The Early Days of the Foothills Trail and Foothills Trail Conference
By Glenn Hilliard, founding Chair of the FTC and co-founder of the Foothills Trail
The Foothills Trail is truly a walk through history. From the Marion Castles Rock House (reportedly a hideout for Civil War draft dodgers), to one-room schools and abandoned liquor stills, the trail meanders through an area brimming with provocative landmarks left by its pioneering settlers.
And Native Americans were there long before the pioneers and draft dodgers. The lower Cherokee Nation’s hub was just south of Lake Jocassee, and the flat bottomland at the confluence of the Horsepasture, Toxaway and Laurel Fork rivers was referred to as the “Horsepasture” because its steep slopes formed a natural corral.
The area’s botanical and geological features have their own history and legacy as well. A verdant plethora of plants — some rarely found elsewhere in the world — lushly skirt and shade the trailsides. If only the trees and ancient rocks could talk! While there are more than a handful of splendid guidebooks, artifact exhibits, and available narratives that explore and reveal the region’s riches of geological, botanical, and cultural wonders, the history of how the Foothills Trail itself came about deserves its own recount. This is my attempt to do that.
Upstate SC Environmentalists: Late 1960s – early 1970s
Fortunately for all of us, interest in parks, trails, hunting, fishing, and protections of green spaces are important parts of our region’s heritage. Environmental leaders were beginning to seek protection of areas in the mountains and foothills of the Carolinas by the late ’60s and early ’70s, led by environmental stalwarts such as Ted Snyder and Tommy Wyche. Snyder served on the national board of the Sierra Club and co-founded the Joseph LeConte Chapter of the Sierra Club in the Carolinas. His early work inspired many to help protect numerous, magnificent natural areas such as the Chattooga River, Four Hole Swamp, and Congaree National Park.
Another Upstate South Carolina environmental giant was Tommy Wyche. He founded and funded Naturaland Trust, which has acquired or otherwise protected tens of thousands of acres of incredible green spaces, including lands that formed the nucleus of Caesars Head and Jones Gap State Parks. Naturaland Trust also added acreage to protected lands, rivers, and parks such as the Upstate’s Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, and Table Rock, Paris Mountain, Stumphouse, and Oconee State parks. Tommy also helped to preserve thousands of acres of lands along the Saluda, the Reedy and other rivers, and along the Swamp Rabbit Trail.
And in the late ’60s, as a result of growing interest in an Upstate mountain trail, the U.S. Forest Service actually agreed to build a segment of a trail in Sumter National Forest. Yet, while many acres of Upstate forests and streams were being preserved, protected and brought to light by these and other environmentalists, unfortunately, there were many others who were aggressively buying land along the Blue Ridge Escarpment solely for development.
The Birthing of the Foothills Trail
During the 1960s and 1970s, large SC and NC land acquisitions were made by Duke Power Company and its subsidiary, Crescent Land and Timber Company, for the purpose of building lakes Keowee and Jocassee. These lakes and the companion nuclear power plant were needed by Duke to help satisfy the power and water needs of its rapidly developing customer base along the I-85 corridor and throughout the Blue Ridge. Duke acquired all the property required for Keowee by the 1960s. The company announced the Keowee- Toxaway projects in 1963, started work in 1967, and completed the effort by 1974.
Through the Sierra Club, it was learned that in addition to the building of lakes Keowee and Jocassee, one or more pump storage facilities were being proposed to be built above Lake Jocassee. Bad Creek project was to be the first. The threat of the Bad Creek pump storage facility helped kick-start the imagined hiking trail out of its concept stage and into the construction stage. Normally, a federally issued license permitting construction of a hydroelectric facility includes provisions for public utilization of the project’s recreation resources (Regulation R). However, the small, upper pool of the Bad Creek project — with its 60% slopes and the almost daily 100- to 150-foot water level fluctuations — was clearly unsuitable for public recreation use. Because of these unique issues, Duke and Crescent leadership began to look at alternatives to the traditional parks, picnic tables, and boat ramps that were frequently provided in these construction projects. Instead, they looked to build and maintain a hiking trail across their properties above Lakes Keowee and Jocassee. That decision, they likely realized, might also serve to mitigate Bad Creek project objections from various environmental groups such as the Sierra Club.
By 1970, the Upstate trail effort was gaining significant momentum. At this same time, there were literally dozens of individuals and institutions who were busily telling Duke and Crescent how to manage their mountain lands, which often included the building of hiking trails. This fragmented advice to Duke seemed to create confusion rather than consensus or clarity on the issues of if, how, and where a trail should be built through the Duke lands above Lake Jocassee. Early Foothills Trail guidebooks put it this way: “Describing the origins of the Foothills Trail is like describing the root system of an oak tree while looking only at the part of the tree which can be seen above the ground.”
