I have to wonder how many of us living in Douglas County have actually ventured onto the grounds of Sweetwater Creek State Park.
I’m ashamed to admit I have never sat at a picnic table, hiked a trail, visited the Manchester Mill ruins, or attended a festival there or any other type of event.
Twenty years ago, I did visit the park a few times with my son to feed the ducks, and we were on the lake a couple of times in my husband’s bass boat. But other than that, my participation with the park has been close to nil.
But on Friday, I again visited the park and hope to return very soon.
If you are like me and have basically ignored one of Douglas County’s most important resources for history, recreation and tourism, here are 13 reasons to visit the park:
1. Georgia controls 48 state parks and 15 historic sites, and one of those—Sweetwater Creek State Park—is right here minutes from our homes. Douglas County is in an exclusive club, and as citizens, we can brag about having a state park.
2. A few minutes from Interstate 20, the park provides more than 2,500 acres of peaceful wilderness, including wooded hiking trails, rocky bluffs, a 215-acre lake, ambling streams, rapids to navigate, forests full of all types of flora and fauna, and historic ruins. Fannie Mae Davis describes the park as "an extensive wilderness setting within 15 minutes of downtown Atlanta," and further mentions that the park’s extensive size allows it to support a diversity of native fauna.
3. Sweetwater Creek runs through the park, feeds the George H. Sparks reservoir, and runs south over the Brevard Fault to the Chattahoochee River. A geological fault is where pieces of the Earth’s crust move against each other. I don’t think we need to be too worried, though. The Brevard Fault is an ancient one, and geologists tell us it hasn’t experienced any movement for 185 million years.
4. Every day, many thousands of people travel I-20 east into Atlanta. When you pass Thornton Road and reach the top of Douglas Hill looking out towards the Atlanta skyline, you are on the very western edge of the Brevard Fault, with the Chattahoochee River positioned at its lowest point. Approximately five miles away is the eastern edge of the fault, located at Interstate 285 where you see rock cliffs.
The Riverkeeper’s Guide to the Chattahoochee River by Fred and Sherri M. Smith says, “Seen from a globe-circling, picture-snapping satellite high above the Earth’s surface, the Brevard Fault looks like a monstrous incision across the torso of Georgia made by the Great Physician operating under battlefield conditions.” It’s a fairly long incision travelling across the state from South Carolina and into Alabama for a total of 160 miles. It is the unofficial dividing line between the Appalachian Mountains and the Piedmont Plateau, and forms a channel for the Chattahoochee River for approximately 100 miles of its 540-mile course.
5. The Brevard Fault is the reason why the Sweetwater Creek area gives us a feeling of being in the mountains. It is why we see such steep grades and rolling hills, and why the water flows so fast in certain sections like a mountain stream. In fact, the Smiths write, "Sweetwater Creek, for example, drops 120 feet from Austell to the Chattahoochee River; it drops 80 feet within the boundaries of Sweetwater Creek State Park alone. North-facing coves on (the creek) harbor trees, shrubs (like Mountain Laurel), herbs and wildflowers usually associated with the Appalachian Mountains to the north. The Fault also made it possible for the historic mills—New Manchester, Ferguson and Alexander’s Mill—to be located along the creek since they needed the water power."
6. The park borders the 215-acre George Sparks Reservoir, which is supported by a bait shop, and during the summer months, the park rents fishing boats, canoes, and pedal boats. I don’t think I’ve ever traveled down Mt. Vernon Road and not seen someone fishing the waters, even during the 2007 drought. Key species include largemouth bass, bluegill, sunfish, and channel catfish. Picnic tables dot the shores of the lake, and the ducks are great to watch and feed.
7. The lake is used for recreation, but it was originally constructed as a water supply for the city of East Point. The city continues to draw water for its needs. In 1960, East Point purchased what was known as the “McCreary Property” from a private owner. They created Beaver Dam Reservoir, which was renamed George H. Sparks Reservoir to honor the public utilities director of East Point, who served from 1936 to 1963.
