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As we wait for the Saluda Riverwalk to officially open, it’s worth looking back at when discussion of a paved walkway on this beautiful river section first began percolating — more than two decades ago.

The River Alliance plotted its plans for trails along the rivers in the late 1990s, and it staged a visit for city and county officials and the media on the proposed Saluda River section around Riverbanks Zoo on Feb. 25, 2000. Some of those who didn’t know the terrain showed up in high-heeled shoes (one TV reporter) or suit and tie (one city staffer). They were greeted by River Alliance executive director Mike Dawson wielding a machete and wearing clothes suited for jungle exploration.

Dawson first cut through undergrowth at the west end of Candi Lane to get to where the planned trail would lead to the I-26 bridge. Then the group headed to the other end of the proposed section, east of Riverbanks Zoo, to bushwack and rock-hop to an island near the confluence of the Broad and Saluda rivers.

Some of the crew were experiencing the beauty of the sparkling water and cocoa-colored rocks for the first time, and the trip won their support for the general concept of the greenway section. Among those on the trek were Richland County administrator Cary McSwain, Columbia city manager Mike Bierman, and Columbia City Council member Frannie Heizer.

“I’ve seen representations on maps and slides,” Bierman said. “I want to see it firsthand.”

And his response after the trip: “It’s going to be fantastic, but it’s going to be an incredible job to get it done.”

Talk about prophetic …

Various financing plans fell through over the next decade. McSwain and Bierman were long gone by the time Richland County voters approved a penny sales tax for transportation (including greenways) in 2012. Heizer left council in 2016, before construction began on the Saluda Riverwalk with those county funds.

The work was mostly completed by the 20th anniversary of the original tour, but a new set of county and city officials still had to work through a series of hurdles. The county had to legally turn over the walkway, restrooms, parking lot and other infrastructure to the city, which will manage it as a linear park. Some undeveloped private property along Candi Lane also needed to be incorporated into the city limits to make it easier for city employees to manage the trail, which runs through their property under an easement agreement.

City officials long ago realized it would be nearly impossible to keep people away from the completed walkway, and exercise enthusiasts have been walking, running or biking on it for months. What they have found resembles what was planned in 2000, with a few major differences. Back then, a formal paddling center was planned on the greenway, and the design called for a series of small bridges hopscotching on large river rocks across the Broad River to Columbia’s Riverfront Park.

People who kayak and canoe on the river raised concerns about the safety of the bridges running only slightly above normal water levels, and the only one built crosses to Boyd Island at the east end of the new riverwalk. Now plans call for a higher pedestrian bridge built slightly upstream on the Broad, stretching from a bluff on the west side to Riverfront Park’s canal embankment on the east side.                                                   

Safety also was a concern with the planned paddling center. There isn’t enough space for a large facility below the Mill Race Rapids, and no paddling outfitter would want to start canoe/kayak tours above those dangerous cataracts. So for now, outfitters drop off customers (usually with tubes, but sometimes with kayaks) near the riverwalk parking lot, from where they follow a dirt trail to a natural launch site just below Mill Race.

These days, you don’t need a machete and hiking boots along the Saluda Riverwalk, but you still should leave the high heels or suit and tie at home.

(If you have access to The State newspaper’s archives, you can find the article I wrote about the trip on the Feb. 26, 2000 newspaper on Page B1.) As always, you can contact me at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments about my blog posts.