In its broadest sense, transportation pertains to the movement or conveyance of people and products, as well as the various techniques and means utilized in traversing distances. Much of transportation’s story in South Carolina is about the movement of peoples and their different forms of contact with each other. Towns and cities, frequently with distinctive architectural features of a specific transportation component, emerged along various connecting routes. Often economic progress was determined by the availability of transportation. Over the centuries, transportation needs have regularly determined political decisions; and government participation, at all levels, has resulted in an enormous number of bills and acts pertaining to transportation. Building transportation arteries has had an impact on the environment, determined recreation access, and affected the state’s fiscal success or failure. The melding of cultures to create today’s South Carolina was certainly a result of transportation.

The origins of transportation networks in the area now called South Carolina began with the earliest settlers. Native Americans entering the area as early as 15,000 years ago probably utilized animal trails and river banks as they walked from place to place. Over time, marginal trails became significant connector paths for trade and communication. Landforms, waterways, soil, and climate determined not only transportation routes but also who and what passed over them. By 1150 C.E., the Mississippian Culture connected peoples throughout the Southeast via the transportation routes that had emerged. In South Carolina the most important tracks included the Occanoochee Trail, which followed the fall zone throughout the Southeast (in South Carolina from present-day Silver Bluff to Camden and Cheraw); the Cherokee Path (from Keowee, near Clemson, along the Saluda River to present-day Columbia, then along the Congaree/Santee Rivers to the coast); and a coastal trail paralleling the ocean but inland from the tidewater areas (roughly the route of U.S. Highway 17).

The earliest European contacts with native Carolinians were made by oceangoing ships seeking harbors for the establishment of colonies, forts, and trading posts or by explorers following Native American highways. In the age of sail, westerly winds encouraged sea routes from Europe to the southeastern coast of North America. In the sixteenth century coastal bases were established near Beaufort and perhaps near present-day Georgetown. The Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto (1540) followed the Occanoochee Trail, while the Spaniard Juan Pardo (1567) utilized parts of the Cherokee Path in his quest for silver. Although a lasting European settlement was not founded until 1670, the transportation routes created by the first Americans established the basic configuration of subsequent overland transportation networks, while the harbors and rivers explored by Europeans provided a foundation for coastal and international connections.

After the arrival of British settlers in 1670, the network of roads, bridges, ferries, and fords for overland travel expanded to allow people and commodities quick and easy mobility throughout the lowcountry. The importance of creating and maintaining an adequate transportation infrastructure is evidenced by “An Act for Making and Mending High-ways and Paths, and, for Cutting of Creeks and Water Cour[s]es” (1698). The Commons House created a self-perpetuating Commission of the High Roads in every parish that was primarily responsible for the maintenance of roads once they had been constructed by separate legislative act. Other commissions were created to keep rivers navigable and to widen channels. The riverine networks provided by the Salkehatchie, Edisto, Santee, and Pee Dee Rivers also added to the ease of colonial transportation. Extending one hundred miles or more from the fall line to the ocean, these rivers provided cheap, convenient transportation for bulk crops. Periaguas, canoes, dugouts, flatboats, and rafts brought furs, indigo, grain, and other commodities to coastal piers. There, the wooden vessels were often dismantled, and the goods were transferred to bay boats or to Bermuda sloops for their journey to Charleston, Georgetown, or Port Royal / Beaufort.

As the scale of exports rose, port facilities, such as Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston, and government facilities, such as the Exchange (built 1767–1771), were constructed. During this period as many as three hundred ships might be in Charleston harbor, ranging from oceangoing sailing vessels, to bay boats, to Native American canoes. Beaufort and Charleston developed significant ship-building industries that constructed vessels for coastal as well as international trade.

While many European groups immigrated to South Carolina, the Scots-Irish were particularly significant in developing South Carolina’s transportation network. Many were Presbyterian and came primarily from the north of Ireland (Ulster) and the Scottish Lowlands. They followed the Great Philadelphia Wagon Road down the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia through backcountry North Carolina, entering upcountry South Carolina at one of the most significant river crossings: Nations Ford, near modern-day Rock Hill. By trading guns, metal pots, alcoholic beverages, and other supplies for furs, these settlers above the fall zone established themselves in virtually the same areas and along virtually the same transportation routes used by the Native Americans they displaced.

River transportation in the upcountry was of less significance because numerous rapids and swift-flowing currents made such travel hazardous. In place of river highways, Native American paths and fords were adapted to horse and wagon trails; horse-, oxen-, and mule-drawn wagons, carts, and carriages transferred commodities from the upcountry to the fall line, where they could then be transferred to river craft. Wainwrighting thus emerged as a significant craft in backwoods Carolina. Town location was usually associated with major transportation features. Crossroads, fords, and ferry sites frequently supported stores or taverns around which other dwellings would emerge. Ferries were considered especially important and were provided with special protection by the colonial legislature. Many ferries—such as Garner’s near Columbia, Shockley near Anderson, and Givhans near Summerville—were granted monopolies by the legislature, protecting them from competition. These same acts, however, also set ferry standards and the prices that operators could charge for their services.

