A crowd of paddlers, some dressed in Santa hats and Christmas colors, stood eagerly Saturday morning awaiting the ribbon cutting for the newest Ashley River access site in Dorchester County in nearly three decades.
As the first group to officially launch vessels there, they came ready with festive canoes and kayaks decked out in garland, ornament balls, holiday lights and other brightly-colored decorations.
County Council Chairman Jay Byars, quoting Teddy Roosevelt, told the crowd how the former president had a vision for national parks that he and other area leaders have also shared for the county for years.
“In this community, and when I got elected in 2010, just one of the things I thought was always lacking is the parks,” Byars said.
But despite the “wonderful” aspects of his surrounding community, it failed in the area of river access.
“You couldn’t get here. You (couldn’t) get on the river unless you lived on the river,” Byars said. “This particular site…is the first step—this is the first step of great things to come in this county.”
Beforehand the river’s only access site in the county was three miles downstream at Jessen Landing, which the town owns and operates.
It was indeed a special day for county and state officials and community members, as well as longtime river enthusiast Howard Bridgman, who was shocked to learn just moments before the ceremony that the launch site—located off Reniken Road off Bacons Bridge Road—had been named in his honor.
“It seemed like something was going on but I didn’t know what it was,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a great, great privilege.”
Byars praised Bridgman for working “tirelessly” for decades to make the county better and taking time, as a non-member, to attend several Parks and Recreation Commission meetings to give input.
“He was dedicated, just showing up,” Byars said. “He understands what it means to be in the arena. …And we’re here because of Howard Bridgman.”
But more than the honor, Bridgman said he felt the “greatest thing” about the day was knowing the boat ramp had been erected for the community to enjoy.
He said for years he and other local river users were forced to access the water via the end of Rosebrock Park.
“It was a very difficult thing to do,” Bridgman said. “Hopefully we can do more as time goes on because we’ll never have a better opportunity than we have now.”
Bridgman is also a member of the Ashley Scenic River Advisory Council, board chairman for the Timrod Library and former Summerville Town councilman from 2005 to 2009, he said. He additionally started the river cleanup day on the Edisto, according to his wife Mary Ann, who shared in her husband’s excitement about the site dedication.
“I was just so excited for him, and today is my birthday. I thought, ‘What a good birthday present for me,’” she said. “His heart’s with the river.”
The proud wife said her family has utilized the waterway for decades—Bridgman teaching the couple’s three daughters how to fish on it and their middle daughter even marrying on the river at Middleton Place.
“So the Ashley River’s just so neat to us…a lot of history. It’s just so beautiful,” Mary Ann Bridgman said.
Referred to as the Ashley River Blue Trail project, the launch effort was initiated by the Parks and Recreation Commission in November 2014, just two months after Parks and Recreation Director Eric Davis was hired. Council approved the commission’s recommendation, and with the help of community input, who also deemed it “a good idea” to create an additional boat access site, the endeavor took off.
But Davis said it was the group American Rivers that years earlier initiated the focus on turning the local waterway into a blue trail.
“It became a priority for them,” Davis said. “They basically saw we had a great recreational and river asset here in Dorchester County that was being underutilized. …The goal is to get folks involved to make them proud of this river.”
The river was first designated a state scenic river in 1998, and a few years later local stakeholders joined the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources in establishing the Ashley Scenic River Management Plan, which Davis said specially called for a launch site off Bacons Bridge.
Project revisions were made in June 2015 and four months later SCDNR granted the effort $100,000, according to county officials. Additional funding stemmed from a $100,000 grant from the S.C. National Heritage Corridor and $30,000 in the county’s 2010 Parks and Conservation Bond funds.
In September IPW Construction Group, LLC, commenced construction on the site, developed through SCDNR’s Water Recreation Program. Johnson, Mirmiran and Thompson design firm also served as project consultant, Davis said.
In addition to a boat launch, the project included a driveway from Bacons Bridge Road to a gravel parking lot, and a paved walkway from the lot to the river.
Davis said the county is also working on establishing an additional launch site off Slands Bridge, located nearly four miles away. But currently there’s no funding for that project, he said.
County Council members also approved, in August, conserving the former Walnut Hill Tract. The nearly 128-acre property is situated halfway between Bacons Bridge Road and Slands Bridge, and directly across the river and future site of the Ashley River Park, Davis said. The county purchased the tract for $127,900, again using 2010 bond money.
According to state Rep. Katie Arrington, who represents district 94 where the launch site is located, the river is vital for the community’s happiness and overall quality of life.
“This community is amazing and unique around the nation. This community—Summerville—what we have created here, there’s no place else you can get this,” Arrington said. “We value not only our education…but our people and our quality of life. What this access point does is it gives more people a chance to come out and make their life better.”
The local legislature said she, too, is excited to use the new access to spend more time kayaking and paddle boarding.
“I live for this; this is my peace, this is my serenity,” Arrington said. “Having these outlets in our community are essential to…maintaining an even community but a happy community.”
She also told event attendants that outdoor recreation creates more than 200,000 jobs annually statewide and puts about $18.9 billion into the economy.
“So this is something that has value and merit,” Arrington said of the launch.
The SCDNR grant was also an item she said she and others on the Legislative Oversight Committee recently discussed to help evaluate the state agency.
“They got outrageously high scores for it because they saw a need in a community. The community spoke out for it, and they got the support that they needed,” Arrington said, “so clap your hands to yourselves because you guys made this happen.”