From the earliest times, South Carolina’s coastal creeks, rivers, and bays have been used for commerce and communication, providing a transportation route far safer than plying the open ocean. Native Americans in dugout canoes were replaced by white settlers and black slaves using larger craft propelled by oars, poles, paddles, and sails. The advent of steam navigation in the early nineteenth century enhanced the value of inland waterways, and increased efforts were made even before the Civil War to dig “cuts” to connect natural watercourses.
In 1808, amid a heated congressional debate over the constitutionality of using federal funds for internal improvements, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin offered a report of the country’s transportation needs. One of his recommendations called for the building of canals to connect the natural waterways of the Atlantic seaboard to form a continuous route protected from the ocean. While state and local interests began working on local canal projects as early as the 1790s, Gallatin’s vision of a continuous waterway was not attained until 1909, when Congress authorized the first surveys of the Intracoastal Waterway. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to make systematic improvements to connect coastal waterways. Congress consolidated these projects in 1917, completing them with the opening of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway (AIWW) in 1936.
The 740-mile-long channel of the AIWW runs from Norfolk, Virginia, to Fernandina Beach, Florida, with shallower extensions running south to Key West and north to Boston. The South Carolina portion of the waterway extends for 203 miles and is dredged to an average depth of between nine and eleven feet. While recreational users of the Intracoastal Waterway abound, the route also carries a substantial amount of commercial cargo traffic. In 2000 intracoastal waters in the South Carolina section carried 378,000 tons of cargo, which accounted for twelve percent of the total cargo carried by the entire AIWW. Approximately seventy percent of this cargo was petroleum or pulp and paper products.
Federal Writers’ Project. The Intracoastal Waterway, Norfolk to Key West. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1937.
Parkman, Aubrey. History of the Waterways of the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Washington, D.C.: National Waterways Study, U.S. Army Engineer Water Resources Support Center, Institute for Water Resources, 1983.