By 1776 a highway connected Boston with Savannah, the Great Wagon Road crossed the backcountry, and postal roads connected the coast with the interior, but virtually none of the roads were paved. With the exception of the coastal region, a view of South Carolina’s transportation grid at the time of the American Revolution would show a virtual mirror image of Native American paths and trails. During the next fifty years, two developments resulted in a transportation revolution in South Carolina. The first was the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which made the growing of short staple cotton not only feasible but also highly profitable. Upcountry farmers were quick to demand more effective transportation routes to the coast to transport their lucrative, but bulky, commodity. The second event was Alexander Hamilton’s 1791 “Report on Manufactures,” which proposed a network of internal improvements at government expense. Successful roads such as the National Road (authorized by Congress in 1806) and canals such as New York’s Erie Canal (built 1817–1825) spurred similar efforts throughout the states, including South Carolina.

Although the Santee Canal (1785–1800) predated much of South Carolina’s internal improvements boom, the twenty-one-mile link between the Santee and Cooper Rivers opened Charleston to upcountry traffic. The General Assembly authorized a Board of Internal Improvements (1818) and a Board of Public Works (1819); these agencies began the process of creating a more comprehensive transportation network for the state. Robert Mills, a member of the Board of Public Works, wrote Inland Navigation & Internal Improvements (a pamphlet for transportation improvement) in 1821. Mills and John Wilson, the civil and military engineer of South Carolina, produced the 1822 map of South Carolina, which was used to develop transportation links throughout the state. In 1824 the State Road, a corduroy road from Charleston to Columbia, and later extended to Saluda Gap above Greenville, was authorized. Other types of roads, such as toll roads, turnpikes, and causeways, also made their appearance. Another road built during this period was the Great Western Road & Mail Route, which followed the fall line between Columbia and Cheraw. Covered bridges, such as the Augusta-Hamburg Bridge built by Henry Schulz in 1814, facilitated travel greatly. Stagecoach lines began running regular routes between major towns, carrying passengers and mail.

Of much greater importance to South Carolina’s cotton growers, however, was the construction of canals around rapids, waterfalls, and other river obstructions along the Catawba, Broad, Wateree, and Saluda Rivers. About twenty-five miles of canals—including the Columbia, Wateree, Catawba, and Landsford canals—opened virtually the entire upper part of the state to the shipping of bulk cargo by water. The introduction of steam boats on rivers below the fall zone further facilitated this trend. Shipbuilding continued to be a significant industry, as typified by the success of Charleston’s Pregnall & Company in building 130-foot-long pilot boats and coastal schooners.

Despite these successes, Charleston’s rank as a significant American port continued to decline in relation to northeastern and other southern ports. Some of the city’s businessmen saw another transportation innovation as an answer to their problem. On December 19, 1827, the General Assembly chartered the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company (later the South Carolina Railroad Company). William Aiken and Alfred Andrew Dexter proposed to build a rail connection from Charleston to Hamburg on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River across from Augusta. In October 1833 the 136-mile connection was completed. South Carolina cotton was now transported by rail to Charleston instead of by steamship to Savannah. As other lines in South Carolina were constructed, rail mileage grew to almost 1,000 miles by 1860. Charleston was connected to Savannah, Augusta, Charlotte, and Wilmington and from those points to the rest of the United States. An important feature of the railroad boom was the appearance of numerous new towns along the rail lines, each focused on the train station that was its commercial hub.

The Civil War was a catastrophe for South Carolina’s transportation infrastructure and equipment. For four years the rail system was relentlessly used with minimal repair or maintenance; overland and riverine links suffered the same fate. Shipping, except for the few vessels that evaded the Union blockade, ceased; port and docking facilities deteriorated or were destroyed. William T. Sherman’s march through the state in 1865 ruined bridges, railroad tracks, stations, warehouses, and cotton. With Confederate bonds and money worthless, the state under martial law, and Reconstruction preoccupied by a myriad of political and social issues, the transportation system could best be described as only marginally adequate.

Although railroad mileage increase by thirty-seven percent during Reconstruction, the rest of the system was only slowly improved. Typifying the malaise facing South Carolina’s rail system was the demise of the South Carolina Railroad Company. After thirteen years of financial struggle, the company went into receivership. In 1881 it was purchased by a group of New York capitalists and reconstituted as the South Carolina Railway Company. Charleston’s port reopened, but the dilapidated facilities and the loss of cotton markets overseas made recovery slow at best. Steamship lines connected Charleston with northern and European ports, but the glory days of antebellum Charleston were gone.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century witnessed the beginnings of a transportation transformation in South Carolina not unlike that of the 1820s. Road improvement, rail mergers, port facility upgrading, and the introduction of public transportation greatly facilitated the movement of people and products within and without the state. With virtually none of the state roads paved, M.C. Butler, state senator from Edgefield, called for constructing and maintaining all-weather roads, especially for farmers, in 1883. There were only about three hundred miles of paved roads in the state by 1925, but major United States highways (1, 17, 21, 25, 29, 76, and 78) traversed the state, and more than two hundred bridges had been constructed.

