Mile for mile, the relatively short Ashley River is perhaps unrivaled in the Southeast, if not the nation, for its history, its diversity of habitats, and its location in a major city. Emerging from the Wassamassaw and Cypress Swamps in Berkeley and Dorchester Counties, it flows only about sixty miles before joining the Cooper River in Charleston harbor. Its basin of 232,012 acres encompasses much of the Charleston metropolitan region, which includes Summerville and North Charleston.
Despite its short length, the river transitions through three separate types of riverine ecosystems: a blackwater stream, a freshwater tidal river, and a saltwater tidal river, each producing extensive and different types of wetlands. These diverse ecosystems and their transitional zones generate an abundant variety of plants and animals and represent the natural history of the lower coastal plain of the state. Since first inhabited by Native Americans, this diverse river region has provided people with rich and accessible resources.
The Ashley River played a central role in the history of South Carolina. The colony’s first English settlement was established along its banks at Albemarle Point in 1670. Originally named the Kiawah River after the region’s Native American inhabitants, the river was renamed in honor of Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the original Lords Proprietors. A decade later the settlement was relocated to the peninsula downstream, where the Ashley joins the Cooper to form an outstanding harbor, opening into the Atlantic. This juncture enabled Charleston to become a major colonial seaport, even though the Ashley was short and did not connect the seaport with the interior via a navigable waterway. This circumstance helped isolate the lowcountry from the upstate and promoted settlement of the upstate by immigrants from North Carolina and Virginia rather than from Charleston.
Although limited to the coastal area, the Ashley did serve as an important route of regional transportation and commerce. Its navigable terminus was Dorchester, a major trading post settled in 1697 about twenty miles upstream from Charleston. Along the river’s length were established prominent plantations, such as Middleton Place, Magnolia, and Drayton Hall. Vessels ranging from canoes to rice barges and schooners connected these places and were manned by Europeans and African Americans, both enslaved and free. During the postbellum era, phosphate was mined extensively from lands on both sides of the Ashley, and docks for barges lined the river. These varied activities left some important archaeological sites. As a result of its historical significance and natural beauty, the Ashley was named a National Historic District in 1994 and a State Scenic River in 1999.
The Ashley River has remained a vital resource for South Carolina. Its presence in metropolitan Charleston, its wealth of historic sites, its diversity of habitats, and its scenic beauty all combine to make the Ashley River region a highly desirable place to live and an unparalleled resource for tourism and outdoor recreation. The irony is that its qualities also make the Ashley highly vulnerable to the negative effects of suburban sprawl, pollution, and heavy boat traffic. Private organizations, public agencies, and citizens are taking steps to protect the Ashley and to find ways to balance conservation and growth. Caught amidst these contending pressures, the future of the Ashley River will indicate much about South Carolina in the years to come.
Shakarjian, Mikel J. Ashley River Eligibility Study for the South Carolina Scenic Rivers Program. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, 1998.