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.
Originally referred to as "Stone Landing" and named for the high grade of marl found near the surface of the soil, the name Stone Landing was dropped sometime in the late 1700s, and the site became known as Stony Landing.
This landing on Biggin Creek, where the west branch of the Cooper River begins, was extremely important to the commerce of the early South Carolina colony. Supplies for the interior regions were brought up the Cooper River by boat, unloaded at Stony Landing and carried by Indian carriers or pack horsemen (and later by wagons) up the Cherokee Path. The Cherokee Path went through the Congaree, Cherokee, High Hills of the Santee and the Waxhaws, and then on westward to the Mississippi.
Rice planters in upper Berkeley County hauled their rice to Stony Landing to be loaded on flatboats or schooners to be transported to Charleston. While waiting for a boat, rice planters stored their crop in a large warehouse.
The large volume of riverboat traffic ceased around 1800 with the construction of the Santee Canal and development of new roads.
During the time Dr. St. Julien Ravenel owned the land, he experimented with the use of marl to produce lime. Cement was found under the limestone layers, and as a result Dr. Ravenel and Gen. C. H. Stevens founded the Colleton Lime Works. Lime sold for 90¢ a barrel and was considered top quality.
During the Civil War, in extreme secrecy, the Little David was constructed at the landing site claiming title as the first successful semisubmersible torpedo boat attack in the history of naval warfare.
On June 12, 1882, The Stony Landing Company was organized for the manufacture of stone brick and building lime.
There were 622 acres of land in 1919 when Sen. Edward James Dennis bought the property compared to the 2,319 acres of land in 1839 when John H. Dawson purchased it at a Master-in-equity sale.
The Stony Landing Plantation House was built circa 1843 by the Charleston merchant, John H. Dawson, who acquired the land in 1839. The house was a great contrast to the more elegant homes built along the Cooper River in those days.
By 1861, during the Civil War, the property was in the possession of Dr. St. Julien Ravenel of Charleston. Ravenel was noted for his scientific endeavors as well as for being a physician. He gave up his medical practice, however, and devoted his time to chemical and plant research.
This led him to the discovery of limestone application in soil, a discovery far in advance of its time. Ravenel is given most of the credit for promoting the construction of the Little David, which was built in total secrecy at Stony Landing.
A closer look at the underside of the house shows the original hand-hewn timbers that were used in its construction. The house was built on 8 ft. brick pillars and was very often used for picnics. Children at these gatherings played with several small cars on wheels formerly used by the brick manufacturing company located on the premises.
The house is furnished with period reproduction furniture and is open for tours.
The Old Santee Canal Park's centerpiece is its Interpretive Center, which 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 11,000 sq. ft. facility houses the recreation of an oak bluff complete with the many types of animals you can expect to encounter in a cypress swamp. Two theatres offer informative films that highlight the area's historical and natural significance with titles like "History of the Santee Canal: America's First Superhighway," "Snakes' Tale," "Pushing Back the Darkness: The Story of Santee Cooper," and "Red Cockaded Woodpecker."
The Interpretive Center also hosts exhibits and educational programs that teach visitors about the area's rich history and natural diversity. Park visitors can also stop by the Interpretive Center for audio tours, canoe rentals and a gift shop.
Old Santee Canal Park's 195 acres commemorate the rich history and habitat of Berkeley County. Four miles of boardwalks meander through the quiet backwaters of Biggin Creek and its surrounding swamp offering quiet glimpses of the flora and fauna. A three-mile paddle trail immerses you in a cypress swamp where alligators, wood ducks, turtles and ospreys flourish amid a thriving community of southern shield ferns and other native vegetation.
The park offers canoe and picnic-shelter rentals as well as audio tours and scavenger hunts. Because of its ample green space, the Old Santee Canal Park is also host to special community events throughout the year, including Celebrate The Season, Shuckin' in the Park Oyster Festival, Pickin' in the Park Bluegrass Festival, and an annual 4th of July celebration.
Located within the Old Santee Canal Park, the Berkeley County Museum and Heritage Center tells the story of 12,000-year story of the region. Exhibits and artifacts focus on Brig. Gen. Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox), American Indians, Colonial life, the Civil War, early medicine, rural electrification, early education and the Francis Marion National Forest.
Gifts, books, prints, jewelry and other items are available for purchase at the museum's Heritage Shoppe. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4:30 p.m. The museum is closed on Mondays (except by special arrangement) and on major holidays.