Records reflect that one trail concept envisioned a path connecting the Whitewater River to Pinnacle Mountain. Another visualized a trail that included a link to Stumphouse Mountain and traversed the watershed of Lake Jocassee. A third called for Oconee State Park and Table Rock State Park to be connected via a trail crossing north of Lake Jocassee. And, importantly, the Joseph LeConte Chapter of the Sierra Club designed a comprehensive recreational plan, dubbed “the SLOPE proposal”, for the Southern Appalachian Mountains.
The Sierra Club plan laid out an extensive trail system, which included a trail that closely followed the path of today’s Foothills Trail (FT) — and was very similar to the route that Duke Power later submitted as part of its recreation plan in its Bad Creek license application. This Sierra Club plan provided the unifying – and, I believe, necessary — concept and “road-map” for designing and implementing a trail system that linked the most significant state parks in the mountainous Blue Ridge Escarpment of South Carolina. Over the years, there were a number of players who thought the FT was their idea, remembered Dr. Karen LaFleur Stewart, the editor of the first FT guidebook. Those players included Hurley E. Badders, the Director of the Pendleton District Historical, Recreational and Tourism Commission; South Carolina Parks Recreation and Tourism; Dr. Gordon Howard at Clemson University; Herman Hermelink, the CEO of Crescent Land and Timber; and the Sierra Club.
Rounding up the troops
I decided to wade into this mucky morass of moving parts, players and proposals. During the early 1970s, I was serving as the Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club’s SC Bartram Group and was employed as a business and regulatory lawyer for Liberty Life Insurance Company in Greenville, SC. It seemed like my legal, business and regulatory skills and experiences matched up with the challenge at hand; I was used to bringing disparate parties to the table and seeking positive outcomes for all.
I surveyed the multiple proposals and ideas that were being pushed to Duke and Crescent. It seemed that Duke would stand a better chance of regulatory approval of its Bad Creek project with a top-notch hiking trail as part of the package – if its leaders could negotiate the trail concept with one coordinated organization. Duke certainly realized that dealing with one focused group that included representation from the Sierra Club might quiet the chance of, or at least balance, environmental opposition to Bad Creek. Specifically, these numerous and conflicting inputs could create risks that some of the groups might mount objections and try to stop the Bad Creek proposal. And also, an approach without clear focus and environmental input, could, ultimately, delay the development of the trail. I figured the best opportunity to get the trail built would be to rally State support, work cooperatively with Duke, and form a managing entity by assembling all interested parties to join it. And so the Foothills Trail Conference (FTC) was conceived.
This strategy of coordination might also deliver a more attractive route and more protection for sensitive areas within the Duke/Crescent properties than might be achieved with a more confrontational approach. It was always the plan to position the FTC to actively engage in the route selection. I was committed to jump- starting trail construction by moving the discussions of a hiking trail from classroom theory into the get-it-done business world.
Thankfully, this approach was enthusiastically endorsed by Duke and Crescent; they actively joined and helped to formally organize the FTC. Duke and Crescent had what the FTC and hikers desperately needed: the land, the financial resources and the cooperation required to get the Foothills Trail built as quickly and successfully as possible.
To fund the first official FTC stationery — to create the entity’s initial appearance of legitimacy — Francis Hipp, the CEO of the Liberty Corporation, donated the $100 in seed money. That sum, which afforded him the first “FTC Lifetime Membership”, was real money in the ’70s. It was all that was needed to print stationery and invite all the interested parties to a pivotal organizational meeting. And they all showed up!
Crucial May 1974 Meeting and Blazing the Trail
That organizational meeting was held May 22, 1974. The importance of this organizing forum cannot be overstated. The purpose was the “coordination of groups and individuals interested in advancing, completion, use and maintenance of the Foothills Trail.” The Conference was structured to consist of clubs, landowners, individuals and managing agencies interested in that purpose. At subsequent meetings, bylaws were adopted, a Board of Directors was elected, and plans for the implementation of the FT objectives such as route selection, setting of construction and marking standards were determined. (The names of the people and agencies in attendance at that May 1974 meeting are listed in the Notes at the end of this article.)
It was a true milestone to get to that point. The establishment of our non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization status came later. Soon after that May 1974 organizational meeting, the early work of the FT would begin: driving, walking, and flagging the proposed route, and then blazing the final trail route that was chosen. Here Alfred Breedin clearly took the lead. Breedin was a Duke employee who was devoting full time to the trail. He and John Garton, also a Duke employee who later joined him on the trail effort, spent many hard and long days and weekends to create an interesting trail route, as well as to protect some of the most scenic and pristine areas in the mountains. This same environmental commitment applied to other Duke folks, including Bill Lee, an outdoorsman and conservationist, who was the Chief Engineer and later CEO for Duke; and Herman Hermelink who was CEO of Crescent Land and Timber Company.
