The History Behind The Dikes
Clemson's dams have a story to tell
This article originally appeared in The Tiger on February 3, 2012 | PRINT

In 1940, Clemson trustees were torn over the use of about 29,000 acres of land around the Clemson area in Oconee, Anderson and Pickens counties. At first neither the state of South Carolina nor the Clemson Board of Trustees legally owned this land, which served as a drainage system for the Keowee-Seneca-Twelve Mile River systems, connected to the Savannah River basin.

“From 1939 on, Clemson University had a lease with the federal government — it was a 100-year lease,” said Clemson Historian Dr. Jerome Reel. However, the agreement required Clemson to use the land for educational purposes only, so Clemson faculty in agriculture, forestry and engineering began long-term research projects based on the land. In a few years time, the idea formed for a new lake on Clemson’s campus.

“The federal government was interested in two things, and one was in developing power resources in the South,” Reel said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wanted to generate relatively inexpensive power with hydroelectric systems.

“This was also built in anticipation of the growth of industry in the Savannah River valley,” he said.

Reel said that the rivers around this potential lake were “flooding rivers” because their sources were in the mountains where there were collections of snow. Concern was that the lake, which would lie 665 feet above sea level, would flood the low-lying land on the Seneca River where Clemson raised many of its crops.

“If the federal government had done what they wanted, they would have flooded a great deal of Clemson campus, including half of the land that Mr. Clemson originally gave to the school,” Reel said.

Even more upsetting to Clemson College at the time was the chance that the lake would flood the football stadium, all the way up to the 26th row. Clemson trustees suggested a lower water level for the lake, 640 feet above sea level; however, this was never achieved. Embanking parts of campus that might be affected by flooding was also suggested but never carried out.

Clemson officials, headed by then-president Robert Franklin Poole, grew tired of waiting for the federal government to do something about the issue, so in 1955, the Clemson Alumni Association set up its own committee to make a decision about what had become known as the “lake issue.”

The football stadium issue was the first to be addressed. Reel pointed out that the stadium back then was far different than it is now.

“It didn’t have the portals that you come in now — you came in at ground level and down, so it only went up about 30 rows,” he said. Some proposed tearing down the stadium and rebuilding it roughly where the South Carolina Botanical Gardens are now located.

However, the students were very opposed to a stadium so removed from main campus. In the end, the idea of a relocated football stadium was vetoed because the state highway department already had plans to build two federal highways through the area.

Only two options were left to solve the lake issue: lower the water level of the proposed lake, or build dikes. A dike, according to, is “an embankment for controlling or holding back the waters of a sea or river.”

Though the Trustees’ preferred solution would be to lower the water level, they realized this option would not generate enough electricity to meet the needs projected by the Corps of Engineers.

The Clemson Board of Trustees officially owned the land when a bill, introduced by Clemson Life Trustee and U.S. Senator Charles Daniel, was signed by U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was a major game-changer; the federal government had always expected to compensate for any buildings, improvements and functions lost, and now they had to pay for the land, too.

During a December 1956 meeting between Vice President R.C. Edwards, President Pool, three principal administrators, the S.C. congressional delegation and the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil-Military Affairs General Emerson C. Itschner, a plan to protect thousands of acres of Clemson land was presented. Clemson responded to this plan with their own, which they named “Plan X,” a proposal of three dikes to an elevation of 675 feet above sea level, a mere 15 feet above the lake’s full pool of 660 feet. This plan would save 497 acres of mostly agricultural land.

In response to Clemson’s Plan X, the Corps offered to compensate Clemson $465, 655 for the 7,964 acres they want to acquire. Because of additional costs for construction, water intake, treatment and disposal, Clemson’s legal counsel asked instead for $2.25 million, which was four times the amount initially offered by the Corps.

Eventually the U.S. District Court for Western South Carolina ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers had to pay for the entire water intake purification, waterlines, power lines, sewage system, water treatment, water return system and replacement of facilities with new structures and equipment — a total of $1.5 million to Clemson.

Construction of the dikes by the Corps continued throughout the financial negotiations. 250,000 cubic yards of rock and 3,500,000 of dirt were used in the project.

“The material to build the dikes came from the rear end of Cemetery Hill,” Reel said. Most likely, this meant that all of the slave graves were destroyed. “They just dug them up — they didn’t know what was there, they didn’t do any surveys,” Reel said.“They just dug them up and built the dikes.”

Before construction of the dikes was finished, the rising water level of the lake caused some major problems around Clemson’s campus. Dr. Tee Senn, former head of the horticulture department at Clemson and founder of the South Carolina Botanical Gardens, lived on Strawberry Lane at the time, where many homes were affected.

“They cut down all the trees and piled them up behind my house,” Senn said. “We had to get them to come and move all the trees out.”

“Because the water came up, I had to build an 8-foot sea wall to keep it out of my backdoor and the basement,” he said. “So we built that and put a fence on it to keep it from falling in the water. The water was eventually 12 feet high and in my backyard, and I had to give up half of my lot.”

Senn remembers Strom Thurmond coming to Strawberry Lane to try to alleviate the residents’ issues with the lake and the dikes.

“Strawberry Lane still exists today; I’m happy and I hope they’re happy,” Senn said.

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