9 years later, Lexington parks have bounced back - and then some - from historic flood

Randy Edwards knows exactly where he was the night of Oct. 2, 2015.

It was the start of the weekend that lives on in local memory as the “1,000 year flood” after the Columbia area was inundated with more than 20 inches of rain in four days, busting several small dams, including two crucial ones in Lexington. As the rain began to fall, the town’s transportation director was at the Old Mill Brewpub.

He was part of the team tasked with planning a 1-mile walking trail to go around the pond behind the Old Mill, a historic manufacturing facility from the 1890s converted into a retail and dining destination in 1984. That night, Edwards had a meeting to talk about the trail. But later that weekend, the dam at the Old Mill burst, and the entire Midlands area was thrown for a loop.

“We were in the process,” Edwards recalled. “Those plans laid in the back of my truck for a while.”

Fast-forward nearly nine years, and the town’s efforts to reshape its outdoor spaces have come full circle and then some.

The completion of that roughly $3 million trail is likely about a month away, Edwards said. And it will soon encompass a refilled pond. Efforts to rebuild the dam, at an estimated cost of $2 million footed by the Old Mill, were completed last year. And it should be better than it was before, with efforts ongoing to restore the hydroelectric system to working order. Once that work is done and state inspectors sign off, the pond can be refilled.

That other crucial Lexington dam that ruptured was the one at Gibson Pond Park. The town amenity was set right in 2021 at a cost of $5 million (with FEMA funds accounting for about half of that). The dam is rebuilt and has a walking bridge connecting picnic enclosures on both sides of the pond. The park also features a half-mile-loop walking trail.

An expanded and enhanced playground is one of the key features of the reopened Virginia Hylton Park. Jordan Lawrence/The State
An expanded and enhanced playground is one of the key features of the reopened Virginia Hylton Park. Jordan Lawrence/The State

Pushing past just setting things right, the town recently reopened its centerpiece outdoor space, Virginia Hylton Park. The now 15-acre park, situated behind the town’s Municipal Complex downtown, was doubled in size by a roughly $7 million project that took about 18 months to complete. The upgrades include a second, smaller downtown amphitheater to compliment the town’s popular Icehouse Amphitheater that sits about a block away. The park’s central playground was greatly expanded with an emphasis on accessibility, and the concerted effort to maintain the acreage’s dense tree canopy, while tedious and costly, created a space that feels remarkably shady and secluded for an urban park.

With these projects all done or nearly done, officials overseeing the town of about 24,500 are bullish on the future, talking excitedly about the possibility of a downtown-spanning festival to unite its performance spaces there and exploring funding options to add a network of greenways to connect its parks and neighborhoods.

May 3, 2024, is a night that much of the town’s staff, including Edwards, will likely remember where they were, as they grabbed power washers, sponges and leaf blowers to clean the dirt from Virginia Hylton Park ahead of its grand opening the next day, while workers pushed to finish a few last touches, including setting the last few pieces of stone around the park’s giant checker board.

“It’s exciting and humbling to just see everybody coming together trying to work and get it ready for the community,” said Mayor Hazel Livingston, sitting for a moment as the work wrapped up. Elected to the town’s top job in November, she led the charge to expand the park in her previous role as mayor pro tem.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” she added.

Eventful possibilities

Lexington’s reopened centerpiece park has many facets for the public to enjoy.

The expanded Virginia Hylton includes a paved walking trail that winds in and around those aforementioned trees and a playground with features designed to include and engage those with autism, sight and mobility issues. Twelve Mile Creek rolls through the park, with an overlook and a waterfall. There is also a splash pad that will be coming online soon as well as picnic shelters and other amenities.

Wesley Crosby, assistant to the town administrator, said maintaining the trees that provide shade over all those facets was a particular challenge in completing the renovation the town had initially hoped to open last September.

“You’re working around the trees,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful with their root systems. And we’ve added some unique features with some boardwalks to save some very old white oaks that are in the woods to make sure we did not disturb those. We didn’t want to lose them. And we’ve had to change some of the layout a little bit with the original plan to save some other trees as well that didn’t get surveyed properly. So those created challenges of their own.”

Workers lay the last slabs around Virginia Hylton Park’s outsize checker board on May 3, 2024. Jordan Lawrence/The State
Workers lay the last slabs around Virginia Hylton Park’s outsize checker board on May 3, 2024. Jordan Lawrence/The State

The new amphitheater nestled among those trees has a more laid-back feel than the larger Icehouse venue that sits nearby, emphasized by a row of swinging benches along the back.

High on town officials’ minds as they consider the possibilities presented by downtown’s robust selection of outdoor spaces is some sort of larger festival, one placing performers at both amphitheaters and in Lexington Square, which sits about a block from the park, beside the Lexington County Judicial Center.

The mayor said such a festival was part of the vision for adding Icehouse and expanding Virginia Hylton.

