A Dam in Slabtown: The Untold History of Environmental Struggles in the New South

The following is an excerpt from Will Bryan’s excellent new book from University of Georgia Press.

In the middle of the night on February 22, 1873, a flour mill and a sawmill owned by George Washington Rankin in Anderson County, South Carolina, were “sprinkled with spirits of turpentine” and burned to the ground. Rankin was a miller and small-time wheat farmer in the upstate. He had a substantial sum invested in his mills, which were powered by a dam across Twenty-Three Mile Creek, near Slabtown. Authorities promptly arrested James and Frank Babb, African American brothers who lived just one mile from the mills, on charges of arson. Within months, the Babbs had been convicted and were sentenced to ten years in the state penitentiary “at hard labor.”

For years, Rankin’s dam had been a flashpoint for the community. Although Slabtown was initially renowned for being healthy, in the early 1870s it was swept by a series of malaria outbreaks, which a vocal group of residents blamed on the dam. Three years before Rankin’s mills were burned, citizens from Anderson County had petitioned the state legislature to have his dam removed, though another group of residents petitioned to keep it standing. By 1871 the dam was enough of a problem that Rankin was indicted for maintaining a public nuisance by impeding the flow of Twenty-Three Mile Creek, overflowing lands of other property owners, and causing air and water to become “corrupted”–spreading malaria and other dangerous diseases. A local newspaper commented that “the vicinage was unusually sickly the past seasons,” with “scores of persons suffering from chills and fever, and bilious fever.” Rankin’s trial was one of the most sensational ever held in Anderson County. The Anderson Intelligencer dubbed it the “great mill-dam case” and noted that it “will be long remembered by the citizens of Anderson.” After days of testimony, including from several physicians about the causes of malaria, the jury ruled that Rankin was guilty of maintaining a public nuisance. On appeal, however, the South Carolina Supreme Court overturned the verdict and sent the case back to the lower court for another hearing. Although the solicitor again indicted Rankin, a grand jury determined that there was not enough evidence to proceed. Just months before Rankin’s mills burned, then, he managed to evade criminal charges that threatened to shutter his mills and remove his dam.

The conflict over Rankin’s mill dam started a sustained push for drainage legislation that would give recourse to residents who were affected by health problems in cases like this. For the next year, local newspapers were inundated with editorials on the drainage issue, and residents held community meetings to find a solution to their health woes. In January 1873 a resident calling himself “Reform” wrote that the “obstruction of mill dams” was one of the biggest problems hindering agricultural development because dams rendered fertile lands unusable for farming, damaged public health, and drove residents away. He argued that the state needed to find a solution that would not impair the property rights of dam owners but would “open up these fertile bottom lands to the skill of the agricultural laborer, whether white or black.” Within days, drainage supporters were cheered when the governor’s annual message supported a “flowage act” that would provide a mechanism for the removal of mill dams, and a correspondent from Anderson wrote that this was a “step in the right direction.”

Even as politicians prepared to act, however, Slabtown was visited by a series of devastating epidemics, which residents publicly attributed to the swampy lands created by Rankin’s dam. One “refugee” even described how “one of the physicians who waited on the sick and dying in that neighborhood, said that it possessed the symptoms and virulence of the yellow fever, even to the black vomit,” and urged “the Christian, the patriot, the legislator, and citizen” to act before these problems got worse.

After the devastating summer of 1873, nearby communities also organized to promote free-flowing rivers when public health was threatened. At a meeting in December, residents of Pickens, thirty miles north of Anderson, drew up a petition asking the state legislature to give county commissioners the power to determine if mill dams were a health nuisance and have them removed after compensating the landowner. They linked their efforts with the struggles of people in Slabtown, noting that they “sympathize[d] deeply with our suffering fellow-citizens of Anderson” and “desire[d] to unite our efforts with theirs.”

This is not to say that critics of Rankin’s mill dam were opposed to industrial development. Residents who supported drainage legislation were quick to note that they intended to “make no war upon mill-dams or mill-dam owners” and only supported criminal charges if an owner allowed a dam to stand knowing that it was creating health problems. Thomas Russell, a resident who had been forced to move out of Anderson to improve his health, surprisingly credited mill owners for being willing to remove dams or otherwise alleviate problems. He named half a dozen property owners in Anderson who would supposedly remove their dams if they received proper compensation, though notably Rankin was not among them.

By the spring of 1874, legislators were debating a drainage bill specifically for Anderson County that empowered county commissioners to hear complaints about health and drainage nuisances from aggrieved residents–provided that one-third of nearby landowners petitioned for a hearing. Commissioners were granted the power to hire workers to drain land and remove obstacles, as well as the right to force mill dam owners to install floodgates to abate flooding or health problems. In March 1874 the Anderson drainage act was signed into law, and one of the first nuisances reviewed by county commissioners was Rankin’s mill dam. After visiting the dam, the commissioners determined that it was a nuisance that needed to be destroyed. They paid Rankin’s wife $2,850 as compensation and ordered that the dam had to be removed by November 1874. Although this put an end to critiques of Rankin’s dam, at least one resident was outraged–not by the dam’s removal but by the “enormous amount” the county paid for a site with no functional mills or machinery. This Carolinian, “Three-and-Twenty,” concluded that such an excessive payment would fall most heavily on Slabtown residents, who were already spending vast sums to drain bottomlands and bring them into cultivation, when they were taxed to pay Rankin.

