Work began on the canal in 1793 with 1000 slave laborers loaned out from nearby plantations. Built mostly of brick and stone, solely with picks and shovels and human power, the canal was completed seven years later. It featured 10 locks and a tide gate, was 22 miles long, connected the Santee and Cooper Rivers, and was considered one of the first great engineering feats in the new country.
It cost $800,000 and was funded solely by its users.
Initially power for the narrow boats and barges was supplied through horses and mules on towpaths beside the water and later by slave polemen. Lock tenders and their families who lived by each lock were also black.
This reconstruction of one of the locks is the entrance to a small museum at the Old Santee Canal Park in Monck's Corners.
For the first 16 years of its existence the canal was a success. In 1830, 720 boats carried 70,000 bales of cotton to Charleston. But after two years of severe drought that closed the canal completely, crumbling construction, and finally, the completion of a railroad, the canal was closed in 1853.
From the observation windows of the museum, it's easy to imagine a barge out there, low in the water and piled high with cotton bales, making its silent way along the canal. The park is built at what was the southernmost portion of the Santee Canal.
Turtles lined up on a log were enjoying
the sun the day we visited.
The Old Santee Canal today
There are four miles of boardwalks and walking trails on its banks.