Cemetery Island – Townville, South Carolina - Atlas Obscura

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Cemetery Island

Townville, South Carolina

A 1960s damming project turned one family’s hilltop cemetery into an island. 

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The middle of the 20th century saw many federal dam projects carried out across the country. Some were designed for flood control, others for hydroelectric power, and more than a few bore unintended consequences. But only one, it would seem, turned an 18th-century hilltop plantation cemetery into its very own island. 

Cemetery Island, also known locally as Ghost Island, is all that remains (above water) of the Harrisburg Plantation, which was established in the late 1700s in what was then Andersonville, South Carolina. Today, it’s public land on which visitors can birdwatch, fish, or camp, though it’s only reachable by kayak or motorboat. It’s not exactly how John Harris, Jr. and Mary Pickens likely drew up the plans for their family cemetery, but it could have gone worse.

Harris used the money he had earned fighting in the Revolutionary War to acquire the land at the former confluence of the Seneca and Coneross Rivers in the late 1700s. Harris brought his family to prominence serving as a judge, doctor, and high sheriff before his death in 1845. He and his wife, Mary, would be buried on a hill, the highest point on the property, as would their children and dozens of descendants. 

Fast forward to the 1950s, when the Savannah River was increasingly threatening to flood the low-lying towns on its banks. To control flooding and establish a hydropower station, the Hartwell Dam project began in 1954. While surviving descendants were allegedly contacted about relocating the family graves—lest they be overtaken by the floodtide—they apparently declined to act. By 1962, the project was complete, Lake Hartwell was born, and 59 deceased Harrises were on an island in the sun. The cemetery sits in an overgrown patch on the northwest corner of the island.

If local lore is to be believed, dead Harrises still make occasional appearances on their now shrunken and waterfront property. There’s less evidence, however, for Serril Broin—an entirely unrelated specter supposedly haunting Cemetery Island—who’s said to have descended from a victim of the Salem Witchcraft Trials. We’re not sure how she ended up on an island that didn’t even exist in her lifetime, but the haunting must be much better here than underwater.

Know Before You Go

The island is most easily reached by boat or kayak from Oconee Point.

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February 24, 2022

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