While it is clear that health problems allegedly caused by Rankin’s mill dam prompted upstate residents to think deeply about the consequences of obstructing rivers, it is less clear what role James and Frank Babb played in this movement, if any. Anderson County was not in the state’s most intensive plantation district, but after the Civil War opportunities for African American freedpeople were often circumscribed by increasingly exploitative sharecropping or tenant farming contracts, and black farmers had to find creative ways to get better working conditions and contract terms. In this context, it is not outrageous to suggest that the burning of Rankin’s mills was related to his continued refusal to ameliorate this deadly nuisance–especially given the short time that elapsed between his court victory and the destruction of the mills, the community-wide criticism of his dam, and the close proximity of the homes of James and Frank Babb to the dam. Yet the involvement of the Babbs raises more questions than it answers. Were they actually responsible for burning Rankin’s mills, or were they just targeted because of their race? If they did burn the mills, what was their motive? Was this a form of protest against Rankin’s public health nuisance, or was this about other issues entirely? The answer to these and other questions is unknown. Almost as soon as the Babbs entered the historical record when they were arrested for arson, they disappeared into the depths of the state penitentiary and were lost to history.

Whether or not James and Frank Babb were responsible, the case highlights the degree to which debates over environmental health, mill dams, and industrial growth were connected to the existing labor and social systems of the South. Residents who spoke out against the dam worried that poor health would contribute to labor instability by forcing residents to leave the area, which would prevent bottomland from being opened up for farming. At a time when the future of agriculture was still up in the air, malaria posed a threat not just to life and limb but to labor. Residents worried that disease would drive away black laborers and inhibit agricultural development. Environmental health problems also afflicted black and white southerners at different rates, especially as black southerners were increasingly consigned to poor lands and segregated living on farms that were often closest to environmental hazards. Although black South Carolinians had some legal and political options for dealing with these issues under radical Reconstruction, within a few years the state would be firmly in the hands of white “Bourbons,” who worked to reverse the gains made by African Americans and limit their civil and political rights, circumscribing opportunities for black southerners to contest environmental health problems and other environmental injustices. This process was mirrored throughout the region, so that by the twentieth century the environmental impact of industrial development fell most heavily on black southerners, who had no formal channel for protest.

At heart, then, the conflict over Rankin’s dam was about whether the benefits of industrialization were worth the environmental costs. Although one scholar argues that rural watermills in the South were important in “maintaining quasi-premodern local cultures” and did not reflect the emerging industrial economy, struggles over Rankin’s dam mirrored debates that played out for decades as southerners of all stripes struggled to come to terms with the wrenching environmental changes of industrial growth. New manufacturing industries may have been held up as the key to permanent growth by outspoken boosters, but these enterprises used resources in new and troubling ways. The environmental effects of manufacturing industries were scattered far and wide, and air and water pollution had a serious impact on all southerners. Just like residents of Slabtown, black and white southerners articulated different ways of using these industrial resources in permanent ways and tried to modify industrial operations to accord with their vision for the future.

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Historians have spent a lot of time examining the social, economic, political, and environmental effects of industrialization, which began in earnest during the New South era. Despite the preference of most public officials, businesspeople, and community boosters for manufacturing, the scholarship on the South is overwhelmingly focused on resource extraction. Countless studies chart the environmental degradation wreaked by mining and lumbering, so that narratives of declension have become emblematic of the New South itself. Although parts of the region were tied up in this extractive economy, it was never the experience of all southerners. The New South economy was considerably more diverse, and looking at manufacturing uncovers a different narrative. While Edward Ayers is right to note that industrialization “touched the lives of a million people” and “shaped the histories of hundreds of counties,” he might have also noted that the environmental problems spawned by the manufacturing economy touched the lives of far more people than just those who worked in southern mills. Pollution has never respected human boundaries, and as New South industrialization ramped up it was difficult to escape industrial by-products anywhere.

Scholars have recently shed light on critics of New South industrialization and have deepened our understanding of race, labor, and economic development in the New South. Historians have spent less time, however, understanding the voices of southerners who expressed concern about the environmental changes brought about by industrial growth and who sought out alternate paths. Yet just as workers did not silently accept the often-exploitative conditions of industrial labor, neither did southerners fully embrace exploitative uses of resources in an industrializing economy. Boosters may have portrayed manufacturing as a more permanent alternative to extractive industries, but it was undeniable that the new manufacturing economy came with a bevy of environmental problems. Smoke, chemical waste, water pollution, and flooding were often easy for businesspeople concerned with the permanence of industrial resources to just write off. But working-class black and white southerners–eventually even some businesspeople and urban professionals themselves–rejected the idea that manufacturing required putting up with the environmental side effects of these enterprises. Rather than simply accepting environmental degradation, these stakeholders fought the growing power of corporations over natural resources and articulated different ways of using these resources. Virtually every community affected by this wave of manufacturing–and many downstream and upwind of new industrial centers–witnessed a protest in the years following the Civil War. These protests raised difficult questions that challenged advocates of permanence: Was permanent economic growth worth the environmental hazards of industrialization? Was it possible to achieve permanence without industrial pollution? How should corporate and municipal officials work through competing claims to resources? What were the effects of permanence on ordinary people? Working through these questions forced southern boosters to confront the human costs of environmental permanence.

William D. Bryan is an environmental historian in Atlanta, Georgia, where he works for the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA). He received his Ph.D. in 2013 from Penn State, and his work covers the American conservation movement, energy policy, business and sustainability, environmental justice, and the tourism industry. His recent book, The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South, is the first work to show how nature conservation shaped the modern South and was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2018.

This excerpt from William D. Bryan, The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South is used by permission of the University of Georgia Press, © 2018.

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