Although hailed as one of the great internal improvements of its day, the Santee Canal was not a success. Financial problems, lawsuits, poor design and construction, lack of traffic, and droughts all contributed to the canal’s disappointing results.
A canal to connect the Santee and Cooper Rivers had been conceived as early as 1770, but the Revolutionary War intervened and plans for the canal were postponed until the mid-1780s. By linking the Santee and Cooper Rivers, investors hoped to create a trade route that would bring prosperity to the state in general and Charleston in particular. The canal would be quicker and cheaper than overland travel and avoid the long and frequently treacherous ocean passage from the mouth of the Santee to the city. In March 1786 the General Assembly chartered the “Company for the Inland Navigation from Santee to Cooper River,” giving the company full responsibility for the canal, from construction to maintenance. Financing the canal was achieved privately through selling stock and holding lotteries to raise capital. After a route from White Oak Landing on the Santee to Biggin Creek, a Cooper River tributary, was selected, work commenced in 1793. Completed in 1800, the Santee Canal cost $650,667, more than twice original estimates. The canal consisted of two double locks and eight single locks; was twenty-two miles long, thirty-five feet wide at the surface, and twenty feet at the bottom; and drew four feet of water. Tolls ranged from $10 to $30 depending on the size of the boat.
Although hailed as one of the great internal improvements of its day, the Santee Canal was not a success. Financial problems, lawsuits, poor design and construction, lack of traffic, and droughts all contributed to the canal’s disappointing results. With the rise of railroad competition in the 1840s, investors pulled out of the project, and the General Assembly canceled the canal company’s charter in 1853. Portions of the canal were used sporadically until about 1865 and then were abandoned entirely. Proposals to reopen the Santee Canal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went nowhere. In the 1940s most of the canal was inundated by the waters of Lake Moultrie. In 1989 the state of South Carolina converted the surviving portion of the canal into Old Santee Canal Park. Management of the park was transferred to Santee Cooper in 1999.
Bennett, Robert B. “The Santee Canal, 1785–1939.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1988.