Several FTC volunteers and FTC board members joined some of the scouting, flagging and marking outings, including Marshall Pickens, Dr. Mose Macfie, Tom Brown, Joe Hilliard and myself. After scouting these sensitive and scenic spots, I wrote Duke to request that these areas be protected through relocation of the proposed trail route or by broadening the trail width protections. The FTC later received a written agreement from Duke to protect several of these natural areas from timbering, including the Laurel Falls area, where there were some giant hemlocks.
In those early days, Marshall Pickens was the original Maintenance Coordinator for the FTC. Part of his qualifications for this role was that he was a strong climber, who had hiked not only in the Blue Ridge area, but also on many major backpack trips in mountain ranges around the country. But perhaps most important, Marshall was the only FTC board member in those days who owned a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, his Jeepster Commando! A 4-wheel-drive vehicle was essential to navigate the often muddy logging roads and to cross the several rivers that are scattered throughout the lands above Jocassee.
The Foothills Trail Comes Together
After several years of construction, the trails which connected Table Rock State Park, the Upper Whitewater Falls, and the Nantahala and Sumter National forests were all opened to hikers. There were many years of toil, but the FT volunteers made the most of those efforts by camping, hiking, and backpacking almost every weekend while scouting, marking, and helping with trail construction. The sacrifices and stories of the families of these volunteers during those years could fill another book.
Actual groundbreaking began in 1981 for the Duke Power portions of the trail, which stretched from the Whitewater River to the boundary of Table Rock State Park. Around that time, the FTC became even more active. There was now a visible reason to join the FTC and to take a terrific hike through our spectacular mountain landscape.
Today, the FTC – which officially changed its name at the start of 2018 from the Foothills Trail Conference to the Foothills Trail Conservancy — continues as the forum for all FT guidance, shuttles, planning, maintenance, functions and communications. Early on, it provided the focus for developing the guidebook, and for planning trail extensions.
The Caesars Head Spur
From the very beginning, a major goal of the FTC was to link all the major state parks in the Upstate SC mountains, but the Greenville Watershed stood, and still does, between Table Rock and Caesars Head state parks and the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area.
For years, I negotiated and lobbied Greenville water commissioners to allow the FTC to build and maintain a narrow trail corridor across, above or below the Greenville Watershed reservoir, but the commissioners always (and in hindsight, appropriately) resisted politely or stalled. Finally, in desperation, a records search was launched to locate the names of all adjoining landowners in the areas around the watershed. It was discovered that Champion Paper owned the NC land along the SC and NC State line between Sassafras Mountain and Caesars Head. After diving into research on Champion, I called and wrote the CEO. Over more than a year of calls and conversations, an easement was negotiated. Important to this success was John Lumpkin who had helped introduce the FTC to the Champion CEO.
About the time this spur trail right-of-way was worked out in 1985, Champion sold the property to Charles Taylor, whose family was then the largest private landowner in Jackson and Transylvania counties. (Taylor later became the Congressman for that part of the state and served for many years.) When this sale was announced, it was feared that all was lost. Several telephone conversations and meetings with Taylor followed to explain what the FTC was trying to accomplish and why this spur trail was so important to both SC and NC. Fortunately for the FT and the environment, and much to his credit, Mr. Taylor agreed to proceed and to honor the easement. Kudos also go to Champion; during this ownership change, the corporation supported the previously negotiated trail right-of-way agreement every step of the way. And Cary Hall, a Wyche firm lawyer and a FTC board member, performed the legal work on the easement agreement.
Soon after the agreement with Congressman Taylor was secured, work began on the spur trail route. One obstacle emerged immediately: The white blaze that had been used to mark the rest of the FT route was the color used to blaze the boundary along the Greenville Watershed property line and NC. Joe Hilliard, brother of Glenn, along with Joe’s son, Allen, and Jeff Sartini did most of this initial blazing for this section of the trail. Joe selected blue as the color for this spur trail, which continues as its blaze color to this day. The FT spur from Sassafras Mountain to Caesars Head finally opened in 1985.
The importance of this right-of-way to Caesars Head became obvious in recent years when the FTC was approached by The Palmetto Trail to seek, at first, a takeover of the Foothills Trail, and later, permission to secure a right to use this FTC spur trail as a way to get its trail around the Greenville Watershed. A right to access this FT spur trail was negotiated and granted to The Palmetto Trail. And Kieran Roe, Executive Director of NC’s Conserving Carolina, has mentioned to me the value of the Sassafras Spur in helping to convince the State of NC to acquire the properties that are now known as the Headwaters State Forest. NC regularly seeks to provide public access to acreage they acquire for state parks and forests, and the FT spur helped to demonstrate public access.
