Though picturesque, the Reedy River may appear relatively small and of little commercial importance to the casual observer. The City of Greenville, however, would probably not exist if not for the falls of this river, which would provide the catalyst for settlement. From its source near Paris Mountain, the Reedy flows roughly through the middle of Greenville County, ending up in Lake Greenwood to the southeast. The waters that flow through Greenville merge with other rivers on their way to the Santee and the Atlantic. In pre-colonial times, the river provided water for the Cherokee Indians who used this area as a hunting ground. At one time prior to the American Revolution, the river formed part of the boundary beyond which colonial settlers were forbidden to settle by Royal edict. Richard Pearis, the first white settler of what is now Greenville, used the river to power his grist and lumber mills, setting a precedent for future endeavors using the river for industry.
Following the Revolution, more settlers came to the area and established homes, farms, and businesses. By the end of the 1790’s, the village that was originally called Pleasantburg had gained a courthouse, forming the center of a new county. The wagon road that ran through the village connected the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee to the lowlands and the coastal markets. Herds of livestock from the mountains were driven through the town, providing additional commerce. Attracted to the mild climate, Low country planters established second homes in the area, enriching the culture and social life of the area. By the 1830’s, Greenville had become a center for trade and social interaction, with churches, schools, a hotel, and numerous stores. The Reedy River provided water power for numerous mills, Including some of the first textile mills in the region. One of the most prominent entrepreneurs in the early history of the town was Vardry McBee, who established water mills at Greenville and farther down the river at Conestee.
Following the Civil War and Reconstruction, the erection of larger textile mills began in earnest. Water was used less as a power source, being supplanted by steam and electric power, but abundant water remained an important element to mill operations. The Reedy, along with the Saluda and Enoree Rivers, provided Greenville County with the water resources crucial to industrial development. Mills sprang up along these waterways well into the twentieth century, helping to establish the area as a leading textile center.
Increased commerce and population prompted advancement in public works. By the late 1800‘s, the wooden bridges that spanned the river on Main Street were replaced by more substantial structures, including an iron bridge that was erected in 1890. In 1910, the city built a substantial concrete arch bridge that carries Main Street traffic to this day.
Efforts at revitalization in recent years have restored the Reedy as the focal point of Greenville, much as it was in the early years of the town. The city removed an obtrusive road bridge that had been built over the falls. A graceful pedestrian suspension bridge now spans the foot of the falls, allowing a panoramic view that highlights the blending of thoughtful urban landscaping with the natural flow of the river. One can see the remains of Vardry McBee’s mill on the south bank. This area, known as Falls Park, allows pedestrian access to the river in its natural form. The main path from Falls park leads to nearby Cleveland Park, forming an extended urban greenway for the city and a valuable recreational asset.
The Reedy remains an important resource that helps tell the story of Greenville’s growth and prosperity. It has suffered along the way, being used as a dump at times for chemicals and waste. Efforts to clean the river by concerned citizens have resulted in new life, transforming the Reedy into a focal point for the city and the Upstate. In its new role, the Reedy continues to attract visitors and residents who appreciate its beauty and history.