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    Published 10-3-2020

    Upcountry South Carolina is the northwest corner of the state, along the North Carolina border and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has many historical, natural, and cultural treasures. Many of these attractions can be visited during a pandemic and Oconee Station is one of those. It a South Carolina State Historic Site that includes one of the prettiest waterfalls in the Upstate, Station Cove Falls. Travelers along Interstate 85 that want a more scenic and less-crowded view of South Carolina should consider the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway (state highway 11). It runs from the Georgia line to Gaffney, South Carolina, about 15 miles from the North Carolina border. There are lots of attractions that can be visited while social distancing, including Oconee Station, and even a Revolutionary War Battlefield at Cowpens.

    Oconee Station’s historical interest centers on two buildings from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The site encompasses 210 acres with a 1.5-mile interpretative nature trail through wildflowers and wilderness. Part of the trail circles a four-acre stocked fishing pond.

    Oconee Station

    In the late eighteenth century, the Upcountry was the western frontier. White settlers and Native Americans clashed, resulting in skirmishes and massacres. In 1792, General Robert Anderson decided the western frontier needed defenses and designated what they would be: “I have ordered the people to build blockhouses, where they are exposed and intimidated, to fly with their families, in case of alarm. I have frontier blockhouses built and building, at suitable places along our frontiers, at the distance of about eight or ten miles apart. I have ordered trusty spies to be constantly kept out at Tugalo and at the Oconee Mountain, as they are the spots … which be most exposed.”  The area around Oconee Station is the center of what the interpretative historical marker calls “the South Carolina frontier experience.”

    Oconee Station is one of those frontier blockhouses, the only remaining one. As a military outpost, it served as a westernmost defensive point for new settlers. Scouts based at these stations roamed the frontier areas and served as an early warning network for imminent Indian attacks, giving the alarm to local white settlers who could retreat to the stations. It served as a garrisoned fort for armed troops, with the blockhouse being the central protective structure. This site was the only station on the South Carolina frontier that remained in operation after 1796. Its use by the military ended in 1799 when the threat of Indian attacks subsided. The station was also used as a trading post. Trader William Richards came to live at the station in 1795, and, in 1805, built a brick residence next to the blockhouse. Since the station served as a military fort and trading post, it provides insights into the complex and changing relationships between Southeastern Indians and white settlers, as the whites gained land and the Indian Territory was pushed westward.

    The interpretive marker describes its use as a military and trading post: “The sturdy stone structure at Oconee Station housed as many as 30 soldiers at a time, over a period of about eight years. We can only guess at the number of deerskins that passed through its doors during and since that time. Deerskins were in high demand in Europe, and Southeastern Indians responded by hunting millions of deer annually for trade. In exchange, they received weapons, cotton and linen fabrics, rum, ornaments, metal tools, and other items. European guns made it easier for Indians to hunt deer, but weapons were also valuable for defense against their enemies. Though trade was beneficial to both sides, it was disruptive of traditional Native American life, particularly as hunters spent more time away from home. The Indians bartered other goods such as baskets, ginseng, and snakeroot, but deerskins remained their main trade good until Indian removal from the Southeast.”

    State Highway 11, the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, roughly parallels the Cherokee path in places. Oconee Station was built near the main Cherokee Lower Towns. The Upcountry is full of historical markers describing the state’s frontier history.

    An historical marker on Highway 11: “The main trading path to the Cherokee Nation paralleled the route of Highway 11 for several miles at this point, This section of the path was used by travelers going from Keowee, the main Lower Town of the Cherokees, across the mountains to the Middle and Overhill Towns. The botanist William Bartram left a written journal of his journey in 1776.”

    An historical marker at Oconee Station recognizes the station is located beside one of the important Cherokee Lower Towns.


    The two remaining building are situated near each other atop a hill. There were additional buildings that did not survive and likely some sort of fort structure. Note the defensive design of both buildings.

    Okana-Stoté, Chief of the Cherokee Nation, 1761.


    Recruited from the “hardiest and best hunters,” the garrison consisted of infantry, mounted infantry, and scouts.

     The inside of both buildings is relatively bare, intended to expose the architecture of the structures. The blockhouse was obviously built for defense, with thick walls and high, narrow, and deepset windows. The main floor has two rooms with a large chimney in the center that furnished two fireplaces. There is a basement and a second story. The house was surrounded by an old English garden and was tended by the sister of the trading post owners. She came from England to tend for her bothers. Her grave is at the foot of the hill, with a tombstone that reads, “Margaret Richards who crossed the ocean for love of her bothers.”    

    The blockhouse is all that remains of the small fort at Oconee Station, built as a response to Indian raids along the western frontier. Built in 1792, it was garrisoned by 30 militiamen. By 1799 it was no longer necessary to garrison troops at the station.  


    The inside of the blockhouse.

    Established in 1795, the trading post at Oconee Station was owned an Irish immigrant named William Richards. Wagonloads of skins and furs were exchanged for everything from gun flints to livestock. In addition to thousands of acres of land and 11 enslaved workers, Mr. Richards was able to afford a two-story brick home, built in 1805, in an area where log cabins were the norm. His estate inventory in 1809 listed 15 tons of deerskins, 329 beer skins, 82 pounds of ginseng, and many other sundry items. As the frontier moved westward, the economic importance of Oconee Station declined.  
    The inside of the trader’s brick house. Notice, like the blockhouse, it was built for defense.     

