The Dikes of Lake Hartwell

By Nancy Spitler
Photo by Ashley Jones

The two levees diverted the Seneca River, saving a significant portion of campus, including the stadium

The dikes, just across Hwy 93 from Death Valley, have been a favorite spot for walkers, runners and cyclists for years. They have been the site of many a sunset marriage proposal and heartfelt discussion about the future. When the least bit of snow drops from the winter skies, students lug everything from lunch trays to surfboards to dilapidated couches and take turns sliding down the hill, where the local EMS truck usually sits — just in case.
But like almost everything at Clemson, there’s a story behind those dikes. And like every good Southern story, it’s a tale of intrigue, beauty and political influence, with more than a little money involved.
The Hartwell Dam and Reservoir was constructed in the late 1950s and early 1960s by the Army Corps of Engineers as part of the Savannah River Project. The original purpose for the dam was to mitigate flooding along the Savannah River and to generate hydroelectric power.
 There were a few roadblocks before construction could get started, one being the more than 7,000 acres of land belonging to the University that would be flooded with the initial designs, including 430 acres used for agricultural purposes and 400 acres of the 1,100-acre Fort Hill estate. In addition, at “full pool” (665 feet above sea level), the new lake would flood Clemson’s seven-year-old football stadium up to the 26th row.
The trustees, under the leadership of President Robert F. Poole, formed a committee to study the issue; the Alumni Association did the same. Robert C. Edwards, then vice president of development, led the college Hartwell Lake team. More than a few meetings were held and solutions considered: lowering the level of the lake to 610 feet, diverting the Seneca River with dikes or compensating Clemson for the lost lands (the solution favored by the Corps of Engineers). Negotiations lasted several years, with Clemson calling in some political pull from the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose office was flooded with letters from Clemson alumni, urging him to help move things forward in Clemson’s favor.
When the committee and the board of trustees declared the land irreplaceable and the damage done irreparable, the Corps of Engineers went back to the drawing board. The new study resulted in the conclusion that lowering the pool level to 610 feet would be economically unfeasible. The only alternative seemed to be the diversion of the Seneca River. Two diversion dams were built in 1961 to protect a significant portion of campus.
All told, the construction cost nearly $90 million and lasted nearly eight years. But what resulted was a beautiful lake with more than 50,000 aces of water, and the dikes themselves becoming treasured and well-worn foot paths on the edge of campus. 

7 replies
  1. Louis Williams
    Louis Williams says:

    My wife and I were living in the Prefabs(veterans housing) as the dike construction got underway. We lived on F street near the YMCA cabin which at that time was located on the banks of the Seneca River. The large earthmoving equipment passed our house for about 18 hours daily. It was quite a show to watch, but it didn’t seem to bother us, in fact, I rather enjoyed watching the “show”!!

  2. Paul McClanahan
    Paul McClanahan says:

    Class of ’65 Architecture and ’72 Health Care Studio. The College of Architecture”hired” (student work) me to assist in the making and updating an enormous model of the entire campus in the early 60’s. The model was about 12 by 8 ft? We indicated in a temporary fashion the level of water with shiny blue paper at 660 elev on the model. Model indicated river relocation positions and all roads with buildings. A good job for me at the time! I suspect that model is well gone by now, but was of much use at that time for all long-range & master planning efforts by the university. Do any of you remember this as I do?

  3. Joseph Wallace
    Joseph Wallace says:

    I was an engineering student at Clemson and worked for Nello Teer on the survey team during the summer of 60 or 61. Teer’s construction office was located on Hwy 93 near my prefab at 204 Ravenal Road. I spent a lot of time ‘walking’ the dikes.

  4. DeWitt Stone
    DeWitt Stone says:

    Clemson Professor of History Dr. Ernest ‘Whitey’ McPherson Lander, Jr. offered an interesting overview of the the political controversy surrounding the Hartwell Dam Project. See Chapter One in his book: Few Would Listen: A Clemson Professor’s Memoir of Dissent (1997).

  5. Maria Liebman
    Maria Liebman says:

    Nancy, thank you for this very interesting article. It should made into a plaque for all to read when they visit the dike….Maria Liebman

  6. Rooney Floyd
    Rooney Floyd says:

    Additionally, the project had to include a large pumping station at the base of the dike to continually pump storm runoff and groundwater up over the dike and into the lake.


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