The history of the Santee Cooper project can be traced to 1785, when a group of wealthy investors petitioned the General Assembly to construct a canal connecting the Santee and Cooper Rivers in order to improve inland navigation between Charleston and Columbia. The twenty-two-mile canal opened in 1800 and for the next fifty years allowed planters to ship cotton, rice, and timber to Charleston. By the mid–nineteenth century, however, railroads virtually eliminated the need for the inland waterway, and swampy vines reclaimed the canal. During the 1920s Thomas C. Williams, an engineer and steamboat operator, gained rights to rebuild the canal and reopen the area to inland navigation. Williams’s Columbia Railroad and Navigation Company retained the rights to this project for eight years, but financial concerns frustrated construction efforts.
In 1934 Governor Ibra Blackwood signed a bill creating the South Carolina Public Service Authority and granting it permission to dam the Santee River, divert its water into the Cooper River, clear land for two large reservoirs, construct a hydroelectric plant at Pinopolis, and sell electricity to residents in surrounding counties. A year later President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the Public Service Authority approval to draw on funding from the Public Works Administration, making the Santee Cooper project (as it was quickly dubbed) the largest New Deal program in the Palmetto State. Santee Cooper had several purposes. The project would provide economic relief to the area by drawing the majority of its workforce from relief rolls; the hydroelectric plant would contribute to the electrification of rural farms; the creation of two reservoirs would reopen navigation from Charleston to Columbia; and the regulation of the Santee River would prevent future flooding and eliminate malarial outbreaks. This combination of cheap power, efficient transportation, and a healthy environment would attract industry to the impoverished agricultural region of the state. Santee Cooper received support from the prominent U.S. senator James F. Byrnes, who was largely responsible for persuading President Roosevelt to support the project, and Charleston mayor Burnet Maybank, who spearheaded the campaign for public and political support within the state.
Construction, however, was not a foregone conclusion. The Santee Cooper project met opposition from several groups. In Washington, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, for personal and political motives, opposed federal funding of the project. In South Carolina, private utility companies denounced what they saw as a government monopoly on production and sale of power. In the Santee Cooper area, private landowners fought the dislocation of families living in the new flood basins and the inundation of historic homes, churches, and battlefields. In addition, environmentalists voiced disapproval over the destruction of wildlife habitat in the Santee Swamp and the elimination of thousands of acres of virgin hardwood forest.
Following a four-year court battle, construction began in 1939. At its peak, the project employed nearly fifteen thousand workers, most of whom came from Depression relief rolls. Living in military-style camps scattered throughout the Santee and Pinopolis basins, the laborers cleared more than 160,000 acres with handsaws and mule-drawn wagons. They hauled dirt and clay to dam sites, built railroads, relocated cemeteries, and aided in the construction of the diversion and tail-race canals and the new power plant. Sightseers from across the state came by the thousands to witness the massive undertaking that became the largest land-clearing project in United States history and created the largest single-lift lock in the world. In 1941 President Roosevelt declared the Santee Cooper a defense project, and one year later the power plant in Pinopolis began generating power. Within two decades it was providing electricity to the majority of the state’s farms as well as industries in surrounding counties. More surprisingly, the new reservoirs, renamed Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, attracted sport fishermen from across the country. Soon vacation homes, state parks, and fish camps dotted the 450-mile perimeter of the lakes. By the end of the twentieth century fishing, boating, and other recreational activities brought more than $200 million in annual revenue to Santee Cooper country.
By the end of the twentieth century, the Public Service Authority sold wholesale electricity to twenty cooperatives and two municipalities that served approximately 600,000 customers, and it directly retailed electricity to more than 130,000 additional in-state customers. One of the largest state-owned utilities in the nation, Santee Cooper operates in all forty-six counties in South Carolina. In the 1990s the Public Service Authority expanded its operations and created the Santee Cooper Regional Water System to treat and transport water from Lake Moultrie and provide water for much of the South Carolina lowcountry.
Edgar, Walter B. History of Santee Cooper: 1934–1984. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1984.
Hayes, Jack Irby. South Carolina and the New Deal. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.