The FTC Board realized that a guidebook was needed, and that presented two big problems: How to get it written, and how to get it printed (and paid for). To address the first issue, Karen LaFleur Stewart, who also served as our first lowly paid Executive Director, volunteered to take on this challenge. To address the second hurdle, FTC approached Duke, which agreed to fund and to manage the printing of the first FT guidebook. Over many weekends and with the support of more than 50 volunteers, Stewart got the job done. There were many iterations, much consolidating and proofreading. Write-ups were sent to Duke for final review and approval, and then more reviewing of printer’s proofs before Stewart finally signed off.
Following the printing, the glorious delivery day finally arrived. I, and surely all those present, will always remember the anticipation as the big boxes were opened. Immediately, panic set in: The covers, the pages, and the maps were not assembled into a final product. The Liberty Corporation Board Room quickly became the command post since it had a 30-foot antique table that was large enough to spread out all the pages, dividers and covers. The organizing and assembling began. Many workdays and weekends were spent in assembly, with volunteers like Stewart, Tom Brown, and Anita Turner. Finally, by late 1983, the guidebooks were ready to go on sale.
When I resigned as Chair of the FTC in the Fall of 1989, after 20 years of work on the FT, the board granted me the title of Chair Emeritus and organized ways to honor my service to and advocacy for the FT and the FTC. Perhaps the most touching and meaningful to me of those tributes was the naming of the unnamed falls on Bearcamp Creek in my honor in 1990. I had just moved with my family to Denver due to a career change. I was, and still am, deeply grateful to that FTC board for this honor: Karen LaFleur Stewart, Tinka McArdle, Tom Brown, Mike Despeaux, Chuck Borawa, Benji Cannon, Mike Stafford, Cary Hall, Tom Brown, Heyward Douglass, and Alfred Breedin.
There are so many people I’d like to thank for their generous time and service to making the FT what it is today, but out of fear that I will inadvertently leave out names of deserving contributors, I’ll just say this: Please know how grateful I am for the enthusiasm, devotion, care, and efforts of all the workers and volunteers. They sought no glory nor acclaim for the many days and years they labored to bring the FT to reality for thousands of hikers to enjoy. Most importantly, they continue to protect and maintain these trail corridors, which will allow all those hikers to experience the excitement, environmental immersion, fun, exercise, peace, and good health found in the exploration of the Foothills Trail.
I would like to thank Andrew Gleason for the invitation and opportunity to write my version of the FT history and my personal remembrances. I would like to especially thank my wife, Heather Hilliard, for her enduring support and patience, as well as my three daughters, Kathryn, Nancy, and Elizabeth Glenn, who I am proud to say are all great fans of the outdoors.
I hope my grandchildren will understand someday why I spent so much time and heart on this project. May they realize this motivating truth written by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To leave this world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch (or a hiking trail) or a redeemed social condition, to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived – this is to have succeeded!”
Many segments of this narrative were borrowed liberally from prior FT guidebooks and records. According to the May 24, 1974, Organizing Minutes of the FTC, the following is a list of the members and organizations represented at the crucial meeting that established the FTC. These people continued to work together for the following several years to build the Foothills Trail. Attendance reflects “persons affiliated with Crescent Land and Timber Company (CLT); Duke Power Company (DPC); the Sierra Club (SC); SC Department of Parks Recreation and Tourism (PRT); the US Forest Service (USFS) (Sumter National Forest); and the Boy Scouts of America (BSC).”
Jim Barrett, USFS Charles Dewey, DPC
Don Bessinger, SC Jim Jurman, BSC
Larry Bloomer, CLT H. M. Hermelink, CLT
Charles J. Borawa, DPC Glenn Hilliard, SC
Ronald M. Bost, CLT Wm. K. Marsh, PRT
Miles J. Boyer, CLT John B. May, PRT
Tom L. Brown, SC Dave Robinson, CLT
Hank Cheney, DPC Jimmy J. Sevic, DPC
Gene Cocke, USFS Mike Sheriff, SC
Frank F. Couch, Jr., PRT Joe F. Watson, PRT Mike Despeaux, SC
Absent were invited representatives from Clemson University Department of Recreation and Parks Administration, who said they were unable to attend due to conflicts.
The minutes of later FTC meetings reflect the participation of several other organizations. Other involved organizations included the Pendleton District Historical Society; the South Carolina Department of Wildlife and Marine Biology; United States Department of Interior, who manages the Fish Hatchery; and Forest Service Representatives from Nantahala National Forest. Mike Despeaux and Tom Brown were two of the five Sierra Club representatives who later served on the FTC Board.