The first boats were large canoes or flat-bottom scows that were powered by paddles, oars, or poles. Within one hundred years, flatboats capable of holding a wagon or carriage had become commonplace.
The earliest ferries in South Carolina carried settlers across the Ashley, Cooper, Santee, and other lowcountry waterways. Early ferries, sometimes called “boats” or “galleys,” were important for transportation but were frequently poorly constructed, haphazardly manned, and expensive to the everyday traveler. Accordingly, the General Assembly in 1709 passed the first of many laws governing the location, management, and fees associated with ferries. Under the law, the ferry master was to provide for the passage of one man at one pence and a “man and horse from one side of [the river] to the other” at a cost of two pence. Most ferries took the name of an early licensee: Mazyck, Skrine, Garner, Vance, Murry, or Nelson. Others were known only by the location: Strawberry Ferry, Ashley River Ferry, or South Island Ferry. One, across the Black River, was referred to only as the “Potato Ferry.”
The first boats were large canoes or flat-bottom scows that were powered by paddles, oars, or poles. Within one hundred years, flatboats capable of holding a wagon or carriage had become commonplace. The heavier load necessitated a pulley/winch system to move the flatboat and cargo against the current, and costs rose accordingly. In 1805 the toll on a team or carriage was $1.00, and a man and horse was 12.5¢. A barrel of freight was 25¢.
Ferry operations in antebellum South Carolina were closely regulated by the General Assembly, which established rates of toll and the duties of ferry operators. Negligent operators or those who attempted to extort higher tolls could be fined or have their ferry licenses taken away. The General Assembly could not, however, regulate nature. Floods, drought, and storms frequently interrupted ferry operations. Still, with bridges difficult to build and expensive, ferries were a vital link in the state’s transportation system throughout the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries. Their number increased from several dozen crossings in 1775 to more than one hundred by 1825. As the state’s population spread inland in the early nineteenth century, ferries became increasingly prevalent in the backcountry.
The destruction or elimination of all but twenty ferries by 1865 was the beginning of the end for the institution. Steamboats and railroads lessened the need for ferries throughout the nineteenth century, while the arrival of the automobile finished it off in the twentieth century. Formed in 1917, the South Carolina Highway Department utilized taxes on automobiles, automobile dealerships, and gasoline to build the state’s first system of modern roads and bridges. With the assistance of federal money, South Carolina acquired thousands of miles of new roads and hundreds of bridges. A few ferries persisted until well into the twentieth century, such as Ashe’s Ferry at Van Wyck or Scott’s Ferry on the Savannah, but most were replaced by bridges. Places such as Givhans Ferry State Park in Dorchester County and Galivants Ferry in Horry County, however, provide reminders of the prevalence and importance of ferries in the state’s transportation history.
Downey, Tom. Planting a Capitalist South: Masters, Merchants, and Manufacturers in the Southern Interior, 1790–1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.
Gilmore, Edward C. “South Carolina River Ferries.” South Carolina History Illustrated 1 (May 1970): 44–48.
Meriwether, Robert L. The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729–1765. Kingsport, Tenn.: Southern Publishers, 1940.
Merrens, H. Roy, ed. The Colonial South Carolina Scene, 1697–1774: Contemporary Views. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977. Moore, John Hammond. The South Carolina Highway Department, 1917–1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.