Story Jodi Helmer Photos by Jody Johnson
Alec Blalock doesn’t go to a big-box store to buy lumber. Instead, the scuba diving-instructor-turned-entrepreneur shimmies into a wetsuit, straps on an air tank and disappears beneath the surface of the water in search of swamp logs.
Alec, founder of Swamp Log Artisan Center, spent 15 years working as a diving instructor and guide. In 2008, after meeting a diver who was into underwater logging, he switched careers and started hunting for historic logs that had been sitting on river bottoms for more than 100 years.
“We had an undisturbed, virgin growth forest that had never been harvested up until the American settlers came here and started cutting trees down to clear fields and to get the wood to build cabins, fences, wagons and tools,” Alec explains.
He says there was a great lumber boom from about 1882 to 1920, when there was a tremendous influx of immigrants from Europe. Mass building went on for 30 to 40 years.
“A lot of the wood that was used came from the mature trees that were cut down in those old growth forests,” Alec says.
Even as sawmills were built to keep up with the demand for lumber, a lack of transportation infrastructure made it difficult to get harvested logs from forests to sawmill sites. Loggers made crude log rafts that were floated to takeout points, either sawmill sites located on the waterways or tramlines that carried the logs inland to sawmills.
“They were cutting some of the highest quality lumber the world has ever seen from these virgin growth forests,” Alec says. “They cut millions and millions of board feet of lumber trees and in areas where it was moved from harvest sites and sent down the rivers. When the logs were moved, a portion would sink to the swamp bottoms and couldn’t be recovered.”
The Search for Swamp Logs
It’s not hard to find logs sitting at the bottom of swamps and rivers. Nature sinks dead trees all the time. But Alec isn’t looking for just any logs. His goal is to find historic logs from trees that were felled in South Carolina swamps from the late 1800s to early 1900s and have been submerged since.
“Basically, all of our trees in this area were cut by about 1930,” Alec says. “For all practical purposes, all of our old growth trees had been cut for commercial purposes. It’s beautiful wood, historical, and it’s just a superior wood than what you can get from the same trees that would be cut down today.”
He believes as much as 25% of the logs harvested sank in transport down the waterway and were not recovered. He wants to recover the “sinker logs” that have been left in the water for 100 to 200 years so the wood can be transformed into new items with an historic past.
The process of searching for swamp logs often starts in historic archives. Alec looks for maps or written records that show rail lines running deep into swamps or holding ponds adjacent to sawmills that might indicate the presence of submerged logs.
“You’ll get a hint of something,” he says. Local lore and word of mouth have also led Alec to the coveted logs. He loves hearing “granddad stories” that help him narrow down possible search areas. He has talked to old-timers who remember local rivers being full of logs in the 1920s or families that recall the droughts of the past, when rivers dried up and the beds were filled with old logs.
Logs from that era are considered historic artifacts and can’t be pulled out of the water without permits from the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archeology at University of South Carolina.
Alec wants to make sure the logs are “the real deal” and confirm there are sufficient quantities before applying for the permit, so he dives a site first.
The old-growth sinker logs are in dark waters with limited visibility, so Alec and the dive teams he works with use cues about how the logs feel to determine their age.
Logs that fell into the river—and were not cut at old sawmills—will still have limbs and, often, a root ball. Harvested logs do not have those characteristics. The best logs are more than 12 inches in diameter and upward of 16 feet long.
Bark falls off in the water, so the presence of bark indicates a tree isn’t old. Smooth logs are older. Logs with broken and jagged ends didn’t come from sawmills. Beveled ends could indicate the log was cut with an axe—and might predate sawmills.
“They quit cutting them with axes about 1919,” Alec says. “So, if it’s an ax cut, you know it’s a good log and probably predated 1900. But it could date all the way back to 1700 or 1800.”
Once he has confirmed the location and authenticity of the swamp logs, Alec requests permits to pull the logs. The intense
process requires a written report prepared by an underwater archaeologist. It can cost up to $10,000.
“It’s getting harder and harder to find places that have enough logs to justify the cost,” he says.
Since he started pulling swamp logs in 2008, Alec has found waterlogged wood in lakes and rivers across South Carolina. Some of his best finds have been in the geographic areas from the lower midlands to the coast.
One of Alec’s favorite logs came out of the Lynches River near Florence. The log— which he calls “the earliest harvested tree that we’ve ever pulled”— was cut between 1875 and 1915. It measured 16 feet long and was cut with an ax on both ends.
“I just love the historic significance,” he says. “It was beautiful wood, too.”
Swamp logs look different than logs harvested more recently. After generations underwater, nature has an impact on the color and texture. Alec notes that water penetrates the logs, causing them to soak up the minerals in the soil and water, creating marvelous coloration in the old growth wood.
Diving into a New Business
With permit in hand, Alec returns to the sites and harvests the logs. A diver attaches logging tongs to the logs, and a team hauls them to the surface with the help of electric winches and wire cables. It takes multiple boats and trucks to get swamp logs from the river bottom to the surface.
Once the logs are retrieved from the water, they are kiln-dried and turned into lumber. Woodworkers buy the lumber to make one-of-a-kind pieces.
Alec points to dozens of benches at the Revolutionary War Visitor Center in Camden and a mount for an 1877 cannon at the Texas Civil War Museum as examples of the amazing pieces built from the sinker wood he has collected throughout South Carolina.
In 2017, Alec opened Swamp Log Artisan Center in downtown Bishopville. The GBI Project—a downtown revitalization program—allowed him to lease-to-own a building where he showcases local art.
Many of the 55 artisans who display and sell their work at Swamp Log Artisan Center create handcrafted pieces from the recovered logs. Items range from chess boards, walking sticks and platters to handcarved furniture and musical instruments.
The shop also sells pottery, paintings, baskets, jewelry, soap and other handcrafted pieces.
In addition to their award-winning work, the talented local artisans teach at iconic institutions of arts and crafts, including Georgia O’Keefe Ghost Ranch in New Mexico and John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina.
“We’ve got some seriously talented people in here,” Alec says.
Although proud to be part of the revitalization of downtown Bishopville, Alec says most of his customers come from outside local communities.
Shoppers travel from Darlington, Florence, Charleston, Columbia and Camden in search of one-of-a-kind items made from sinker logs. A portion of his sales are also generated online, allowing Swamp Log Artisan Center to reach customers around the world.
Lumber made from swamp logs is more expensive than boards sold at big-box stores, but Alec notes the gap is becoming narrower. He hasn’t raised lumber prices for several years, while wood from conventional lumber suppliers has doubled in price and continues to increase due to supply chain issues.
Woodworkers who choose swamp logs for their projects are willing to pay more—as are the customers buying their handcrafted items—because each piece of once-waterlogged wood has a story.
“We have a product that’s part of history,” Alec says. “Logging in swamps and riverways was a very important part of the building of America. I love the idea of swamp logs connecting back to that. We can make products that you can really enjoy today, and your grandchildren or great-grandchildren can also enjoy it down the road. It’s a flow from the past to the present to the future.”