MAYESVILLE, S.C. – Edward “Cannon” Taylor and Richard Sanford sit in their small motor boat as it gently rocks from side to side, looking at the island ahead, reflecting on one of the last remaining buildings in the small, former lumber town of Ferguson, S.C.
“I would love to see it built back up to what it was, once upon a time…” Sanford said.
Broken brick, mangled wire and flooded shells of destroyed buildings are all that is left of the lumber mill built in the 1890s. The ghost town is one of dozens across the state quickly fading away due to increasingly wet climates.
“The water is tearing it down, the sand is being washed away by the water,” Taylor said. “One day it’ll just be a pile of nothing...and no one will ever know it was here – if we don’t do something.”
South Carolina preservationists are trying to breathe new life back into decomposing towns like Ferguson, hoping they can save it before it permanently disappears.
“People want to belong to something...there’s nothing more powerful than belonging in a community with a history, with connectivity to an individual’s past,” said Michael Bedenbaugh, the executive director for Preservation South Carolina.
Ferguson was a bustling town when it was built to harvest timber. But it emptied out when Santee River Cypress Lumber Company abandoned its logging operation in 1915. Over the years, most of it sank under water.
There have been instances where ghost towns have been revived, like Dunton Hot Springs, Colo., which is now flourishing after it was deserted for decades. Similar towns like Rhyolite, Nev., and Thurmond, W.Va., have never been able to make a comeback.
Preservation South Carolina, a non-profit organization, raises funds to preserve and protect abandoned buildings across the Palmetto State.
“What we try to do as an organization is build a network of developers, of donors, of people who want to invest back into the community,” Bedenbaugh said.
The number of applications for preservation projects has increased over the years, with renovation costs varying from about $250,000 for the Wyche Derrick House to around $5.5 million for the Carolina Theater.
Bedenbaugh said private investors receive incentives, like tax credits, to help resurrect decrepit buildings to boost their region’s economy.
“Tax credits, abandoned building credits, those things can help attract capital back into the places where capital has left,” Bedenbaugh said.
But some criticize the movement to resurrect towns like Ferguson, believing money should be allotted to cities and towns where people are currently living, not areas that have been deserted for decades.
“I think restoring towns where no one lives qualifies as a frivolous expense for tax payers to make,” said Curtis Kalin, communications director for Citizens Against Government Waste. "If private citizens want to revitalize ghost towns, then they should use private money to do that. We would like to see that public money be spent on critical needs like infrastructure, roads, bridges, education.”
Some local residents, like Sanford feel, said it is important to do something to remember the past, even if it’s just a plaque or small memorial.
"They can learn more history about it and appreciate what our ancestors have done for this country,” he said.
Taylor and Sanford said they will continue to reflect on all the stories about Ferguson, a spot they often passed when they went fishing.
“They say there were graveyards that got flooded here,” Taylor said with a chuckle. “Really, I think it was just a lumber yard.”
In the meantime, Preservation South Carolina said it’s working with the state’s General Assembly to renew tax credit legislation in hopes of spurring another investment wave in ghost towns.