Namesake waterfall returning to Great Falls

CHESTER COUNTY – For more than a century, the town of Great Falls has been without its namesake landmark. The Great Falls of the Catawba, once a 50-foot waterfall, was cut off by the construction of dams in the 1900s. Two diverging channels of the Catawba River in the town dried up after the dams were built.

Now, Duke Energy, partnering with the town, will return water to the channels and bring wildlife, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and whitewater rafting. And the waterfall will flow again.

The project, called the Great Falls-Dearborn Development, will recreate Dearborn Island, which existed originally due to the diverging channels off of the Catawba River.

Duke Energy also will provide funding to the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism to help the state develop a state park there. Duke will build a pedestrian bridge to provide access to the island, said Kim Crawford, spokesperson for Duke Energy.

The project will include three canoe and kayak launches, including one in lower Great Falls, near the pedestrian bridge leading to Dearborn Island, Crawford said.

There will be parking, restrooms and a historic center with information about factory ruins in the area, Crawford said. The site will be connected to the lower Great Falls site by the Carolina Thread Trail.

Rebirth of Great Falls

The Great Falls-Dearborn Development will be a welcome rebirth for Great Falls, said Glinda Price Coleman, executive director of the Great Falls Home Town Association, a nonprofit that focuses on the town’s economy.

Once a textile-based community, Great Falls is hoping nature-based tourism will bring the town back to life, Coleman said. Since the mills closed in the mid-1980s, “the town has been economically depressed,” she said. Data produced by nonprofit American Whitewater estimates that from whitewater activities alone, the development will bring $3.1-$4.6 million to Great Falls annually, and Coleman guesses it will probably exceed that.

The development will provide a second option for avid whitewater rafters in Rock Hill and Fort Mill.

“It will be complementary to the white water center in Charlotte,” Robert Long, Chester County’s economic development director, said. And it will provide an option for residents who want to canoe or kayak but find other spots on the Catawba overcrowded.

Long said the return of the waterways will revitalize the community of Great Falls.

“It gives people an opportunity to come here, stay local, and support the local businesses,” he said.

Coleman said she hopes this development will spur new businesses to come to Great Falls, providing equipment and transportation for tourists.

Coleman said she hopes people will be enticed to move to the small town — which is conveniently located off of Interstate 77 halfway between Charlotte and Columbia — and commute to work.

The Timeline

The new development, just outside of downtown Great Falls, is slated to be open to the public in 2022, with construction on the first whitewater channel beginning in the spring of 2021.

But land already is being cleared for a parking lot and a boat launch, where paddlers will drop off kayaks and canoes and paddle the river to the whitewater channel, Coleman said.

Coleman said Duke Energy has committed to finishing the project by August 2022, but she believes they are ahead of schedule.

A Long Time Coming

Plans to bring nature-based tourism to Great Falls began in 2000, Coleman said.

A new license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has allowed Duke Energy to provide enhancements to water quality, giving the green light to this project, Crawford said. Duke can now control the flow of water to the channels.

In 2003, Great Falls and the Great Falls Home Town Association were named as stakeholders in the re-licensing process. For Duke Energy to utilize the town’s resources (which include 3 dams and 5 powerplants) for commerce, the company agreed to give back to the community — which included providing recreation.

While planning began in 2006, the licensing for the project was not complete until 2015. “And the clock didn’t really start ticking on the process until 2017,” Coleman said.

It’s been a long time coming — but change is coming to Great Falls.

A rendering shows the channels that will be reinvigorated by the Great Falls-Dearborn Development.

Reprinted with permission from the Rock Hill Herald. Tobie Nell Perkins covers Chester County for the Rock Hill Herald.