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written by
Christina Rae Butler

Bateau to Barge

photographs by
Provided

Volume: 34

A history of Lowcountry Transportation: Before cars and modern highways, Lowcountry residents traveled by carriage down the few high-and-dry paths through the island marshes. But more commonly, they relied on private boats and ferries.

Native American tribes created the earliest roads in South Carolina, likely animal trails or river banks that transitioned into more traveled trade paths. In the colonial days, there were few roads to link the Sea Islands and inland plantations to Charleston and the coast, and those thoroughfares that did exist were rough and subject to flooding. In 1698 the colonial government passed “an act for making and mending the highways and paths, and for cutting of creek and water courses,” which established a Commission of High Roads for each parish, with commissioners to create and maintain roads and keep river channels clear. They tasked local property owners (whose enslaved people did most of the work) to create bridges and plantation roads. In 1714 the legislature passed another act for building roads and bridges because residents complained, “for want of convenient bridges, they are greatly interrupted in their communication with adjacent parts, and are kept from the worship of God and attendance of musters and alarms.” Most roads remained unpaved and poorly maintained, however, and traveling by carriage or dray (a horse-drawn cart for transporting goods) from Mount Pleasant, Johns Island, or colonial Dorchester town (near present-day Summerville) might have taken a day or more.  

King Street, or the King’s High Road, was the principal path into Charleston, although some sections were notoriously treacherous and marred by deep ruts and shabby bridges that made carriage travel unpleasant at best and nearly impossible in a deluge. The highway connected Charleston with Savannah to the south and Wilmington to the north and was later expanded to connect all of the eastern seaboard colonies after 1750. Historian William Brockington notes that it began as a series of disjointed Native American trails that were widened and regularized by English colonists. Much of King Street passed through long stretches of wilderness, and the trek by horse, foot, carriage, or stagecoach would have been a desolate one. As the road neared Charleston, it became better maintained and more densely traveled. King Street entered Charleston on a high ridge of land (by Lowcountry standards) and was the main high path into town. Shops, hotels, and taverns lined King Street from the earliest days of the city, and it remains the shopping hub of the city today.  

Stagecoaches were a popular way to travel by land, and support towns or crossroads cropped up along the King’s Highway and other main thoroughfares to supply fresh horses, overnight accommodations, food, and drink. “Mile house” taverns were positioned every two miles or so on the Charleston Neck (today’s North Charleston) for travelers to rest their horses and enjoy refreshments.  

In a community surrounded by water, traveling by creek and river was often the most popular option from the colonial era into the twentieth century. Maritime transportation, however, left residents at the mercy of the tides, which determined not only the rate of travel but when it was possible to travel downstream or upstream. Even nineteenth-century steam-powered ferries had to wait until the tide filled the Lowcountry creeks so their hulls would not ground in the thick pluff mud that lined the coastal waterways.   

Travelers by boat had to weave through an intricate maze of winding tidal creeks and coastal rivers on an “inner passage” from plantation to town. Planters tasked their enslaved laborers to dig “cuts” through the marshes to connect waterways that were naturally separated from each other. New Cut linked Wadmalaw River with the Stono; Watts Cut connected South Edisto to the Dawhoo River; and Wappoo Cut linked the Stono and Ashley Rivers via Wappoo Creek.  Initiated in the colonial era, these man-made cuts made the journey from country to town much shorter, and they provided a safer trek than sailing the coast. 

Privately owned ferries operating with public franchise licenses became one of the most common means of transportation from the 1730s until the rise of the auto in the early twentieth century. Ferries carried people, goods, animals, and even carriages down the rivers and between towns. Passengers would gather at the landings to leave either on demand (when the tide allowed) or at set intervals. Operators used the toll fees to maintain the ferry fleet and turn a profit. Small shops, taverns, and inns cropped up near the landings, and some became small communities in their own right. Mile houses were often affiliated with a ferry landing, where passengers could float in and then take a stagecoach or carriage the rest of the way into town. 

Ferries connected Charleston to James and Johns Islands, East Cooper (Mount Pleasant and Awendaw), Wadmalaw Island, Point of Pines Plantation on Edisto Island, West Ashley, Dorchester town, and various communities in Colleton and Georgetown. William Watson operated the first ferry to link the Cooper and Wando Rivers to Charleston in 1733. By the American Revolution, Andrew Hibben’s ferry service operated from near Shem Creek and the Old Village to bring travelers to town. By 1787 the City of Charleston constructed a proper ferry landing near the foot of today’s Market Streets.   

Historian Nic Butler explains that passenger ferries might have been simple canoes or long rowboats, while “horse boats” with flat bottoms, a wider deck, and larger oars were used to ferry horses, carriages, cattle, sheep, and hogs. Andrew Hibben had enslaved men to operate and row his ferries for him, which was probably common practice throughout the slave-majority Lowcountry. Butler notes that by the 1820s, “The newest propulsion technology on the Cooper River was a recent invention called the ‘team boat.’ By using a pair of horses walking on a circular treadmill, a team boat converted literal horse power into mechanical energy that propelled a pair of side-mounted paddle wheels. Even after James Hibben’s ferry and others moved into the steam age, both Milton Ferry and Clement’s Ferry continued to use team boats well into the 1830s.” In the antebellum era and into the later nineteenth century, steam ferries operated in the midst of towline ferries and more primitive horse-powered boats.  

A quick look at architect Robert Mills’s Atlas of the State of South Carolina (Charleston District) from the 1820s shows that Kiawah was an isolated Sea Island with no direct road access to speak of, in part because the island at that time was comprised of just a few plantations and no towns. If the Vanderhorsts (who owned half of Kiawah) wished to travel to Charleston by land, they would have had to travel west to Seabrook Island, where there was a road near William Seabrook’s plantation that meandered inland across Wadmalaw and Johns Islands. They likely would have traveled by water instead, boarding a plantation boat in the Stono River and heading northward, then cutting east toward Charleston via Wappoo Creek, in today’s West Ashley area. The last option, which was faster but more treacherous, was to take a boat along the coast from Kiawah, past Folly Beach, and into the Charleston Harbor to town. Strong tides and formidable sandbars at the mouth of the harbor made this a difficult feat prior to modern dredging, and mariners would have had to be intimately familiar with the tides to navigate the harbor successfully.  

The slow demise of the ferry system began with the advent of rail travel, but most residents still relied on water transportation until the modern highway system and the rise of the automobile. People saw the appeal of driving at will (any time of the day and with no concern for the tide) in a private car, and in 1917 the new state highway department began to pave and improve earlier dirt roads and to construct modern bridges for car travel. Elizabeth Stringfellow notes that “in 1918 the main road on Edisto was straightened, with new bridges, and the island was connected with the mainland for the first time . . . . by the end of the 1920s, the ferries were gone. The traffic of ferries and steamboats diminished and primary transportation moved on wheeled vehicles over land and bridges.”  

A water taxi still operates several times a day between Mount Pleasant and three stops on the Cooper River side of Charleston, and it offers a beautiful and relaxing way to get to the city. Convenience of cars aside, traffic in the Lowcountry is increasing as new residents flock to the region for its weather and beauty. Perhaps the time has come to renew our ferry lines and reconnect with the historic rhythms of the tides! — C.B.

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