For millennia, civilizations have grown from the fertile banks of rivers; from the Ganges to the Thames, our greatest cities and cultures owe their inceptions to those shimmering, glancing, gurgling bodies of water. Many of our Southern cities are no different—Greenville, for instance.
Centuries ago, long before Europeans first set their crude instruments and destructive constructions into her banks, the Reedy River served as a hub for roving Cherokee. The rich shorelines served as a resting stop for weary Native Americans, who would settle and camp along the river in sticky hot summers. Though European settlers were prohibited from the region until 1777, the first white man to land and lodge upon the Reedy was Richard Pearis in 1768, over a decade before his counterparts. Pearis, with his Cherokee wife and Cherokee children, established a trading post and grist mill upon a bend in the Reedy. The site he chose, a dazzling spectacle featuring a forty-foot cascade of tumbling rocks and water, was unparalleled. Though Pearis may have been aware of the significance of his actions—he was, after all, the first white man to carve his name into the rich valley south of the Blue Ridge—he could not have anticipated the impact his decision, specifically the erection of his grist mill, would have on the future of the very river itself.
The location, with its swift waters and steep drop, proved to be the perfect place for a mill. Over the decades that followed, with European expansion westward and the settling of new cities, others followed in the footsteps and blueprints of Pearis. The wee piece of riverfront featuring the Reedy River Falls became known to new locals as the Cradle of Greenville, where industry and community grew like babes from the crib. Though Pearis abandoned his mill (and 50,000 acres with it) after his Cherokee brethren were expunged from the Carolinas, other mills followed, and the rushing water of the falls became a power source for a series of enterprises in the early nineteenth century. Ironworks, sawmills, an armory, factories for paper and coaches, and of course grist and corn mills cropped up on the special bend in the river.
And with those industries, a community arose. Churches, school house, and cabin upon cabin encircled the industrial epicenter. A twenty-seven-acre mill village sprouted like weeds from the fertile dirt around the river.
Those industries and innumerable people brought something else: pollution. The crystal clear waters turned murky, the smooth rocks strewn with sludge, and the most picturesque view in South Carolina slid soundlessly into urban decay. Though Furman University purchased the property in 1852, they continued to operate three textile mills and a cotton warehouse through the early twentieth century, further depreciating the once pristine landscape.
It’s true that the citizens of Greenville began to recognize their citified mistake pretty early on. In 1907, the local municipal league sponsored a report entitled “Beautifying and Improving Greenville, South Carolina,” in which they noted that the river falls were “the most distinctive feature in the topography and landscape of Greenville” and encouraged the city’s action in revitalizing the once-scenic area. Despite these admonitions, it wasn’t until sixty years later that action began.
In 1967 the Carolina Foothills Garden Club raised that long-extinguished torch once again and founded Fall’s Park on the Reedy, recovering twenty-six acres for their project. Yet it wasn’t until the nineties that the area really changed its facade. At that point the park became what it is today: the “living room” of Greenville.
Set in a valley adjacent to downtown in the historic West End district, the park keeps the pulse of the city. Miles of wandering trails meander through the now thirty-two acres, curving under sprawling trees and across windswept and manicured meadows. The Reedy runs through its center, returned to its sparkling and gurgling glory. The crowning feature of the scene is, as it was hundreds of years ago, the falls. After removing an obtrusive and unsightly vehicular bridge, the city erected a beautifully modern and simple suspension bridge. The Liberty Bridge at Falls Park, which is supported by cables on only one side, curves over and around the waterfall, highlighting rather than hindering its natural beauty.
The park is home to events big and small. You’ll often find couples picnicking under her shade trees or walking hand in hand across the bridge. You’ll also find plenty of events for the whole family here, including the upstate Shakespeare Festival and the Reedy River Duck Derby, in which thousands of yellow rubber duckies race down the falls to the hearty cheers of onlookers.
If you ever question the circuitousness of history, merely look to the Reedy River in Greenville for your answer. From the Cherokee camps of centuries ago and the mill village of yesteryear, to the cultural hub it is today, the Reedy always has been—and always will be—a river and giver of life.