Preserving a centuries-old piece of history

A canoe that’s potentially over 200 years old was discovered last fall on the Chattooga River by some local paddlers along the Sandy Ford section of the river near Clayton, Ga. The canoe was found below Second Ledge rapid wedged against an embankment and an undercut rock on the S.C. side of the river.

Pictured below is a glimpse of the efforts by volunteers to extract a centuries-old canoe from the Chattooga River.

Volunteers from The Chattooga Conservancy offered to extract the canoe, and a similar canoe found in the river 12 years ago, because part of the group’s mission is to honor the area’s cultural heritage and provide public education about the Chattooga River watershed, said Conservancy Founder Buzz Williams.

Williams and a group of volunteers spent last Sunday ferrying the canoe across the river from S.C to the Georgia side, and then hauling it up a half mile of steep terrain, and they’re not finished yet.

The canoe is wrapped in a skid to protect it during extraction.

The canoe is 21-feet, 10-inches long, and about 2 -feet wide. It weighs over 1,000 pounds and is made from heart pine with what appears to be a metal axe. Williams said the shape is very similar to dugout canoes built by Native Americans, long and flat on the bottom with about a foot of ‘rocker’ at both the bow and stern. 

The canoe has gunwhales (top edge of hull) and a two-inch hole in the bow for mooring. A metal, square cut nail is fixed in the bow for unknown purposes, which Williams said adds to the mystery of who made it.

“We found a canoe very similar to this one about 12 years ago and it was carbon dated to about 1760,” he said. “Since this one show more evidence of European influence, it may have been built by the Cherokee using tools obtained by early traders, or even by the traders themselves copying a native American design. The square-cut nail is a type that dates to the late 1700s. We most likely will never know who built it, but we know it is very old, probably over 200 years.”

The canoe was found on the S.C. side of the river.

The process for extracting the canoe involved building a cradle made of closed cell foam, plywood, and bamboo to keep the canoe secure and protect it during extraction. 

Volunteers then took the cradle over steep and rough terrain to where the canoe was pinned, unpinned it, placed it in the cradle, and dragged it above the high-water mark. Then using boat dock flotation devices, ferried the canoe across the river.

“The canoe’s location between major rapids prevented us from taking it upstream, so we had to detour over land to an upstream ford between two major rapids to get it over to the Georgia side and up another steep hill to a point we can take it out to a road using a team of mules,” said Williams. “We accomplished the uphill part of the extraction with the help of Eric Pierson with the Highlands Rescue Squad who designed a rope and pulley system using a 6 to1 mechanical advantage assisted by volunteers to get the canoe up what was almost a 40% slope in places. We have moved it about a half mile with quarter mile to go.”

Volunteers ferry the canoe from the S.C. side of the Chattooga River to the Georgia side.

Pierson said the moving the canoe took a lot of man/woman power.

“It takes a lot to move a 1,200-pound load up and over a mountain, across a river, and up over another mountain,” said Pierson. “In doing so, besides just muscle, we utilized ropes and pulleys to rig up everything from a simple 4:1 mechanical advantage, to a compound 12:1 mechanical advantage system to haul the canoe along the trek.”

After landing on the Georgia-side of the river. Pictured is Buzz Williams and Andy Smith planning a route.

He added that he was happy when Williams called and asked for his help.

“I’m just happy that Buzz asked and I was able to lend a hand in getting this canoe out,” said Pierson. “It is fun being a part of such an awesome adventure that preserves a piece of history. I hope something can be learned from such a find and that people will be able to enjoy it.” 

Using pulley systems for a mechanical advantage, volunteers would set up the pullies, haul the canoe a couple of feet, and move pullies to the next tree. It was a slow process that took hours of physical labor. Pictured from left are Buzz Williams and Eric Pierson moving the pulley system to the next tree.

Where the canoe will eventually find a permanent home is up for debate.

“Technically, the canoe is claimed by the S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology since it was found in S.C. waters, but we are working hand in hand with the Eastern Band of Cherokee who also have a legitimate reason for claiming the canoe,” said Williams.

The skid wrapped around the canoe helps protect it before making the journey up the mountain.

In the meantime, once the canoe is fully extracted it will be housed at the Chattooga Whitewater Shop in Long Creek, S.C., on loan from the SCIAA. 

“We at the Chattooga Conservancy take the position that the old canoe belongs to all of us and it is in our collective interest to honor and learn from our cultural heritage and protect it for future generations,” said Williams. “Also, a huge thanks to the volunteers who endured many hours of tough going. We are almost there!”

Using a pulley system, volunteers dragged the canoe up the mountain.

Pictured at the top of the article from left are volunteers Andy Hinton, Nicole Hayler (Chattooga Conservancy Executive Director), Don George, Andy Smith (Don and Andy were in the original group who reported the canoe finding), Jake Hochberger, Jared Walker, Cina Noel, Buzz Williams and Eric Pierson. 

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
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