The name Oconee derives from the Cherokees and has several interpretations, the most popular being “water eyes of the hills,” in reference to the area’s many waterfalls and streams.
(625 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 80,015). Oconee County is the only county in South Carolina bordering on two states–Georgia and North Carolina. Located in the northwest corner of South Carolina at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the region was home to Cherokee Indians until the Revolutionary War, when they were driven from all except the northernmost section. When the area became a part of South Carolina after the Revolution, it was placed first in Ninety Six District, then Pendleton District, and later Pickens District. Oconee County was created on January 29, 1868, from the western half of Pickens County. The name Oconee derives from the Cherokees and has several interpretations, the most popular being “water eyes of the hills,” in reference to the area’s many waterfalls and streams.
Although a relatively new county, Oconee is nevertheless rich in history. Oconee Station was built in 1792 as one in a series of militia blockhouses along the South Carolina frontier. The site and the adjoining William Richards house (ca. 1802) are maintained as part of Oconee Station State Park. The Old Pickens Presbyterian Church, built in 1827, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as is the Oconee Station complex. In the antebellum period, the area was dominated by small farms that produced primarily grains and livestock, although some cotton was produced. In 1850 a group of German settlers led by John Wagener founded the town of Walhalla, which became the county seat in 1868.
Railroads reached this remote part of the state in the 1850s. In an attempt to connect South Carolina with Tennessee and the West by railroad, the Blue Ridge Railroad Company began a line from Anderson that neared Walhalla before the company failed. The Civil War brought an end to the endeavor, leaving the uncompleted Stumphouse Tunnel and two smaller tunnels as lasting reminders of the company’s grand vision.
Oconee grew steadily in the late nineteenth century. The Atlanta and Richmond Airline Railroad (later part of the Southern Railway) arrived in Oconee in the 1870s. The town of Seneca, chartered in 1874, was built at the spot where the northern and southern section of the road were joined. The town of Westminster was also established on the railroad in 1874, and was chartered by the General Assembly the following year. Industrial development followed these transportation improvements. Oconee joined many Piedmont counties in becoming home to a number of textile mills. In 1893 the Courtenay Manufacturing Company was established, including its mill village of Newry. Other mills followed, including Seneca’s Lonsdale Manufacturing Company in 1901. Employment opportunities attracted rural dwellers to the mills, and agriculture gradually declined in importance. In 1970 there were 4,700 people employed in Oconee County’s nine textile mills.
Foreign competition weakened the textile industry during the last decades of the twentieth century, which led the county to look to its natural and scenic resources to supplement its economy. The Chattooga River, which provided the scenery for the film version of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance, borders Oconee County and forms part of the dividing line between South Carolina and Georgia. The Andrew Pickens Division of the Sumter National Forest comprises 79,000 acres in the county. The Long Creek area is noted for its apples, and the South Carolina Apple Festival has been held every autumn in Westminster since 1972. The Walhalla Fish Hatchery, also in the national forest, raises almost one million trout per year.
In the 1960s Duke Power Company began a power-generating project that resulted in the creation of Lake Jocassee in 1973, just above Lake Keowee. The two lakes were developed as a part of the Keowee-Toxaway complex. Included in the complex are the Oconee Nuclear Station and the Keowee, Jocassee, and Bad Creek hydroelectric stations. The company’s World of Energy at Lake Keowee features exhibits showing how electricity is generated.
Recreation has become a major asset to the county. In addition to the Sumter National Forest, there are four state parks (Oconee, Lake Hartwell, Keowee-Toxaway, and Devil’s Fork) and several county parks. Hunting is popular in the National Forest. The Chattooga and Chauga Rivers provide rafting, kayaking, and fishing opportunities. Hiking and horseback riding are popular pastimes, as is boating on county lakes. There are eighteen waterfalls in the county, by far the most in the state. The most prominent is the Lower Whitewater Falls. A chain of six waterfalls along the North and South Carolina border is the highest series of falls in eastern North America. The upper falls are in North Carolina, but the impressive lower falls in South Carolina drop two hundred feet and are on the Whitewater River, which spills into Lake Jocassee.
Retirement communitites developed soon after the creation of Oconee County’s lakes. The upscale Keowee Key has had a major impact on Lake Keowee, and communities such as Chickasaw Point and Carolina Landing were built on Lake Hartwell.
Aheron, Piper Peters. Oconee County. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia, 1998.
Doyle, Mary Cherry. Historic Oconee in South Carolina. 1935. Reprint, Pendleton, S.C.: Old Pendleton District Historical Commission, 1967.
Oconee County Heritage Book Committee. The Heritage of Oconee County, 1868–1995. Seneca, S.C.: Blue Ridge Arts Council, 1995.