8. Though the park was acquired by the state in 1974, it lacked a visitors center. Thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Sweetwater Creek State Park, a viable Interpretive Center was finally built and opened in 2006. Stating its mission was to "conserve the environment," the park opted for a center that uses the most cutting edge methods to create an environmentally responsible building, including bioretention ponds, solar panels, green roofs and a composting toilet.
9. The center has been described as one of the most environmentally responsible buildings in the United States, and has received the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum Certification from the United States Green Building Council. In 2007, there were only 20 such buildings at the platinum level across the world, and Sweetwater Creek's was the only one in the Southeast.
What a wonderful distinction, and the Interpretive Center certainly deserves it. The building is built into a hillside to minimize the physical and visual disturbance to the land. The building has a green roof. This article from Architecture Week advises, “Thirty-eight percent of the building's total roof area, or 4000 square feet (370 square meters), is used for rainwater collection.” And according to a handout at the Interpretive Center, "Approximately 35 percent of the building’s roofs are vegetated with native plant species."
10. Architecture Week also goes on to state, “The Center incorporates a composting toilet system, greywater irrigation, and a rainwater harvesting system. In fact, a 77 percent reduction of potable water use was achieved by a composting toilet system and rainwater harvesting, and the system allows the center to forgo a septic system and save about 82,000 gallons of potable water each year.”
The Interpretive Center is mainly there to help people get the most out of their visit to the park with printed guides, snacks to take along on the trail, and some of the best interactive exhibits I’ve seen. It also has exhibits to educate visitors regarding the various green components of the building.
11. The Interpretive Center isn’t just about being green. The center has a gift shop, various educational exhibits, wildlife displays, and a window-lined meeting room, which can be rented for small gatherings. The center is the gathering spot for the hikes organized by the park. This article showcases several images from a candle light hike.
The Native American exhibit at the Interpretive Center has pottery and numerous arrowheads found within the park. One of the most interesting displays is the petroglyph found in 1909 by William Harvey Roberts in what today is the Jacks Hill section of the park, where a Native American burial ground can be found.
This article regarding the petroglyph advises the location where it was found would suggest it was a religious shrine or marker. The boundary separating the Cherokee and Creek nations was close by, and the petroglyph could have served as a marker. To date, no definitive explanation has been determined, and I’m not sure if there ever will be.
Many of the exhibits focus on the town of New Manchester and the mill that was burned by Union forces in 1864. Last week I wrote about Synthia Stewart, and her family’s experience during that time. I was thrilled to see more pictures of her at the Interpretive Center and actually hear her voice. Other exhibits cover daily life during the mid-1800s and examine the cotton industry, while some exhibits showcase the rich biodiversity and geology of the park.
12. For those that enjoy a tad of popular culture, one of the founders of Sweetwater Brewery, a micro brewing company started in the 1990s, spent some of his downtime kayaking along Sweetwater Creek. This was when the brewery was located off Fulton Industrial Boulevard and was just taking shape. The company's website says, “The name of the brewery became obvious and the motto 'Don’t Float the Mainstream' became (their) guide.”
13. As I stated above, I plan to return to the park to enjoy the solitude that can be found in such a natural setting and to listen to the history that whispers from the land.
There are more stories to be told regarding the land we know today as Sweetwater Creek State Park, and I want to discover them. One story in particular that has been told to me: The lake covers a community that used to exist by the name of Ralph in the early part of the twentieth century.
One longtime resident of Douglas County, Bob Smith, advised me that he visited the site when the lake was being constructed in the 1960s and can remember walking down an old road that is now covered with water. Smith also said that the roadbed showed up again during the drought a few years ago and part of an iron frame for a bridge could be seen (see the attached photos).
There are even rumors of a big moonshine operation next to the creek bank in the '20s and '30s. Since there is information that documents a speakeasy in the area during Prohibition, this is more than plausible.
I will continue to research all of this and hope to be able to write about it soon. If you have any information on these matters or any interesting historical tidbits I should share here, please be in touch!