Nine colorful kayaks came together in calm water on a lazy Saturday afternoon just north of the Yellow Trail bridge at Sweetwater Creek State Park, all facing Interpretive Ranger Don Scarbrough Jr., who talked about the tradition and history of the park that to many is Douglas County’s greatest natural treasure.
Scarbrough was leading a 1.25 mile guided kayaking tour called Sweetwater Creek by Kayak along a peaceful stretch of the creek to the ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company mill which was burned during the Civil War.
Most longtime and even new residents of Douglas County are familiar with the state park, which was established in 1972. Taking the Red Trail to the mill ruins is a relatively easy half-mile hike.
But for those who want to really experience the park and learn more about its rich history and the nature that inhabits its 2,549 acres, Sweetwater offers several guided kayaking tours, hikes and other activities. Most of the guided kayaking tours are $20 to $25 and include the kayak, life vest and paddle. Guided hikes, which include hikes to the mill as well as hikes focused on the Native American history of the area and subjects such as geology, are typically around $5 or $6 a person.
Scarbrough said more and more people are coming to the park, which is the state park closest to Atlanta and the busiest of Georgia’s state parks with an estimated 800,000 annual visitors.
“It is true that it is Georgia’s busiest state park,” Scarbrough said. “Proximity to Atlanta is certainly a factor. However, no other park offers Class IV whitewater or five-story Civil War era ruins. Here you have both, with a 15-mile trail network traversing over 2,500 acres of beautiful Piedmont forest.”
Two concerns many people have about kayaking is that they will flip their kayaks and that they must have experience kayaking to take one of the tours led by Scarbrough and the other rangers at Sweetwater.
But on the Sweetwater Creek by Kayak tour Aug. 5, once the group of 13 led by Scarbrough and naturalist Andy Wooten were in their kayaks and on the water, it was clear to at least a few first-timers there was no need to worry.
The tandem kayaks provided by the park are stable and easy to navigate with a paddle, especially in the section of the creek leading up to the mill ruins. Adults and children 6-and-over accompanied by an adult are welcome to take part in the guided kayaking tours as long as they can swim.
“Only twice in perhaps 120 trips over the last six years has anyone flipped on this program. Both due to horseplay,” Scarbrough said. “On the creek paddle perhaps one in six has never kayaked. Although there is a mile-long stretch of whitewater with a class IV rapid downstream, this program is all flatwater — no whitewater at all.”
Exploring the Creek
The Yellow Trail bridge where the creek kayak begins is in the area traditionally known as Ferguson’s crossing, named for Angus Ferguson, who operated a grist mill that was spared by Union troops during the Civil War.
Scarbrough told the kayakers Aug. 5 about Ferguson’s Mill and how the current bridge built in 2012 replaced the one that washed away during the thousand-year flood of 2009 when the park received about 20 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. He said he believes the bridge is the sixth at Ferguson’s crossing. He said the first bridge was built in the late 1840s to bring wagon loads of cotton from Atlanta to the New Manchester mill, which was constructed from 1847-1849 and operated from 1849-1864.
After learning the history of the area where the tour began, the kayakers started their trip down Sweetwater Creek. A blue heron fishing along the creek banks was among the highlights. Scarbrough said there are a great number of blue herons on Sweetwater Creek and on the George H. Sparks Reservoir in the park.
“The park is their feeding ground,” he said. “We have so many herons here that they are becoming emblematic of the park.”
New Manchester Mill History
The first half of the kayaking tour stops at the millrace where water once flowed into the New Manchester mill. Kayakers get out and hike about 0.7 miles total around the mill.
Along the way, Scarbrough talks about the five-story mill that was the tallest structure on Atlanta’s skyline when it was built.
He said that once railroads were constructed from middle Georgia into Atlanta, it was possible to bring enough cotton to support such a large operation as the New Manchester mill. The cotton was transferred from the newly constructed railroads to the mill by horse and wagon.
The mill produced a coarse type of fabric called osnaburg cloth during its 15 years of operation. In 1864, the cloth was taken into Atlanta where much of it was made into Confederate soldiers’ uniforms, Scarbrough said.
That made the mill a target when Gen. William T. Sherman came through Atlanta.
Union soldiers showed up and evacuated the mill workers on July 2, 1864. The mill was burned July 9, 1864.
Scarbrough told the kayakers that 400 women and children prisoners of war from New Manchester and the mill in Roswell, Georgia were transported to Louisville, Kentucky, along the Ohio River. Most remained imprisoned until the war was over. However, some skilled laborers who were willing to pledge their allegiance to the Union were allowed their freedom as long as they did not go back south of the Ohio River until after the war. Some went to work in mills in Ohio and Indiana.
Scarbrough pointed out several interesting features of the mill during the hike.
