The Mighty Chinquapin

When I was a kid growing up on the north side of Spartanburg one of the AM radio stations I listened to claimed to broadcast “from the banks of the mighty Chinquapin.” It made Chinquapin Creek, the largest of Lawson’s Fork’s tributaries, sound like the Mississippi River.

I think that radio announcer’s humor might have been the beginning of my fascination with local streams. As I listened to the radio it didn’t matter that by the early 1960s there wasn’t much wild or natural about the Chinquapin below where it crossed under I-85. It didn’t matter that it was already compromised and channeled by progress along I-585 and north Pine Street, or that the newly built Pinewood Shopping Center drained acres of asphalt directly into it, or that it ran right past a recently closed and capped early city dump. It didn’t matter that Chinquapin Creek was polluted by Beaumont Mill, or by “Gas Bottom.” It didn’t matter that by the 1960s there was far more kudzu than chinquapin oak along its length. What mattered to me was that it lived and survived in my imagination.

It wasn’t only the imaginary “mighty Chinquapin” I knew. We lived for several years just uphill from the creek and I played in the real Chinquapin’s narrow channel catching crayfish and those little fish Southerners call knotty heads. When I was 8 or 9 years old that little creek had been my “nearby nature.” Almost every afternoon I wandered down from Florida Avenue (up behind where the Dodge Dealership now operates), crossed a cleared field, and descended into what I know now was the remnants of an empty reservoir, the source of Spartanburg’s first water supply.

There was a left-over concrete buttress of a dam down in there, and it looked to a child like a Roman ruin. I could walk along the creek with I-585 out of sight above me and pretend it was the Amazon, or the Wild West. Thank goodness I grew up before video games. I might have stayed home. Today I might not have even noticed the Chinquapin (or the radio) existed.

But that’s enough nostalgia for the good old days of my youth. I started out meaning to tell you about a hike I took last Friday on the upper Chinquapin right below where it crosses under I-85. It was cold when I met Spartanburg Area Conservancy’s Mary Walter and Fred Parrish, and Palmetto Conservation Foundation’s expert trail builder Jim Majors on what will soon be the next preserve for SPACE.

Last year the South Carolina Conservation Bank granted SPACE $692,000 to buy 41 acres of wetland and ridge from a willing landowner along the creek, and in partnership with PCF they are establishing a trail system though the property. It seems the mighty Chinquapin is finally getting its due.

On Friday we walked downstream, crossing and recrossing the narrow but bold creek where footbridges will be built. There are some big hardwoods in the Chinquapin bottom and some have grown into a strange swirling pattern Fred calls “that twisted canopy of the seepage forest.” Winter birds flitted in and out of the underbrush as we walked, and once a cardinal so bright red it looked like a finger of flame sat in a bare dogwood and sang sharp and clear.

Walking the new Chinquapin trails, it’s possible to forget the 21st century, the 20th century, even the 19th century when the Scots-Irish settled this land for better or worse. It’s possible to forget like I did when I was a child that I-585 is only a few hundred miles off to the east, funneling traffic toward the busy city center, or that there’s a huge American flag flapping at the Milliken Research Park.

Before I forget the 21st century though it’s good to always remember that this is the century of easements and greenways and conservation banks and recovered wild land like the Chinquapin Preserve, saved from a second settlement, slipped out of the grasp of the market economy and reserved for those like us who like to stroll in the territory of the cardinal, the fox, the deer, and the heron.

I hope there will be more willing landowners ready to preserve land, especially along our abundant creeks and rivers. The mighty Chinquapin runs forever through my imagination, and now a passage of it runs protected through the north side of Spartanburg.

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