A history of the Columbia Canal

Riverfront park | Photo via @oilyliveonce

Hey Cola. Jess here. Columbia has some beautiful rivers that flow right through the heart of the capital city. These rivers served an important purpose long before just providing an excellent recreational resource. For 50+ years, rivers were the most important means of transportation. 

For those who don’t already know – Columbia has three major rivers – the Saluda + Broad, which merge to form the Congaree.

When SC’s capital was moved from Charleston to Columbia in 1786, due to its more centralized location, the city’s surrounding river system played an important role in connecting trade routes throughout the state. 

Moving the capital increased in demand for import + exports, which led to an increase in traffic, think malfunction junction at rush hour. The answer was to build a canal to help the ships bypass the falls and rapids. Irish immigrants constructed the Columbia Canal, which sits just below the Saluda River Falls, in 1824

The canal had four lockswhich help lift or lower ships to ‘step up’ or ‘step down’ to the various water levels – and one guard lock to control those water levels. The locks needed no external power source except the water itself. 

From Columbia, trade boats could journey along the Congaree River to the Santee River, where they could continue on to Charleston + eventually the Atlantic Ocean. This opened up South Carolina’s export potential to the world. 

The Columbia Canal was considered to be the most profitable of SC’s river canals as it helped move millions of dollars in economic resources throughout the state. Records show that, in just one year, 66,597 bales of cotton were transported, the state’s major export at the time. In addition to textiles, the movement of produce and other merchandise helped grow Columbia’s economy. 

After railroads became the prominent mode of transportation in the 1840s, demand for the canal dropped to occasional use for local transport needs.  

Since transportation along the canal declined, it was later used as a source of drinking water for city residents by William Sprague, IV after he purchased the canal in 1868. However, this concept didn’t take well with the residents at the time since the Columbia Water Power Company, who was tasked with filtering the water, did a poor job and charged all its customers exceptionally high rates for dirty drinking water. 

After the Civil War, the canal was expanded and provided hydroelectric power to the growing mill industry in Columbia. One of the most iconic is the Columbia Mill, which was the first textile mill in the world to be powered only by electricity. The location of the mill is now where the South Carolina State Museum resides. 

Today, many Soda Citizens live, work and play along what is left of the Columbia Canal. Residents can walk around the canal at the Riverfront Park or catch a peak of the wildlife along the rivers. Weekends are spent enjoying the refreshing waters recreationally by tubing or kayaking along the rapids + falls where the rivers converge and anglers are caught reeling in prize-winning fish and so much more.