South Carolina Canals - Old Santee Canal

Current County

Year Started

Year Completed







22 miles

35 feet

4 to 5-1/2 feet

1833 Map of Charleston County, SC (now mostly Berkeley County)

Sometimes referred to as the Santee and Cooper Canal, and known as America's first "summit canal," this artificial waterway was constructed to provide a better means of transporting agricultural products from the center of the state to the port of Charleston. The Santee River and its tributaries drained much of the South Carolina uplands but its entrance to the sea, some fifty miles nortwest of Charleston, was choked by a swampy delta and a shallow bay. From there boats had to sail to Charleston inside a broken string of barrier islands, risking shallow water and ocean rip currents.

The first boat to traverse the new canal in June 1800 carried a cargo of salt from Charleston up the Cooper River, the canal, the Santee River, then the Congaree River - some two hundred (200) miles up to Columbia.

Although it opened the interior of South Carolina to water transportation for the first time, the Old Santee Canal never made money. Construction was more costly than anticipated. Then, the rise of the cotton industry in the uplands in lieu of cereal crops soon ended all shipment of grains to the coast. Cotton, far lighter in weight and more valuable, could better bear the cost of transportation by land, especially since transport on the rivers was plagued by frequent mishaps, low water, and delays. Railroads began to compete for the uplands traffic in the 1840s, and the Old Santee Canal was finally abandoned in 1858.

In 1770, the South Carolina House of Commons proposed a survey to determine the most favorable routes for a canal to connect the Santee River with the Cooper River which would provide a direct outlet to the Charleston harbor. Henry Mouzon, Jr. was commissioned in 1773 to survey routes for this effort. The onset of the U.S. Revolution delayed further action on the canal until 1785, when the newly-formed General Assembly granted a charter to the Santee Canal Company.

A prominent shareholder in the Santee Canal Company was former General William Moultrie, who has the unique distinction of being the President of the Santee Canal Company as well as governor of South Carolina. (continues below.

Old Santee Canal Lock #1

Old Santee Canal Lock #2

Construction began in 1793 under the supervision of Johann Christian Senf, a Swedish-born engineer who had served with Hessian troops during the Revolution - and at this time was the State Engineer. More than seven hundred (700) laborers (mostly slaves) (some sources claim that over 1,000 laborers were involved) worked with picks and shovels for seven years to finish the Old Santee Canal. The canal was designed with a 34-foot rise through three (3) lifting locks and a 69-foot fall through seven more lifting locks - a net difference of 35 feet between the two rivers. Because of porous, sandy soil, part of the upper sections of the canal were lined with planks.

In 1793, the cost of construction was estimated to be £55,000 sterling. At completion in 1800, it was determined that the canal actually cost over $800,000. All funds were from private subscription - there was no help from the state.

Upon completion in 1800, boats and barges were initially pulled down the canal by mules and horses, using ten-foot wide tow paths. Later, the use of horses and mules was abandoned, and the boats were pushed through the canal by crewmen with poles. The canal began two (2) miles below Greenwood Swamp on the Santee River and entered the Cooper River at Stoney Landing, roughly two (2) miles east of Moncks Corner in Berkeley County (Charleston County at the time). Near the summit, reservoirs were created - these were filled via rainfall - to supply water when necessary.

With the exception of the wooden tidal lock, all locks were made of brick and stone. In addition to the canal, there were several warehouses, keepers' houses, and other ancillary buildings along the route. All associated outbuildings, turning basins, lock bridges, and the wooden lock have been destroyed since abandonment in 1850. The towpaths are still visible along much of the canal.

For sixteen (16) years, the canal operations were faily smooth. Goods moved freely to Charleston and the Santee Canal began to show a profit. From 1817 to 1819, however, severe droughts dried up the canal, stopping all traffic for almost two years. The busiest year was 1830, when a total of seven hundred and twenty (720) boats and barges, mostly full of cotton (about 70,000 bales), traveled through the waterway.

In 1842, the completion of the Branchville & Columbia Railroad left the Old Santee Canal with little traffic that trickled down the Wateree River. In 1846, the railroad was extended to Camden and this hastened the ultimate demise of the canal. In 1850, the General Assembly revoked the charter at the request of the shareholders.

Today, most of the Old Santee Canal is under the waters of Lake Moultrie. Some of the upper sections are still visible on private property. It is listed in the National Register - May 5, 1982.

William Buford was a planter in the upcountry - he arrived in Charleston via the Old Santee Canal with his own boat, built on his land, loaded with his own crops - and is considered to be the first commercial use of the canal. 

© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved