Beck’s Ferry to Ebenezer
Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Something about arriving to a place by water makes you feel as though you’re the first person ever to discover it. Logically, you know you’re not; you might even know it can be reached by car. But stumbling upon it by accident — perhaps because you spotted something intriguing along the bank, or made a pit stop at a convenient landing place before venturing a little way into the interior on foot — imbues the spot with a magic that persists long after you’ve Google-mapped it. As many times as you return, it remains your remarkable discovery.
Such was the case for us with Ebenezer. Capitan and I, on one of our exploratory jon-boat missions, put in at Beck’s Ferry in Hardeeville to explore the Savannah River. We motored cautiously upstream, logging all the hazards into his GPS, stopping occasionally along the wild banks to walk his dog through scruffy winter woods. Presently, we passed under a beautiful high bluff crowned with a wooden cross, beyond which was a broad level bank suitable for landing. We had no idea whose property it was but decided to take a chance and investigate.
After climbing to the top of the bluff, we were amazed to find several old-timey wooden cabins nestled between giant pines. A peep in the windows revealed period furniture, washbasins, straw brooms and quilts on four-poster beds. There was an operable hand-pumped well, a cane press and a syrup boiler. Larger buildings of antique brickwork showcased the elegance of bygone craftsmanship, while a bronze statue honored some ancient patriarch. The cross we had seen from the water stood behind the pulpit of an outdoor amphitheater, which overlooked a broad brown curve of the Savannah. We had landed at a ghost town.
Later research would confirm that Ebenezer was established in 1734 by the Salzburgers, a group of religious exiles from present-day Austria. Thousands of them fled persecution, including a contingent of 150 that came to the Colony of Georgia. Following a two-month voyage over the Atlantic, Governor Oglethorpe stuck them in a fetid swamp on Ebenezer Creek, where these sons and daughters of alpine country promptly began dying of fever. The survivors requested a healthier location and were sent to New Ebenezer — which, from what Capitan and I could see, was the prettiest spot for a settlement this side of the Alps.
The hardy Salzburgers thrived for several generations by farming, timbering and culturing silk. They built the first saw and grist mills in Georgia, founded the first orphanage, and erected the Jerusalem Lutheran Church, one of the state’s oldest buildings that houses the longest-standing Lutheran congregation in the U.S. You can still see these buildings today. When the British captured Ebenezer during the Revolutionary War, they turned the church into a hospital and burnt all the homes on their way out. The town never really recovered, but descendants of the original Salzburgers still meet here for annual family picnics. The museum opens a few hours a week, and the gift shop sells little porcelain Salzburger dolls, each with their own tiny rag dolly.
Capitan and I knew none of this on our accidental visit. We didn’t even know that technically we were in Rincon. All we knew was that this mysterious place had enchanted us with its pioneer past. We’ve returned many times since and always found it to have a wonderfully peaceful ambience. Sometimes we picnic in the amphitheater, or pump water from the well, or simply wander about the grounds for a few minutes before reembarking our vessel. I suppose we could just drive to Ebenezer … but that wouldn’t be the same. LL
How to get there
Location: Savannah River, between Hardeeville and Rincon
Mode of transport: Motor boat
Directions: Put in at Beck’s Ferry Landing and go upstream (right), following the channel until you reach a landing at the mouth of Ebenezer Creek. Or you can just Google the Georgia Salzburger Society Museum and drive there like a landlubber.
If you go: Prepare to preach your sermon on the mount.