South Carolina’s railroads were linked nationally when Southern Railway, the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, and the Seaboard Railroad incorporated the most important rail links in the state into their systems. They dominated South Carolina’s rail system until after World War II, although local lines continued to serve local needs and specific industries that were not on the main routes, such as textiles and timber. Charleston’s status as a ship-building location was enhanced by its selection as a navy yard in 1901, but the port still lagged behind in cargo tonnage and facilities. A Port Utilities Commission was established in 1920, and the Charleston Port Survey of 1921, done by Edwin J. Clapp, issued fifty-five specific findings and recommendations for improving the port. This was the genesis of Charleston’s real rebirth as a significant port.

Prior to the Depression of the 1930s, virtually all transportation matters were state-sponsored and state-funded. Since the 1930s, however, federal initiatives and projects have dramatically altered all aspects of transportation in South Carolina. Federally sponsored programs aided in the construction of roads, bridges, dams, port facilities, and airports. Maintenance or anticipatory actions, such as dredging or wetlands preservation, are often done under federal oversight. At the same time, federal guidelines and regulations increasingly changed the nature of transportation, and federal agencies became an integral part of how the transportation industries were monitored and maintained. Federal money usually required matching state funding, and transportation issues often meant political fights over how best to raise money and, often more importantly, over which county got the most benefits. Moreover, as the transportation grid expanded, secondary transportation industries, especially those affiliated with business and tourism—motels, service stations, and eating establishments—emerged as significant economic components. Transportation industries such as freight hauling and construction companies greatly benefited from the integration of South Carolina’s diverse transportation components within the state and with the rest of the nation. Indeed, virtually all South Carolinians benefited from, and were challenged by, the transportation revolution that took place from the 1930s through the early twenty-first century.

Perhaps the most visible element in South Carolina’s early twenty-first-century transportation network is its highway system. As of 2004, South Carolina had the fourth-largest state-maintained highway system in the United States, with more than 41,000 miles of state highway (sixty-five percent of the state’s total road mileage), over 8,250 bridges, 35 rest areas and welcome centers, 500,000 traffic signs, and a multitude of driveways, ditches, and guardrails managed and maintained by the South Carolina Department of Transportation. While federal funding provided eighty percent of the original cost of building the roads, all maintenance, as well as construction of required safety structures, is the state’s responsibility.

Water transportation has also witnessed a transformation. Where once rivers flowed freely, there are now more than 50,000 dams throughout the state, including 34 federally regulated dams and more than 2,250 state-regulated dams. River transportation is more for recreational purposes than for economic reasons, although the service industries for recreation are thriving. Ocean transportation is still funneled primarily through Charleston. Robert M. Figg, Jr.’s 1941 report calling for State Ports Authority (SPA) resulted in legislation creating the South Carolina State Ports Authority in 1942. The SPA spent millions on improving and upgrading the port’s facilities. The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway was established by four federal bills during the 1930s and is the water highway from Maine to the Florida Keys.

The latest transportation revolution witnessed the decline of one major transportation link and the creation of a new one. In 1924 South Carolina rail mileage was about 3,800 miles, most of which was externally owned and operated. Despite rail’s pivotal role in winning World War II and the introduction of diesel locomotives to improve rail transportation, highways became the preferred mode of travel for Americans by midcentury. Except for two Amtrak train routes through the state, passenger traffic on trains has almost disappeared. By 2000 track mileage had dwindled to less than 2,600 miles. Freight traffic remained an important segment of rail profitability, and the introduction of container cargo carriers assisted rail’s continued significance to the state.

The advent of air transportation led to the establishment of the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission in 1935. Pioneers such as Paul R. Redfern, Caroline Hembel, and Jimmie L. Hamilton helped to popularize aviation in the state, which eventually came to be the home of six commercial airports and fifty-four general aviation airports. Charleston International is the busiest passenger airport, and Columbia Metropolitan Airport is the busiest cargo airport. All in all, South Carolina is an integral part of a global transportation network that connects South Carolinians to the world.

Easterby, J. H., ed. Transportation in the Ante-Bellum Period. Columbia: Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1951.

Ford, Ralph Watson. “The Changing Geographic Pattern of South Carolina’s Railroad System, 1860–1902.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1986.

Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

Moore, John Hammond. The South Carolina Highway Department, 1917–1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

South Carolina State Ports Authority. History of the South Carolina State Ports Authority. Charleston: South Carolina State Ports Authority, 1991.

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Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Transportation
  • Author William S. Brockington, Jr.
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • URL http://www.scencyclopedia.org/sce/entries/transportation/
  • Access Date January 23, 2020
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • Original Published Date June 28, 2016
  • Date of Last Update August 1, 2017