The idea of building transportation canals in America began in the early 1700s after the Dutch, French, and British canals of the mid- to late-1600s proved to be successes after much trial and error. The first artificially created waterway in North America was constructed by the British Royal Engineers between 1779 to 1783 to overcome the rapids above Montreal, Canada. The first canal built in the newly-created United States was completed in 1789 by the James River Company of Virginia - a four mile stretch to circumnavigate the falls above Richmond and to allow passage to the tidewater area downstream.
Rice farmers of Georgetown and Charleston districts (counties) were already quite familiar with canal building, on a small scale, since the early 1700s. These rich planters had long used small canals and ditches to drain and control the water in their rice fields, which was one of the most profitable crops in the Carolinas until the U.S. Civil War. These wealthy planters quickly seized upon the nation's new canal craze and immediately saw the opportunity for cheaper transporation of their crops to the Charleston markets.
The first canal in South Carolina was the Santee Canal. Officially chartered in 1786, it was fully operational in 1800. Construction began in 1792, and the twenty-two (22) mile waterway with its twelve (12) locks and eight (8) aqueducts was completed in 1800. The canal connected the Cooper River, which is navigable for thirty miles above Charleston, to the Santee River about three miles west of Pineville. It rose about thirty-four (34) feet above the Santee and sixty-nine (69) feet above the Cooper. The Santee Canal was thirty-five (35) feet wide and about four feet deep, had locks sixty (60) feet long and ten feet wide, mostly made of brick, and used reservoirs specifically built to fill the dry portion at the summit.
The construction of artificial waterways was an expensive effort, requiring significant labor resources and financial capital. The Southern states relied considerably on slave labor, including Africans and indentured servants to keep costs down. Private companies were launched with the expectation of a decent return on their investment via tolls for boat transporation along their planned canals. Many had unrealistic expectations of the difficulties to be encountered - not only in labor management, but also in the natural obstacles they had not anticipated. As a result, many canals were initiated in the 1790s and early 1800s, but very few were ever actually completed.
After the initial success of the Old Santee Canal, the State of South Carolina assumed the burden to the next round of canal building. Legislation was passed in 1817 and one million dollars were appropriated for significant improvements in transportation, including new roads, but mostly for new canals. William R. Davie, the ex-governor of North Carolina returned to his native South Carolina and took the lead in pushing for new canals. Under the presidency of the energetic Joel Poinsett, the Board of Public Works selected the Landsford community in Chester County, where former Governor Davie resided, for the first new canal.
At the end of the 1820s, many folks realized that canals for transportation were very expensive due to the depth and width required to meet the needs of those willing to build flatboats to utilize canals. However, others realized that the construction of drainage canals did not require the precision as those to used for transportation. The Lowcountry of South Carolina had many swamps as well as coastal tidewaters that were useless for farming, and if some of these could be drained then perhaps more farmland could be reclaimed.
With the advent of railroads that began to arrive in South Carolina in the 1830s, transportation canals soon no longer seemed to be fashionable - or affordable. At the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 with slavery abolished, South Carolinians had no cheap labor supply for the construction of new canals, and those that were already operational saw a long period of decline in usefulness. Some fell into complete disrepair and are no longer used.
In the early 1900s, there was a resurgence of canal building in South Carolina, and this was primarily due to the successful completion of the Panama Canal, as well as the concept of the U.S. Intracoastal Waterway that had been discussed as early as the 1880s. Most canals built in the 1910s/1920s were for drainage in the eastern counties for mosquito control and malaria prevention, and these are still useful today. The construction of the Intracoastal Waterway by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1920s/1930s introduced a few more canals within South Carolina for transportation.
The 1960s and 1970s found the barrier islands along the South Carolina coast to be attractive vacation spots and many land developers of these barrier islands "rediscovered" the concept of canals - short waterways dredged out of the barrier islands to increase the quantity of "waterfront" properties, therefore increasing the land values. Hundreds, if not thousands of new small canals were constructed by these developers all along the South Carolina coast.
Beginning in 1799, a number of companies tried to make many of the state's rivers more navigable - with slim finances and even slimmer results. Traffic in the state was too light to create effective demands for expensive improvements, and cotton growers found land transportation to be cheap enough for them. It was not until around 1815 when western cotton growers spurred new interest in reducing water transportation costs in the Upcountry that action was finally reinitiated.
In 1817, the state of South Carolina appointed a Civil and Military Engineer, purchased a company that had attempted improvements on the Catawba and Wateree rivers, and purchased a significant amount of stock in the Winyaw and Wando Canal Company. The next year the State appropriated one million dollars for an ambitious waterway improvement program.
In 1819, the State placed the work under the direction of a Board of Public Works, but because of internal management problems, the work was transferred to the Superintendent of Public Works in 1822. By 1834, South Carolina had spent nearly two million dollars, more than half of which went into costly canals bypassing falls in the center of the state; had improved nearly 2,000 miles of rivers - the most being done on the Wateree River and the Great Pee Dee River - and, had constructed nearly 150 miles of internal roads. However, the results were mostly disappointing.
Improvements above the fall line, including most of the canals, locks, and sluices, were not navigable by steamboats, and almost all were eventually abandoned. Below the fall line, periodic flooding choked the channels with debris and sandbars, yet maintenance was neglected as disappointment over the failure of the canals to meet expectations created a reluctance to spend more money on artificial waterways.