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.