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The downtown duck pond

Posted: March 20, 2017 4:26 p.m.
Updated: March 21, 2017 1:00 a.m.

In 1798, a committee composed of James Kershaw, John Kershaw, William Lang, James Chesnut and Samuel Mathis surveyed the land which would be called “The Extended Plan of Camden.”  Before he died in 1791, Joseph Kershaw had a grand new vision for Camden, just as he had for the original site of the town south of York Street. Kershaw had drafted the plan to extend the town limits north from its original northern boundary of York Street up to present day Chesnut Street.  As the survey committee laid out the bounds of the new streets and lots, James Chesnut paused on the new section of Lyttleton Street and gazed toward the hills on the western side of the town limits. Below the gently rising hills lay the shimmering waters of the marshy pond in the middle of the town plan. Several ducks took flight off the pond as the other men passed by Chesnut. Around him there stood majestic longleaf pines and old towering oak trees. “What a beautiful site for a house,” he thought as the waterfowl flew overhead. “So peaceful.”

By 1813, Chesnut purchased that tranquil parcel of land from which he had viewed the pond and hills of Camden.  His land was made up of a block of long city lots totaling 6.9 acres between Lyttleton, York, Fair, and DeKalb Streets. The scene James Chesnut saw when surveying the extended town in 1798 had changed a great deal by then. When the court ordered Joseph Kershaw’s estate to be sold under a judgement in 1801, Richard Lloyd Champion bought the tract containing the 90 acre pond. Champion was the son of the successful British porcelain maker and artist, Richard Champion (1743-1791), who migrated to America and ultimately to Camden by 1785.  The younger Richard Champion had plans for the pond tract.

Richard Lloyd Champion was an enterprising man who, by his actions, could be described in modern terms as a real estate developer.  His plan of action was to drain the marshy pond and develop his 90 acre tract into town lots.  There would be great demand for these in the very heart of the growing town of Camden.  To accomplish this Champion instructed his laborers to dig a ditch to deepen the creek which naturally ran east to west across the large wetlands tract, the stream head starting in front of the present-day public works lot next to city hall.  The resulting ditch went straight west just south of Arthur Lane, cut southwest at Broad Street past Church Street and then meandered west past the town limits toward Belton’s Branch and ultimately into the Wateree River. It was known by the townspeople as the “Big Ditch.”

The pond had been such an obstacle that Broad Street running through the middle of town was literally a raised causeway from York Street to DeKalb Street.  The Big Ditch was a challenging obstacle as well; wooden bridges had to be built across it where street beds ran into its path. But it worked!  The duck pond was no more. Champion cut Rutledge Street through first and then the rest of the established streets were laid out through the tract. Upon this grid, he laid out 237 new town lots and commenced selling them. By 1808, a great many had been purchased -- and he had money in his pocket!

As the years passed and two fires destroyed most of the lower town center near the Mills Court House, the business district of Camden moved north. By 1884, Broad Street from York Street north to DeKalb Street was lined with grocers, liquor stores, general merchandise and hardware stores and restaurants. So as you park in the public lot at Commerce Alley and walk inside to have lunch at Salud -- and then across the street to check out Pink Stable’s new Broad Street location and grab a newspaper and coffee from Books on Broad -- just remember that once upon a time you would have been slogging through a beautiful, marshy duck pond.

And by the way, James Chesnut did finally build that house on his 6.9 acres. By 1820, he had completed a two story house over a raised basement which stood right behind our present-day city hall. The gable end house had a broad front porch supported by six columns which faced south and overlooked a manicured formal garden.  Towering old oak trees and lofty pine trees graced its grounds and its stables stood where the Fire Department pulls it trucks each morning for inspection. But by the time “The Pines,” as the house was called, was completed, it was no longer water front property.

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