Sweetwater Creek State Park: property with stories to tell

Indian Cave at Sweetwater State Park. It is really a rock overhang rather than a true cave.Indian Cave at Sweetwater State Park (photo by Mark Dorsett)

Well-maintained trails wind among trees, trickling and surging streams, boulders and rock overhangs and the remnants of man-made structures destroyed by men and nature. This a place where history happened, a property with stories to tell.

The land where Sweetwater Creek State Park sits was at various times home to Cherokee and Creek Indians, gold prospectors and textile mill workers.

The story of the Cherokee and Creek nations goes back about 2000 years, said Don Scarbrough, interpretive ranger for Sweetwater Creek State Park. Scarbrough leads the Native American history hike, which passes what he calls the “Indian cave”, where artifacts were recovered.

“You have to climb several hundred feet in elevation to get to the cave. It’s not a true cave geologically speaking; it’s a rock overhang, but it feels like a cave,” Scarbrough said. “Artifacts and pottery going back a couple of thousand years were found there.”


The Creeks and the Cherokees coexisted in Georgia. The Creeks lost their remaining land in Georgia in 1827 and the Cherokees were pushed farther north. People took possession of land even though Cherokees lived there. The government provided them no protection.

In 1838 as part of President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal policy, the United States forcibly relocated the Cherokees from their ancestral homelands in Georgia to the Indian Territory. This journey of more than 1000 miles to present-day Oklahoma, along which thousands of Native Americans perished, is known as the Trail of Tears.

Why were people determined to grab Cherokee land in north Georgia? Gold!

In 1828 gold was discovered in Dahlonega, and prospectors itching to strike it rich set out to pan for gold around the state, including Sweetwater Creek. Surveyors partitioned stolen Cherokee land. They divided areas where gold was found into lots for the 1832-1833 Georgia land lottery.

Philip Crask won 40-acre lot 929 in district 18 and paid an $18 grant fee. After failing get rich–or pay taxes–his property sold at auction for $12.50. The buyer made a substantial profit when Charles J. McDonald and James Rogers paid him $500 for the land.

These gentlemen built a textile mill there, the Sweetwater Manufacturing Company. The mill began operations in 1849, and nine years later, McDonald changed the name to New Manchester Manufacturing Company.

The 1860 census showed the mill was the largest employer of Campbell County, parts of which became Douglas County. The New Manchester mill formed the foundation of the community.

Men, women and children worked in the mill from sun-up to sun-down, shopped at the general store and paid rent to the mill owners for their homes. John Johnston, president of the volunteer group, Friends of the Sweetwater Creek State Park, described New Manchester.

“The mill supervisor’s house was on the top of the hill. There were other homes where the mill workers stayed, and I believe there were a men and women’s barracks for the workers,” he said.

Upstream from the textile mill, Angus Ferguson owned a brick-making operation and grist mill, Johnston said. The bricks and lumber for the Sweetwater mill came from Ferguson’s operation.

“He had a lumber mill that was built on the creek and you can actually see some of the foundation stones for that up there. And there was a covered bridge right there. That’s the original Factory Shoals Road,” Johnston said.

Part of the retaining wall for Alexander’s mill–downstream and across the creek from the New Manchester mill–are still visible on the banks of Sweetwater Creek. Much of the remains, Johnston said, washed away during the 2009 flood.

After the start of the Civil War, New Manchester produced fabric for Confederate soldiers’ tents and sheets and a mill in Roswell provided material for uniforms. This arrangement sounded the death knell for the mills as Gen. William T. Sherman sought to eliminate industry in the South and any support for the Confederacy.

Sherman ordered his army to arrest everyone connected with the New Manchester and Roswell mills. On July 2, 1864, following Sherman’s orders, the Union cavalry under Col. Silas Adams and Major Haviland Thompkins, took possession of the New Manchester mill. Ruth Beaumont Cook, who wrote a book about the mills, “North Across the River: A Civil War Trail of Tears”, described what happened next.

“They told the mill foreman that they were going to take them all to Marietta. They said they’d bring wagons the next morning early, and they were all to get on these wagons and go to Marietta,” Cook said.

On July 9, 1864 Thompkins and his soldiers burned the mill and surrounding structures.

The mill workers had a choice, Cook said.

“They could stay in military houses that were guarded by the military, kind of like in-house prison in Louisville or, if they chose to sign that oath of allegiance to the United States, then they would be given permission to cross the river and go into Indiana,” she said. “My memory is that more of them from Sweetwater Creek stayed in Louisville, just from the records I had.”

New Manchester had been in operation for only 15 years. After the war ended, there was no way for people to make a living without it.

“I don’t think the land was used much at all, to tell you the truth,” Johnston said. “There were some old home sites out there after the war. The mill owners decided they weren’t going to try to rebuild the mill. The families came back to New Manchester to get what they could collect out of their houses, but they just abandoned the town. It became a ghost town.”

Farming and logging continued into the 20th Century in the hills along the creek channel, the park museum showed, and Ferguson’s lumber mill developed into an early hydroelectric generator.

Located 15 miles from Atlanta in Lithia Springs, the 2549-acre Sweetwater Creek State Park includes the George H. Sparks Reservoir. The park opened in 1976. Atlanta Trails describes the nine miles of hiking and running trails as exceptional.

Pamela Dorsett is a freelance journalist and licensed psychologist in private practice. She enjoys writing about mental health-related issues, people and Georgia history; she has contributed articles for Sizing Up the South. Pamela is treasurer for the Society of Professional Journalists, Georgia Chapter. A native Atlantan, Pamela enjoys escaping to the North Georgia mountains, hiking and reading.