Descent of Hurricane Shoals

Last week I drove along the Pacolet River at Clifton and noticed that the big, swinging flood gates were open at what is known locally as the dam at Clifton Number One, or Hurricane Shoals, as I prefer to call it.

Being oriented to upstream/downstream river flow, I’ve always been bothered by the industrial naming of the three mill sites in Clifton. You see, “Clifton Number Three,” also known as Converse, is upstream of both Clifton Number One and Number Two. I know these mills were numbered as they were built, but it still confuses me. I’m one who prefers more poetic Piedmont place names based on natural river phenomena-Tumbling Shoals, Broad Shoals, Hurricane Shoals.

History’s complicated and deep in Clifton and keeping up with the names and locations of the three mills there is only one of the pleasures. The three villages sprawl for a mile downstream across two high bluffs on the Pacolet, and because of the series of shoals there and the easy portage on the rocks, this area has been near the center of a great deal of Spartanburg County history-Indian trails, Colonial roads, an important iron works, serious textiles, the Pacolet crossing of Southern railway on a high trestle, and passage of the old National Highway, now U.S. Route 29, over an impressive six-span early 20th Century concrete bridge still bearing traffic today at Converse.

I love history, but it’s not what will really gets my excitement building. That’s river running. So when I noticed the mill pond at Hurricane Shoals had been drawn down, maybe for maintenance on the little hydro plant that still creates power there on the Pacolet River, I realized that I could get in a run on a stretch of local river maybe no one had paddled recreationally in a good while. I could add a descent of that stretch of the Pacolet to my life-list of Spartanburg County rivers too and get closer to my goal of paddling every mile of moving water in the area that will float a boat.

I didn’t want to paddle alone, so I talked my friend Don Bramblett into accompanying me. Don’s known as the unofficial mayor of Clifton. His house and property are where Cinder Branch (which used to be known as Hurricane Branch) empties into the Pacolet on the west side of the river. When the water’s up you can stroll to the tip of Don’s property down on the Pacolet and gaze out over the dam, the pond, and the cliffs downstream, and get a real sense why Clifton is called Clifton-“cliff town.” It’s a pretty scene, something right off a postcard.

Don wishes his creek were named something besides Cinder Branch or Hurricane Branch. Hurricanes scare him because the house he built with his wife Martha is not that far above the river, and it might someday be subject to flooding in a big storm. And cinders? He says he had to haul cinders out from a coal stove as a boy, and every time he hears that name it reminds him of those cold mornings. He says he’d rather it be something like Blue Heron Branch or Dogwood Branch.

As you can hear, Don was a perfect companion to float with me from Converse to Hurricane Shoals. He’s loves Clifton and worries about its names and what they convey to people who hear them. He ponders his community’s past, present, and future all the time, just like I do.

So last Wednesday morning we ran a quick shuttle upstream and put our two boats on the surface of a living river no longer drowned under a mill pond. I like electricity and I’m glad that someone can make a little living off the river making power, but I’m also glad the dam-keeper draws his pond down and reveals the lovely bones of the real river for us to paddle.

Don had never been in a kayak before. He is used to motoring upstream and down on this section in an old skiff with an outboard for power. He did fine paddling as we floated down over the current ribbons through the bedrock. The flow was manageable, though Don did smile and throw up his arms in triumph more than once as he negotiated the blades and bumps of granite in the riverbed tumbling toward Hurricane Branch.

It was a beautiful early morning float with the old bridge and trestle behind us, and the riverbanks thick with red and orange maples at the height of their fall color. Who needs the Blue Ridge Parkway when you’ve got the Pacolet River on a late October morning?

I’ll never see the pond at Hurricane Shoals quite the same way now that I’ve floated it with the mayor of Clifton. How could I? Now there will always be the sound of whitewater under the calm surface of the impoundment when I pass by. I’ll feel the river in the hum of those kilowatts. Clifton could be one of the most beautiful places in Spartanburg County. The end of the Industrial Revolution wasn’t kind to Clifton, but who knows what the 21st Century will offer.

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