He noted that the 1,400-foot long millrace, which channeled water from Sweetwater Creek through a 45,000-pound, 16-foot-long wheel to power the mill, was paved with stones, many of which are still there. The millrace and the mill itself were largely built with slave labor, Scarbrough said.
He pointed to what he called “Civil War graffiti” where two Union soldiers — Gilbert and Davidson — carved their names into the bricks of the mill. The names are so large they can be seen easily from the trail alongside the mill.
As the kayakers walked around the southern edge of the mill, Scarbrough pointed out bullet holes in the bricks.
While many of the holes were from people shooting at the ruins during the 108-year stretch between the burning of the mill during the Civil War and the state park being established, Scarbrough told the kayakers some were from Union soldiers using the mill for target practice after it had been burned.
Scarbrough said Union soldiers stayed at the mill site for 30 days after it was burned waiting on orders. Those orders, he said, were to go fight in the Battle of Atlanta.
Inside the Mill Ruins
Guided hikes, weddings and motion picture filming have routinely taken place inside the mill ruins. But Scarbrough said it was during a guided hike three years ago that someone noticed a brick column leaning very slightly. Engineers confirmed it and tours were suspended.
Aegis Restauro, LLC started restoration of the mill on June 14 of this year. The $375,000 project includes installing steel rods, new mortar and concrete caps on pillars. Scarbrough said the restoration is expected to be completed in the early fall. A celebration is planned when the work is completed and tours and weddings can safely go back inside the mill.
Scarbrough pointed out to the kayakers that the hugely popular movie “Hunger Games: Mockingjay” was partially filmed in the park and he showed kayakers where certain scenes took place. He said the movie has been good for the park because the visitors get to see where the filming took place and “then they fall in love with the whitewater rapids and forests here.”
Wooten, an Alexander High School graduate, pointed out that the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson movie “Rampage” filmed at Sweetwater earlier this year and is scheduled to be released in April 2018. It was the only time the entire park has been shut down for filming, he said. He recalled scenes with characters dropping out of helicopters into the creek during the filming.
As a result of all the filming, Sweetwater Creek State Park is one of the sites on the new Douglas County Film Trail.
After touring around the outside of the mill, kayakers were given time to wade in the rapids below the mill ruins and many took the opportunity to cool off. One kayaker sat sketching a picture of the mill during the break before the trip back.
Since the water is so calm, kayaking upstream back to Ferguson’s crossing was as peaceful as it was flowing with the creek on the trip down to the mill. The afternoon creek kayak runs from 4-7 p.m., and at least a few families could be seen having pictures made by professional photographers along the banks.
Other Guided Tours
In addition to Sweetwater Creek by Kayak, the park also offers paddles on the reservoir, including a Full Moon Paddle and Twilight Lake Paddle.
Scarbrough said the the Twilight Lake Paddle is the most popular ranger-led event at the park.
“Highlights of this tour involve seeing the beautiful evening sky, viewing our larger birds like bald eagles, ospreys, egrets and great blue herons and paddling up Beaver Creek to view a completely different habitat including a beaver pond,” Scarbrough said.
Kayak tours at Sweetwater stop in mid-November and resume in mid-March. Scarbrough said rangers lead guided hikes year-round and the park offers many more when the kayak season ends.
Guided programs that typically go inside the mill are the “Sweetwater Creek by Kayak,” “New Manchester History Hike,” “Full Moon Night Hike,” school groups and scout groups. Rangers will also take private tours in for $5 a person.
Scarbrough notes that the same kayaks used on the guided tours are available for rent by the hour on the reservoir. The park now has overnight accommodations, with 10 yurts and five camping spaces added about two years ago. The park opens every day of the year at 7 a.m. The LEED Platinum Museum/Visitor’s Center is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
And he said two new trails have opened on the east side of the park which are shown on the new trail map.
Scarbrough is a Douglas County native. He has been at Sweetwater for 20 of the last 26 years. He’s left four times to go to Alaska, Grand Teton National Park and South America, but, he said, “I keep coming back.”
“I never get tired of taking people down to the majesty of the rapids with the dramatic and beautiful mill alongside them,” Scarbrough said. “This park has been such a blessing to me. I am so pleased when others appreciate it.”
To learn more about activities such as guided hikes and kayaking tours at Sweetwater Creek State Park, view trail maps and find other information, visit http://gastateparks.org/SweetwaterCreek
Reservations are required for the guided tours at Sweetwater. You can call the park directly at 770-732-5871 or the reservation number at 800-864-7275.
Sweetwater Creek State Park
1750 Mt. Vernon Rd. Lithia Springs
• Park Hours: 7 a.m. - Dark daily.
• Visitor’s Center Hours: 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. daily.
• Fees: $5 Parking.
• Website which includes schedule of guided tours: gastateparks.org/SweetwaterCreek