Thousands of historic artifacts unearthed as Congaree River cleanup wraps

Published: Nov. 13, 2023 at 6:58 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 13, 2023 at 7:28 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WCSC) - Nearly 40,000 tons of toxic sediment that had been sitting in a South Carolina river for more than a century have now been removed.

On Monday, Gov. Henry McMaster, Columbia Mayor Daniel Rickenmann, and other state and city leaders joined Dominion Energy to mark the ahead-of-schedule completion of a cleanup project in the Congaree River.

The tar-like material was found in the river more than a decade ago, discarded from an early-to-mid-1900s gas plant operated by the former SCE&G, now Dominion Energy.

Cleanup itself began last summer.

“This is the only project like it done in the United States,” Dominion Energy South Carolina President Keller Kissam said at Monday’s news conference.

But the toxic substance they dug up was not the only thing the waters of the Congaree covered up for centuries.

During the course of the $20 million project, crews unearthed thousands of artifacts, including several hundred Confederate relics from the Civil War.

Sherman’s Union troops dumped the Confederate military supplies in the river as they moved through Columbia at the end of the war, according to historians.

Even more than 150 years after the Civil War ended, some artifacts were still treacherous to handle.

“They recovered a couple of live rounds that had potential black powder in them and were able to kind of inert them and take them to the bomb squad and figure out how to dispose of them without causing an explosion,” TRC Archeological Program Manager Sean Norris said.

It wasn’t just Civil War relics that crews found hidden underneath the Congaree’s waters.

Archeologists said these discoveries tell the story of South Carolina’s capital city.

“It’s got historic artifacts from the beginning of Columbia. We’ve got Native American artifacts out there. We’ve got artifacts that we believe came from the canal after the flood and the canal burst,” Norris said.

The project leaves the river cleaner than it was and leaves the state with treasures unseen for more than a century.

“They seem like just stories from the past, but when we read about those and we see artifacts and see things that touched people’s hands, it brings right back to how fortunate we are in this state and in this country to be where we are,” Gov. Henry McMaster told reporters.

The Civil War artifacts will eventually have a permanent home in the South Carolina State Museum’s Confederate Relic Room, located in downtown Columbia, just a few blocks away from where crews found them in the river.