Old Town Rock Hill, South Carolina
Defender of Fishing Creek
A native of North Carolina, Levy Deas moved with his family to Rock Hill before 1900. After trying several occupations, in 1923 he purchased a 70-acre farm on Fishing Creek, a few miles southwest of the town. The property included a historic grist mill and cotton gin, which he refurbished.
Rock Hill already was a bustling textile town. Textile mills and households alike discharged untreated waste into creeks draining into Fishing Creek. Few, if any, laws regulated such pollution. Although farmers complained of foul odors and other problems, local government failed to act.
The problems worsened in late 1929 with the opening of the Rock Hill Printing and Finishing Co. The “Bleachery” began discharging millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into Watkins Branch, a tributary of Fishing Creek often referred to as “Dye Branch.” Although other textile operations had been poisoning local creeks for years, the amount of wastewater generated by treatment of unbleached cotton was another magnitude altogether. By 1931, fed up with foul odors, dead fish, deformed waterfowl and sick farm animals, a group of farmers decided to seek a class action lawsuit against the Bleachery.
It was decided that one property owner should serve as plaintiff in a test case. Levy Deas stepped forward, and in August of that year, he filed a lawsuit seeking $25,000 in damages as well an injunction against continued Bleachery discharges into Fishing Creek.
The Bleachery was no ordinary textile company, and 1931 was no ordinary year. In less than two years, the Bleachery’s payroll had grown to more than 500, a remarkable feat during the worst depression in memory. An injunction would have forced the Bleachery to close, costing hundreds of jobs, jeopardizing lenders and investors, and depriving the city of badly needed revenue. Leaders and textile workers alike were irate, branding Deas and fellow farmers as “obstructionists to the public good.”
The week-long jury trial took place in York in December 1934. Jurors reportedly were deadlocked when the judge concurred on their request to inspect the Bleachery and the Deas farm as well as points along the waterways feeding into Fishing Creek. Unfortunately for Deas and his allies, the field trip occurred on a mild, dry December day. Jurors detected few adverse effects to the farm pond or Deas’ animals or wildlife. They denied Deas’ demand for fiscal damages and declined to support an injunction against the Bleachery.
Deas lost his battle but ultimately won the war. Recognizing the financial and health risks posed by untreated wastewater, the City of Rock Hill began in 1935 to divert raw effluent from Fishing Creek, pumping it toward the Catawba River. Although it would be many years before Rock Hill built a modern treatment plant to treat household and industrial waste, that Fishing Creek would be spared the brunt of the city’s pollution serves as a lasting testament to the courage of Levy Deas.