“It feels exciting to know that this is all complete,” Livingston said. “This has been in the Vision Plan for a long time. Connecting all of this and eventually one day having the original dream — the original dream was to be able to have a music festival with something big over there (at Icehouse), something smaller here and something smaller in this square.”

Crosby agreed that the town can start to think big now.

“It’ll be fun to see what we can do with it now,” he said. “Now we’ve got this park completed. We’ve got the Old Mill that’s going to be online. We’re pulling the downtown area together. That may bring some possibilities for different kinds of festivals, walkability.”

Old Mill, new trail

Of the 11 years it’s been open, the Old Mill Brewpub enjoyed the view that helped sell owners John and Kelly Clinger on the location for about two.

“We lost 50% of our outdoor dining when (the flood) happened,” John said. “It has affected our sales.”

On a recent weekday, he stood out behind the restaurant and reminisced about what his guests used to be able to see.

“It’s a lot more beautiful than it appears,” he said, describing how the unkempt greenery that runs through the field around Twelve Mile Creek used to be covered by lovely water. When filled, the pond forms an island out in the middle, and a ski club used to come out and circle the lake to entertain those looking on from the shore.

The Brewpub is reinvesting in that view now that it’s set to return, replacing the wooden deck the restaurant lost when the dam was damaged with a new one that is larger, made out of concrete, and set to be covered and climate-controlled. The addition will give the restaurant back lost seating and allow it another space to rent out for events.

The expense isn’t easy for the business to bear. While he said he couldn’t provide a firm figure, John said the Brewpub was able to set aside money during the pandemic thanks to its second raft of Paycheck Protection Program funding. To make that money go as far as possible, he’s been doing as much of the work himself as he can.

They’re investing because they’re ready to be where they were supposed to be years ago — located right beside a picturesque pond and walking trail. That trail will include an overlook over the spillway located alongside that new deck. The walkway promises to provide pedestrian access to the neighborhoods that surround it as well as another attraction to bring others to the Old Mill, already one of Lexington’s marquee attractions.

“It’s been a long time coming,” John said. “It’s going to kind of expose it, re-expose it to the people that may have been staying away.”

Edwards, the town’s transportation director, is excited about all the different uses the trail and pond might attract, spotlighting its 1-mile loop as being perfect for runners while also meeting ADA standards to make it accessible to a wide swath of the public.

“Exercising, relaxation, you can just go out there and birdwatch, fishwatch, nature. You can sit at the Brewpub and have a cold one,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.”

Matt Rodgers has also been waiting for years for the return of the pond and the completion of the trail. He opened Hazelwood Brewing Company below the smokestack in the Old Mill’s former boiler room in 2019 after previously serving as head brewer for the Old Mill Brewpub.

Beyond the walking traffic and additional visitors the trail should provide, he’s eager for the ways the reconstituted dam will help the brewery, which operates its own hop farm, to more fully embody its ethos — ingraining itself into the community and nature that surround it.

The reinvigorated creek coming out of the dam will run past Hazelwood’s front entrance, with its back beer garden set to take better advantage of the grassy slope the dam now provides. And that hydroelectric upgrade should allow the brewery to be powered by the water that runs alongside it.

“It’s kind of encompassing the entirety of what we’ve been striving for since the beginning,” Rodgers said. “The sustainability of making beer, making stuff that has character is unique and really embodies what I think craft is supposed to be all about. Unusual artisanal things that really stand out from the common drinks out there. So the trail will let us kind of keep telling our story, which is one of nature in South Carolina and our agricultural scene and the things that we really all love about South Carolina.”

Connecting it all

Lexington’s repaired and expanded parks infrastructure sets the stage for another ambitious idea — a network of greenways connecting it all.

Crosby said the town is in the early stages of approaching this next step, pulling together a long-range master plan for greenways so they can apply for grants and other sources of funding.

“People are asking for walkability,” he said. “We’ve got running groups that want safe running paths. We’ve had several people over the last few years, decade or so now, they’ve gotten hit by cars, some of these exercise groups that are in the Lexington area. So it’s important to us that we give folks the ability to walk from point A to point B instead of drive, get exercise, enjoy the restaurants, and then maybe be able to connect some elements outside of town.”

Edwards is keen to see this connectivity take shape, saying the way Old Mill Pond trail will connect Main Street/U.S. 1 to South Lake Drive/S.C. 6 makes it an obvious next step to provide a safe pedestrian link to Gibson Pond Park and the neighborhoods in that area. But his vision stretches beyond that.

He talked about how adding paved and gravel greenways around town could make Lexington a destination like the ones he and his sons seek out in other parts of the state, such as trails in Aiken and in the nearby Harbison State Forest in Columbia.

“It’d be great if it was a 10-minute drive from my house instead of 25,” Edwards said.

Crosby, likewise, sees a greenway network as something that would compare favorably to amenities provided by other nearby destinations, such as the popular Swamp Rabbit Trail in Greenville.

“We’ve seen success with other big cities that have done these things,” he said. “We want to have that here, too.”