The Cooper River and its tributaries drain much of the central portion of the lowcountry. The river flows out of Lake Moultrie, which is in turn fed by Lake Marion. The river combines with the Ashley to form Charleston harbor. It borders several cities, including North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and Charleston. English colonists named both rivers in honor of one of the Lords Proprietors, Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper.
Early colonists established farms and settlements along the Cooper River and at Goose Creek, a tributary. In the 1700s landowners began using slaves to carve out rice plantations along the river. By the Revolution, the Cooper and several of its tributaries were important in Carolina rice culture. Rice became the most important industry in the lowcountry, and the Cooper River boasted some of the finest plantations, including Limerick, Kensington, Medway, and others. Cooper River planters assumed an important place in South Carolina politics and society. However, the industry declined in the late nineteenth century, and the plantations were idle by World War I.
Humans have altered the Cooper River in profound ways. In the 1790s work began on the Santee Canal, which joined the Santee River to the Cooper and allowed barge traffic from the backcountry directly to Charleston. In the 1930s Lake Moultrie on the upper part of the Cooper was completed, inundating some eighteenth-and nineteenth-century plantations. It also had a diversion canal that connected the Santee and Cooper Rivers. This dramatically increased the speed at which water flowed in the Cooper River so that hydroelectric power could be generated. However, it had the unintended consequence of raising silt deposits in Charleston harbor. In 1985 the Army Corps of Engineers added a rediversion canal that forced some water back into the Santee and alleviated some of these problems.
While the Cooper River served as a convenient source of water travel, it simultaneously hindered north-south travel. For hundreds of years Charlestonians used ferries to cross the river. That changed with the completion of the Cooper River Bridge in 1929. A second, wider bridge was added in 1966. Construction of a third bridge to replace its predecessors was completed in 2005.
With the failure of rice culture in the early twentieth century, the banks of the Cooper River were turned to other purposes. Though many plantations remained intact as country houses, some were subdivided into housing and others became industrial sites. There has been no bigger single developer on the Cooper than the U.S. Navy. At its peak during the cold war, the base, naval shipyard, and submarine station constituted one of the nation’s largest naval facilities.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Cooper River continued to be an industrial hub for the Charleston area and remained the center of the busy shipping industry through its container-ship specialization. Heavily used for shipping, industry, and for recreation, the Cooper River had unfortunately become one of the most polluted rivers in the state.
Ball, Edward. Slaves in the Family. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998.
Irving, John Beaufain. A Day on Cooper River. 1842. Reprint, Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1969.