The Santee Canal

America's first true canal, the Santee Canal, opened in 1800 and was considered one of the crowning engineering achievements and economic-development projects of its day.

History of The Canal

The Santee Canal opened in 1800 and was considered one of the crowning engineering achievements and economic-development projects of its day. It is important to note the important role that Black tradesman and enslaved people played in its construction, which ultimately brought to fruition an inland waterway that benefited commerce and navigation.

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; its vice president, John Rutledge; along with Gen. Francis Marion, Gen. Charles Pinckney, Gen. Thomas Sumter, and additional state leaders with surnames like Drayton, Rutledge, Huger, Laurens and Gaillard.

Construction began in 1793 under the supervision of Col. Christian Senf. Initially, the project involved 10 laborers and grew quickly, with 1,000 working there by the end of 1793. Among these were many enslaved people contracted from neighboring landowners at the rate of $75-$80 per year. Black tradesman - including carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, wagon drivers, and cooks - were also integral in the building of America’s first true canal.

The completed canal was 22 miles long, 35 feet wide, and 5 ½ feet deep. It was designed to handle a 34-foot rise through three locks and a 69-foot fall through seven more for a net difference of 35 feet between the Santee and Cooper rivers.

Advances in transportation cut the life of the canal short, however. 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.

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.