Ten years after Americans declared their independence from the British Empire, a charter was granted for the construction of the Santee Canal, the nation's first. Construction began in 1793 and was completed in 1800. The Santee Canal was 22 miles long with three locks to lift boats from the Santee River to the summit level and seven locks for the descent of the boats to the Cooper River. Droughts and increased competition from railroads prompted shareholders to revoke its charter in 1850.
In 1934, the Santee Canal was the inspiration behind the creation of the South Carolina Public Service Authority, more commonly known as Santee Cooper. Building upon the canal's initial purpose of improving inland navigation, the Santee Cooper project electrified rural South Carolina and created lakes Marion and Moultrie.
Today, most of the Santee Canal lies beneath Lake Moultrie, but visible portions remain where boats entered from the Santee River and at Biggin Creek, where it joined the headwaters of the Cooper River. It's also here, in Moncks Corner, where you will find the Old Santee Canal Park.
Opened in 1989, the 195-acre park commemorates the area's rich history and habitat. Among its attractions are the Stony Landing House, built in 1843, and four miles of boardwalks that meander through the quiet backwaters of Biggin Creek and its surrounding swamp. The park's centerpiece is its Interpretive Center that chronicles the area's history as far back as 4000 B.C., including the 1863 construction of the Little David, a semisubmersible Confederate torpedo boat used in the Civil War. The Berkeley County Museum and Heritage Center is also located within the park's gates.
Beyond its historical offerings, the park has become a popular destination for bird watchers, hikers, paddlers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
"In the early days of this nation, as settlers from South Carolina moved inland from the coast, it was essential that they get their agricultural products, principally cotton and indigo, to Charleston, S.C., for export, since there were no manufacturing plants in the young country. Roads were practically nonexistent, and the best method of transportation was by rivers in the Santee River system. However, boats small enough to navigate the tributaries and on the Santee River were often lost on the open sea voyage from the mouth of the Santee to Charleston. Of necessity, our forefathers determined that something had to be done to prevent the loss of cargoes and often the lives of those transporting the fruit of a year's hard earned labor via the Santee River to Charleston." -- Excerpt from "Professor F.A. Porcher's History of the Santee Canal"
America's first summit canal, the Santee Canal, began operating in 1800 and was considered one of the crowning engineering achievements and economic-development projects of its day.
In 1770, the Commons House of Assembly proposed a survey to determine the most favorable routes for a canal to connect the Santee River with the Cooper River, which would provide a direct outlet to Charleston Harbor. Henry Mouzon Jr. was commissioned in 1773 to survey routes for such an inland waterway. The Revolutionary War silenced talk of the canal until 1785 when the newly formed General Assembly granted a charter to the Santee Canal Company.
Among the directors of "the Incorporated Company for opening the inland navigation between the Santee and Cooper rivers," were its president, Gen. William Moultrie; it's vice president, John Rutledge; Gen. Francis Marion, Gen. Charles Pinckney, Gen. Thomas Sumter, and additional historical heavyweights with surnames like Drayton, Rutledge, Huger, Laurens and Gaillard.
Construction began in 1793 under the supervision of Col. Christian Senf. Over 700 laborers worked for seven years with picks and shovels to complete the project. The completed canal was 22 miles long, 35 ft. wide, and 5 ½ ft. deep. It was designed to handle a 34-ft. rise through three locks and a 69 ft. fall through seven more for a net difference of 35 ft. between the Santee and Cooper rivers.
Operation of the canal went smoothly for the first 16 years, but severe droughts dried up the canal and halted all traffic. Corn was planted in the canal bed to take advantage of the fertile soil. The busiest year for the canal was 1830, when a total of 700 barges and boats, laden primarily with cotton, traveled through the waterway.
The completion of a railway between Columbia and Charleston in 1840 left the canal dependent on what little traffic trickled down the Wateree River. In 1846, the railroad was extended to Camden, thus hastening the eventual demise of the canal. In 1850, the General Assembly revoked its charter at the request of the shareholders.
Most of the canal now lies beneath Lake Moultrie. Some of the upper portions of the waterway are still visible, where boats entered from the Santee River, and the southernmost sections, which joined the headway of the Cooper River at Biggin Creek.
Old Santee Canal Park is centered where the southernmost section of the canal enters the quiet waters of Biggin Creek and the surrounding swamps.
The high bluff at the headwaters of the Cooper River has, for generations, been known as Stony Landing. Because of the natural advantages of its setting, it became a crossroads of early commerce. Boat traffic from the port of Charleston took on the goods of the upcountry and unloaded finished products for overland transportation to the growing frontier and the Indian nations. The construction of the canal further solidified the importance of this area.
While earlier buildings had certainly occupied this site, the plantation house presently at Stony Landing bluff was built circa 1843 by Charleston merchant John Dawson. It faced the road to the Congaree, but visitors now have sweeping views of the Tailrace Canal, which flows from the Lake Moultrie. The house has been restored and is open to the public for tours.
2013 OLD SANTEE CANAL PARK