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SC Institute for Archeology and Anthropology

The Robert E. Lee

The following is a web exhibit on The Robert E. Lee, a steam ship that moved barges along the Savannah River of the Leigh Banana Company in Ellenton, South Carolina.

The Leigh Banana Case Company (LBC), in the 1940s, was one of the largest employers  in Barnwell County. They converted cypress logs into crates, baskets, and boxes. The LBC was located on the edge of Barnwell County on the Four Mile Creek near the Savannah River across from modern day Plant Vogel. Leigh had logging crews of their own and bought logs from independent loggers. One unique independent logging operation was owned by Leroy Simpkins, who lived in Augusta, Georgia.

He had two riverboat paddlers, the Kathryn S. and the Robert E. Lee. The Robert E. Lee was owned first, and then Simpkins got the Kathryn S. Gary Beard, who was from Ellenton, was the captain of both. The riverboats would be used to push a huge barge up river into the swamps, where the logging crew would cut and load cypress logs onto the barge and bring it back down for the LBC. The riverboats and the barge they pushed would be docked at, what the locals called, the “Swamp Landing”. It was called the “Swamp Landing,” because it was located on the property of J. B. Harley, whose farm was known as the “Swamp Farm”. Although the farm was owned by J. B., his brother, Stephen Sapp “Tee” Harley, was the overseer, because J. B. owned a Concrete Block Factory in Spartanburg and was a Civil Engineer. Therefore, he only visited the farm occasionally.

Brian Simpkins, Leroy’s son, would go to “Swamp Landing” with his father. He said that the Kathryn S. pushed the barge more than the Robert E. Lee and that it was a very tedious and time-consuming operation. Captain Beard would come into the “Long Store” on Saturday night and buy a tremendous amount of groceries for the trip. There was no refrigerator on the boat, but he would buy up a lot of ice and pack down any items which needed to stay cold. Captain Beard usually left on Sunday morning and if the weather was good, he and his crew stayed out seven to ten days. However, if the weather was bad, they might stay out two weeks. They didn’t come back without the barge mostly loaded. And they didn’t use power saws to cut down the trees; they only had hand saws.


On the trip home, as Captain Beard got close to the “Swamp Landing”, he would pull the whistle on the riverboat and it could be heard all through the woods. After docking the boat, it would take a week or so to unload the logs. Then the logs would be loaded onto trucks and taken to the LBC. In order to unload the logs, they had converted part of an old truck into a derrick or crane. The crane made a lot of noise and stayed broken down about a third of the time. But even when the crane was working properly, unloading the logs was a slow, tough job. A man or several men had to pull a chain or cable and wrap it around each log manually. To get the cable underneath each one, these logs were laid a little criss crossed on the barge. This one crane lifted the logs off of the barge and onto the ground and then lifted the logs off of the ground and put them on the trucks. If the trucks were already there, they would load straight off of the barge and onto the trucks. Nevertheless, there was always several loads of logs left on the ground at the landing to be loaded onto the trucks.

It is not known what happened to the Kathryn S., but the Robert E. Lee eventually burned and sank in the Savannah River sometime after 1950.

Where the Savannah River and the Three Runs Creek met, we called it the mouth of the creek. I spent a many a day there. It was a beautiful place to catch a fish and fry it right there on the bank. Boy, it was pretty! And have you ever heard of the Robert E. Lee boat? The fellow that owned the Robert E. Lee was Leroy Simpkins and he brought most of the logs to the Leigh Banana Case. The Robert E. Lee would push this tremendous barge loaded down with Cypress logs for the Leigh Banana Case. And when Ellen Foreman got married, she had her rehearsal party on the Robert E. Lee. The Robert E. Lee, that particular night, had been [freshly] painted and it was white as snow, and after the rehearsal party, all of us went down to the river, got on the Robert E. Lee, and they had violin music playing. It was something to see!

–William Stephen Harley, 1994

SC Institute for Archeology and Anthropology

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