty if I don’t do it.
Anyway, just as I started to throw the second dime, one of the girls asked, “What are those things, mister?”
“It’s just a dime,” I said as I handed it to her to look at.
“Who is this man on your dime … we only have a lady with wings on her head on our dimes?”
What she was referring to was the Winged Mercury dime that went out of production in 1945. My mind was starting to reel with questions about just who were these two young girls?
“Franklin Roosevelt,” I answered, “You know, he was one of our presidents.”
Both girls just looked at me, smiled, and said together, “Oh, we like him -- we sit around the radio every night and listen to him talk to us. Mommy says he is a great President and is going to help all of us and will help end the war so our Daddy can come home.”
My mind was in a tailspin -– I could not believe what I was hearing.
These girls were talking like this was 1944 -– not 2002 -- and listening to President Roosevelt talking on the RADIO! Just as I started to question the girl, there was a loud noise behind me, like a heavy hammer striking the metal bridge, and I quickly turned around to see what it was.
Nothing but the mist still floating over the bridge was there and when I turned back around, the girls were gone –- poof -- without a sound, without a trace that they had ever been there!
I hesitantly called out to them but only stone-cold silence greeted my pleas. It was almost like someone had turned the volume off on the TV -- it was dead silence out there on the bridge for a few moments -- no sounds of running creek water, birds, wind in the trees, nothing!
Very few times in life have I been what I would call, “spooked.”
Well, let me tell you -- I was absolutely spooked -- big time spooked. My mind was filling with fear, bewilderment, caution, and danger alarms and would not let go of the fact that just a few seconds ago I was standing out on an old abandoned railroad bridge and talking with two young girls like it was 1944 and then in the blink of an eye, they were gone.
As I turned to head back out of the swamp, I looked down and saw the dime laying on the bridge that I had just handed to the older girl to look at it.
I picked it up and said as I threw the dime into the water below, “You must be special … go be with your friends and help bring their father home safely.” I stood there with tears in my eyes and watched it hit the creek and then watched the ripples that spread out across the creek until finally, all was calm and quite once again.
In the distance, I could hear the laughter of two young girls….
My trip back to my car was numbing -- my mind was still trying to fathom what had really happened back there on the old abandon railway bridge.
Was I having hallucinations, having a heat stroke, what? Surely there must be an explanation for what I had just witnessed. Were some locals playing tricks on unsuspecting hikers … what?
My mind was also telling me, “Mike, you do realize, don’t you, that you just had a mystical encounter with two gentle ghosts or spirits?”
To this day I have no explanation for what really happened, or why it did, or how it was done. Everything in my being tells me what I had experienced could not have been real and/or happened as I still recall it.
Then again, maybe it was all true and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch a mystical glimpse of something special from our past. One day in the future, I want to go back to that same bridge and throw another dime into the creek.
Hopefully, I pray, I will once again hear the girl’s laughter and sense that all is well and that their father did return home safely from the war.