     Station Cove Falls

    Getting to Station Cove Falls involves a half-mile (one way) trail that passes through one of South Carolina’s most uncommon and treasured natural areas, a place of beauty and biodiversity. More than 250 species of plants are known to occur in the cove, including 14 rare plant species. It is named for nearby historic blockhouse and the steep sided mountain ravine (or cove) that ends at the base of a spectacular 60-foot waterfall. The trail is well marked and provides a relatively easy hike as it passes above a beaver enhanced wetland, along the side of wood slope dominated by oaks and hickories and across several small streams. It then enters Station Cove proper.

    Station Cove Falls, in a county with numerous waterfalls, that is perhaps the prettiest.

    The historical site has a 1½ mile nature trail that ends at the Falls. The shorter half-mile trail to the Falls is part of that longer trail. The well-marked trailhead of the shorter trail is just up the main road from the site entrance. The longer trail begins at the historical site parking lot and forks soon after it begins. It circles the large fishing pond and then the two legs come back together; so, a hiker can go out on one trail and return on the other.

    One of the South Carolina’s favorite state parks, especially for hikers, is Oconee State Park, with camping, cabins, and lots of trails. One trail connects to the Station Cove Trail. So, it is possible to stay at the nearby Oconee State Park campground and visit two great parks in the same day.

    The Blue Ridge Escarpment and associated Brevard Fault Zone form the transition zone between the steep slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the rolling hills of the Piedmont. This unique habitat creates a refuge for a variety of plants that would not normally thrive here. The escarpment is home to several scenic waterfalls, including, Station Cove Falls. The waterfall not only provides natural beauty, but it also produces another special habitat: the spray cliffs community. The constant spray from the waterfall tumbling over rocks and boulders provides an important home to many species, including ferns, mosses, liverworts, salamanders, crayfish and aquatic insects. 

    The trailhead begins in a pine and hardwood forest typical of much of South Carolina’s Piedmont, a rather dry but interesting habitat that includes plants such as pink lady slipper orchids and spotted wintergreen. Further along the trail, as the habitat changes, monkshood and blood root can be found. Moisture conditions increase and forest types change as the trail meanders along Station Cove Creek. Sometimes you may hear spring peepers which live in the wetlands adjacent to the creek. At the end of Station Cove Trail you will be in one of the most distinct and botanically diverse habitats in the eastern United States: a rich cove forest. The grandest annual show of wildflowers at Station Cove typically occurs in mid-March when thousands of trilliums bloom along the trail leading to the cove. In the spring there are also mayapple, pink lady’s slipper orchids, bloodroot, and redbud.

    The trails are well-maintained, and the terrain is relatively easy. The walk from the historical site is through beautiful forest and wildflowers, and becomes more and more impressive as the hiker enters the cove and approaches the waterfall.

    Both Nature and History

    The best part of this road trip stop is that it has strong doses of both nature and history. The waterfall, forest, and wildflowers are worth the stop themselves, but the frontier history is also fascinating. Taking the scenic highway means other possible nature stops, like Table Rock State Park and Caesars Head State Park. The Upcountry has many revolutionary war battle sites, including large ones.

    Near Oconee Station, for example, a small, but significant, Indian fight took place on August 12, 1776. Even though it was an Indian battle, it was also a Revolutionary War battle. Cherokees, influenced by British Loyalists, began to attach western colonial settlements. The South Carolina militia responded and a force of 1,100 men began a scorched earth policy against the Cherokee villages. One of those Indian villages was Tamassee, near the future site of Oconee Station, and Andrew Pickens (who would become a Revolutionary War General), led a small 25-man scouting party to locate hostiles near the village. He was surrounded by a 175-200 Native Americans. Quick thinking led him to form his 25 men into two circles, one outer circle and a smaller inner circle, with his men firing outward; each circle could fire and reload in order. This became the famous “Ring Fight” in South Carolina lore. Vastly outnumbered, the tactic worked, and kept most of the men safe until reinforcements arrived. Native American casualties were high and Pickens made his reputation. There is an historical marker for the battle only 4.5 miles from the historical site. Nothing but the marker is there, but if you want to see the battle site, turn right as you leave Oconee Station, and proceed to the end of Oconee Station Road at Tamassee Knob Road; turn left and in two miles you will end at Cheohee Valley Road. The historical marker is at that intersection.           

    There were definitely Indian battles near Oconee Station.


    None of this is far from scenic Highway 11, and even if you don’t stop, Highway 11 is a much more pleasant drive than the parallel Interstate. The problem is there are plenty of interesting places along the route to tempt drivers to make a stop. Oconee Station is unquestionably one of the most interesting. 

    Author: Thomas J. Straka is a forestry professor emeritus at Clemson University. He has a keen interest in political and natural history.


    For additional information:

    South Carolina Parks Official Website


    South Carolina Trails Website


    HD Carolina video of Oconee Station


    HD Carolina video of Station Cove Falls


    A History of Oconee Station, South Carolina 








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