Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/June 1876/Subterranean Streams in South Carolina

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NEITHER the formations nor the phenomena described in this paper are peculiar to South Carolina, and the general subject has been frequently investigated in other limestone regions. The present writer, therefore, desires merely to offer some results of his own observation and experience as a contribution to the scientific literature of the subject.

In that portion of the State which lies between the Santee and the head-waters of the Cooper commences a chain of so-called springs which present some exceedingly interesting features. Before describing them it may be well to note the surroundings. The face of the country is flat, without a single hill worthy the name. The soil is a sandy loam, and, being within the thermal influences exerted by the Gulf Stream along the entire lower coast-line for fifty miles or more inland, is well adapted to the culture of the "long-stapled," "black-seed," or "sea-island" cotton, but yields poor crops of corn, and no pasturage. The lower bank of the river is always covered by "the swamp," with its dense canebrakes and its heavy growth of cypress. The upland is a broad and rich belt, dotted with cotton-plantations, and well wooded with oak, hickory, gum, and similar trees. Winding about through this belt is a high ridge of sandy, barren soil, covered by the long-leaved or turpentine pine and a thick undergrowth of "scrub-oak." It is in the middle or plantation belt that the "springs" occur. In both swamp and pine-land the water is soft, while that of the springs is strongly charged with lime, and, unless boiled and iced, decidedly laxative. Good pure water can usually be obtained, however, within a few hundred yards from "pine-land wells," or "freestone" springs. The country abounds in game, especially the swamps—bear, deer, wild-cats, the gray fox, and other small quadrupeds, with turkeys, partridges, woodcock, snipe, and indeed all birds, common to the latitude. No rocks or bowlders are to be found. The springs occur at irregular intervals over a space of some thirty miles, at least; whether beyond that distance or not I do not know. They are not properly springs, there being no case which I can remember where any bubbling or oozing of the water occurs, nor is there any adequate outlet from any of the basins; a small and shallow stream, or "run," which is soon absorbed by the swampy soil, being the only way of escape for the water, while in some cases, as we shall see, there is absolutely no way for it to escape.

Let us now proceed to examine a few of these basins in detail. The most remarkable of them all is on the "Woodboo" plantation, about forty miles from Charleston. Walking toward a clump of tall cypresses, you suddenly find yourself on the brink of a miniature lake, the ground being firm up to the water's edge. An irregular basin, about fifty yards long by a dozen wide, is hollowed out in the blue limestone-rock which underlies the soil but a few inches from the surface, and this is filled to the brim with slightly opaline yet perfectly clear water. The bottom slopes abruptly from either side to the middle, where it is fully twelve feet deep, and where exists an irregular fissure extending the whole length of the basin, and varying from two to six inches (apparently) in width. The basin swarms with fish of every variety common to the waters of the region, and of every size. Schools of fry keep near the edges, hundreds in number, while in the deeper water may be seen full-grown perch and bream, catfish, black bass, pike, and alewives. Watch the bottom for a while, and you will see these fish issuing from the fissure in the rock, the larger bass (four to eight pounders) never venturing far from it, and darting into it at the least alarm. I well remember a pike nearly three feet long which I have often struck with a fishing-cane, but which I never could capture. The largest fish will not take the hook, on account of the exposure to view; but the smaller bream, perch, and bass, bite with great eagerness, and I have often caught from twenty to sixty in an afternoon, selecting the best fish by sight, and placing the bait at their very mouths. Sometimes the basin is almost empty of fish; an hour afterward enough will be visible to overstock a dozen ponds of equal size. By day eels are rarely visible, and you may stir up all the patches of grass along the bed without discovering one; at night they are frequently caught, the negroes sometimes "gigging" them of the largest size. The temperature of the water is the same winter and summer, about 62°, and the fish bite best in the coldest weather. I have examined the sandy margins at all seasons, and have never seen a fish-bed in this or any other of the springs. They do not breed in them, and indeed could not possibly do so.

From the lower extremity of this large basin proceeds the "run," a shallow, winding stream down which the larger fish could not possibly make their way. Indeed, I once caught a two-pound bass stranded, having essayed the passage and failed. Following this run about five hundred yards, we come suddenly on another busin, circular in form and much smaller than the first. Its greatest diameter is probably not over fifteen feet, while its greatest depth, near the centre, is fully ten. The bottom descends like a huge funnel, but on one side there is a projecting ledge of rock, under which, sloping downward in a direction away from the upper basin, is a hole seemingly about a foot in diameter. Out of this hole bass and pike of the largest size are seen to emerge, while the upper basin is filled with small bream and sunfish, biting readily at angle-worms, and occasionally a large red-bellied perch, a species rarely seen in the basin, will dart from under the rock-ledge and seize the bait. The little stream is lost at this basin, which has no outlet, but is surrounded by a wet, swampy piece of ground. Not far from these basins marl has been extensively dug, and one or two beds of greensand have been found, but' I never knew the hard limestone-rock which forms the bottom of the springs to be struck in any of the excavations.

