Surrounded by cypress trees dating back more than a millennium and hosts of tupelo trees, Brian Cohen regaled a gathering of canoe- and kayak-paddlers with the story of Ebenezer Crossing.
The flotilla assembled Saturday morning as city of Springfield officials, members of the Georgia Conservancy and Backwater Expeditions honored the Thompson family, which has donated a tract along the Ebenezer Creek for preservation.
Thompson Island, an 18-acre parcel, was given to the Conservancy and then to the city for its greenway initiative.
Under the conditions of the gift, neither timber harvesting nor motorized vehicles are allowed on the property. The land is home to the silky camellia, sweet pitcher plant, the swallow-tailed kite and the painted bunting, all rare species of plants and birds.
Scott Thompson, whose family provided the land gift to the Conservancy, said it was their wish to see the land preserved, rather than sell it to someone else, who then might cut the trees for timber.
“If the trees were cut, it would take a thousand years for that to grow up like that again,” he said. “I want my boys to be able to enjoy it.”
Saturday’s event had another purpose, according to Clay Mobley of the Georgia Conservancy. The organization, which seeks to protect the state’s natural resources and advocates sustainable growth, wants to show landowners there are other ways to put their property to use.
“There are other options,” said Mobley, the Conservancy’s coastal director, adding the group wants to show private landowners “ways to get financial benefits from conserving their land versus cutting down these old-growth cypress trees.”
Springfield City Council members also welcomed the Thompson’s gift via the Georgia Conservancy and what it represents.
“This is something that needs to be preserved for posterity,” said council member Kenny Usher. “We appreciate the effort the Conservancy has put into it. Hopefully this will inspire other people.”
The Thompson’s Island acquisition is part of the city’s Springfield-Ebenezer Greenway project. The city aims to preserve property from the city to the Ebenezer Creek, and it’s a long-range project. But donations such as the one from the Thompsons are helping it bit-by-bit.
“It’s a good fit for what they’re trying to accomplish,” Mobley said.
The Ebenezer Creek, designed a Georgia Wild and Scenic River in 1981, is renowned for its ecological and historical significance. It’s also an important watershed, “a miniature Okefenokee Swamp,” said naturalist Cathy Sakas. The creek helps to cache excess water from rain or runoff and help filter it, Sakas explained, absorbing the overflow. That helps prevent flooding.
“This river has a very high value, as far as a habitat for rare and threatened species,” Mobley said. “Some of the cypress trees are 1,000 years old. Plus, there are many benefits for ecotourism for the local economy. It’s an investment for the city of Springfield to preserve and protect this great natural asset they have here, combined with all the history.
“There is a lot of great local history here,” Mobley added. “I’m a direct Salzburger descendant, on my mother’s side, so it has a meaning to me as well.”
The excursion also stopped at the infamous Ebenezer Crossing. It was there as Gen. William Sherman’s Army of the Tennessee advanced on Savannah that several hundred freed slaves, mostly women, children and old men, drowned after Union soldiers withdrew a pontoon bridge they had used to reach the Ebenezer’s eastern bank. The freed slaves were caught between advancing Confederate forces and the creek, which in late December was filled past its banks.
Now, there are efforts afoot to preserve the 255 acres around Ebenezer Crossing. The National Park Service has designated the lower 1,350 acres of the Ebenezer watershed, which includes the Ebenezer Crossing, as a National Natural Landmark. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded the state Department of Natural Resources a $400,000 grant to purchase 250 acres of the Ebenezer Crossing.
The total project cost is estimated to be $589,890, and Mobley said as the tour drifted along the creek near the historic crossing that the seven individuals who own the tract are willing sellers.
The federal grant has strict regulations on the appraisal, so a survey has to be done to determine a fair market value.
“Right now, the water is too high to do it,” Mobley said. “Maybe in the next month and a half, two months, the surveyor can get it and get a good value. And this tract will permanently protected forever.”
Donating the land also means others will be able to paddle their way through the giant trees on the placid waters of the creek.
“I’m glad for other people to be able to enjoy it,” Thompson said. “It’s a beautiful piece of property. It’s nice to be able to paddle down there and see the big, huge trees.”