(1820s). The availability of waterways made them the primary transportation arteries for South Carolina’s settlers. As early as the 1710s, the Commons House of Assembly was enacting legislation to facilitate water traffic. The great geographic barrier to river traffic between the South Carolina upcountry and the coastal ports was the fall line. By 1800 interest in inland navigation spawned during the Revolution had produced the Santee Canal.
The years that followed the War of 1812 saw South Carolina’s greatest experiment with a statewide, state-funded, and state-operated system of internal improvements. In 1816 Governor David R. Williams proposed a coordinated plan of improvements. In 1817 his successor, Governor Andrew Pickens, recommended using the state’s budget surplus to fund the program. In response, the General Assembly authorized a state civil and military engineer to survey the navigational needs of South Carolina’s rivers and to begin work on improving the Broad and Saluda Rivers. Enhanced navigation on these rivers was crucial to the economic development of Columbia, the new capital.
In 1818 engineer John Wilson requested $1 million to fund a massive effort to improve upcountry navigation. Under the leadership of Joel R. Poinsett, the General Assembly funded the request and charged Wilson with improving rivers, building canals, and constructing roads as needed. This appropriation, four times the state’s annual budget, reflected a major commitment to fund an extensive transportation network in South Carolina.
In 1819 the General Assembly created the Board of Public Works, with five legislatively elected commissioners to oversee this ambitious enterprise. The board’s responsibilities included surveying and building a road from Charleston through Columbia to the North Carolina border, making the Pee Dee, Santee, Wateree, Catawba, Broad, Saluda, Keowee, Edisto, Black, Combahee, and Salkehatchie Rivers navigable, and constructing canals as needed. The board created two offices: a “department of roads, rivers, and canals”; and a “department of public buildings.”
The department of roads, rivers, and canals planned eight canals and the State Road that would link Charleston with western North Carolina. Of the eight canals, four—Wateree, Rocky Mount, Landsford, and Fishing Creek—were on the Catawba and Wateree Rivers to improve access to Camden. Two of the canals, the Columbia Canal on the Congaree River and Lockhart Canal on the Broad River, funneled traffic to Columbia. The Saluda and Dreher Canals on the Saluda River were designed to improve transportation to Abbeville and Laurens. All of the canals were built, but only the Columbia Canal was successful. Given the highly politicized nature of the board, especially after a severe recession that followed in the wake of the Panic of 1819, many canals followed less desirable routes and ran well over budget. As a result, revenues generated were rarely sufficient to maintain and operate the canal system. By 1838 six of the eight were no longer in use.
Competition with cotton producers for available slave labor and the dearth of skilled labor in South Carolina increased labor costs. Bonuses and above average wages lured stonecutters, brick masons, and engineers from the Northeast. Cost overruns and lagging completion dates prompted public criticism. In 1822 John Belton O’Neall of Newberry introduced legislation to abolish the board, condemning the project as wasteful and calling the internal improvement fever a “mania” or “folly.” William J. Grayson blamed pork-barrel politics for blinding legislators to the deficiencies of the program. Despite the criticism, the General Assembly appointed a superintendent to centralize oversight of public projects and appropriated additional funds to complete those already under construction.
According to the 1827 report of Abraham Blanding, the superintendent of public works, the twenty-five miles of canals cost an average of $50,000 per mile to construct. The committee declared that the canals had opened two thousand miles of river navigation. In reality, the canals suffered from poor construction, inadequate maintenance, and low water flow. By 1828 the balloon had burst. Facing a faltering economy and deep public dissatisfaction, the General Assembly passed the last of the public improvement-era expenditures.
Canal usage dwindled, and in 1840 South Carolina even abandoned the successful Columbia Canal. The railroad, the next great transportation transformation, was at hand. By 1853 the canals were footnotes in South Carolina’s history. A later age tapped their potential for power production.
The State Road between Charleston and Columbia was completed in 1829. While the route was unsuccessful as a toll road, usage exceeded expectations once the tolls were removed. The State Road not only connected Charleston and Columbia, but also facilitated the growth of summer colonies in the South Carolina upcountry and the mountains of western North Carolina.
Easterby, J. H., ed. Transportation in the Ante-Bellum Period. Columbia: Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1951.
Epting, Carl L. “Inland Navigation in South Carolina and Traffic on the Columbia Canal.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1936): 18–28.
Hollis, Daniel W. “Costly Delusion: Inland Navigation in the South Carolina Piedmont.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1968): 29–43.
Kohn, David, and Bess Glenn. Internal Improvement in South Carolina, 1817–1828. Washington, D.C., 1938.