Proceeding now in a northwesterly direction, we find another of these basins on a plantation about two miles off. The ground falls suddenly into a little valley about twelve feet deep and six or seven wide, at the head of which stands a very old oak-tree, growing on the upper level. On the southeast the roots have been exposed by the washing of the clay soil, and immediately under them lies the spring. This is a basin inclosed by an octagonal brick wall, where, for a century or more, the washing of the plantation and other such matters have been performed. Directly under the oak-tree is a ledge of rock, over which the water is about two feet deep. It grows more shallow toward the "run," where its depth is but a few inches; the entire basin is about thirteen feet by ten. The above-mentioned ledge of rock forms the roof of a cave-like aperture some eighteen inches high by three or four feet wide, into whose dark recesses the eye cannot penetrate, the bottom sloping away in a northwesterly direction under the hill which sustains the old oak. Schools of minnows frequent the shallow part, and hide in the water-grass; stir this grass with a cane or stick, and occasionally you may frighten out a small bream or sunfish, but very few fish of any sort are seen in the shallow basin, and these few refuse the most tempting bait. Now, the proper rock-basin here lies just in front of the cavernous opening, and is some six feet deep, but scarcely four in diameter. Drop your line there, and, if all is quiet, in a moment your float will dart diagonally down under the rock, and you may draw out a yellow-bellied perch, a blue bream, or a sun-perch of half a pound weight. Look in, and you will see huge bass lying with their heads only visible at the opening, or flashing their silvery sides as they turn into its unknown recesses. I once detected a pair of white eyes peering from the grass at the mouth of this cavern, and, dropping my bait just in front of them, was astonished at hooking an enormous mud-fish; this fish must have weighed five pounds, and he carried several yards of tackle right into the bowels of the earth, whence it soon emerged minus hook and lead. The "run" to this basin is not more than three inches deep anywhere, and sinks entirely into a quaking bog some hundred yards from its source. No fish over an inch long could swim seventy yards from the basin, and there is no communication whatever with any other water.

Leaving the "Pooshee Spring," we now ride a little to the east of north, and, at the distance of about two miles, we reach "Moore's Fountains," the most remarkable of the group. Crossing a little "bay" in the pine-land, you notice under your feet a miniature Natural Bridge, a span of rock about six feet wide covered with earth, and a little hole full of clear water on either side. Walking among the pines about a hundred yards to the right, you reach the "Fountains," six or seven holes in the ground, the largest of which is about five feet by eight, and in general character like the larger basins before described, but much more shallow. All these holes contain large numbers of small perch and bream, which bite readily in the winter, but are hardly worth catching. A little to the right of them used to stand two large twin-pines, and directly between their roots was a hole not more than two feet in diameter, and which you could not detect until you stood on its very edge. (I use the past tense, as the trees may have fallen in the ten years since I stood beside them.) This hole seems to go sheer down into the earth, and I have never been able to sound its depth with the longest fishing-line or rod which I had with me. Setting my float about ten feet deep, however, and "bobbing" into it by hand, I have caught, from between those trees, from thirty to sixty good-sized bream and perch of different species, in the course of two hours. The float would go straight down, as if the fish were descending into the bowels of the earth.

The next spring of which I know the existence is at "The Rocks" plantation, some twelve miles away, and the last of the chain is the famous "Eutaw Springs," where a battle was fought during the Revolution. At the latter place there are two openings, some distance apart, and tradition says that an Indian once dived into one and emerged from the other. I do not know whether fish are caught in these or not. No connection has ever been traced between these springs, or fountains, and the neighboring rivers, either of which—the Santee and the Cooper—is many miles away. Here, then, is the proof of a subterranean stream, or more probably lake, inhabited by fish in immense numbers, and of the same species found in the neighboring waters. These fish have perfect eyes, and differ in no respect from their fellows of the ponds and rivers, except that they invariably present that bright, clean appearance characteristic of fish taken from pure, clear water. They must pass freely through the whole course of the underground caverns, for, were all the open basins put together in one, it would not afford food or breeding-space for one hundredth part of the number found in any one of them, and they must live most of their time in utter darkness, for the little openings at which they appear are few in number and many miles apart. The indications seem to be that this enormous subterranean cave or water-course is hollowed out through a narrow stratum of limestone-rock which winds its way in a southeasterly direction; but it may be of far greater extent. Near Pineville, some ten miles from the nearest spring, and considerably off the course, there is a certain spot in the public road where the sound of the horse's feet is precisely like the noise made in crossing an earth-covered bridge, and tradition tells of treasure buried there in Revolutionary times. The water in this section shows no lime, nor indeed does it anywhere except in the springs themselves. The negroes of the region have invested these springs with a supernatural interest, peopling them with water-spirits known as "Cymbees," resembling in their imaginary characters the Undines and kelpies of the Old World.