An Oconee Weekend
Early South Carolinians were great dreamers. Henry Mouzon Jr. was commissioned in 1773 to survey routes from Charleston to the mountains. He recommended that a canal be constructed to connect the Santee and Cooper rivers. The idea was put on hold during the Revolutionary War but resurrected by Gov. William Moultrie and his buddy, President George Washington, in 1793. These visionaries conceived a waterway connecting the Atlantic seaboard with the Mississippi River.
The S. C. Improvement Act of 1817 allocated $ 1.2 million for eight canals to connect the coast with the mountains. The S.C. engineer, Robert Mills, and the S.C. superintendent of Public Works, Abram Blanding, began to draw plans for this great transportation system.
The Santee Canal connected Moncks Corner with Pineville in 1820, and barges and boats laden with cotton and other goods began making the trip between Charleston and the new capital city, Columbia. Three additional canals were built on the Congaree, Broad, and Saluda rivers at Columbia, and two on the Catawba River near Chester ( Landsford Canal) and Great Falls (Rocky Mount Canal).
The technological triumph of the railroads doomed the canals. By 1850, the canals were abandoned. (The Columbia Canal was revised in 1891, though, to produce electricity for the new textile plants in Columbia.)
Meanwhile, the Moultrie Washington dream was reborn: Connect Charleston on the Atlantic Ocean with Cincinnati on the Ohio River with railroads! Trains from Charleston reached Augusta ( Hamburg) in 1833 and Columbia in 1838.
The Blue Ridge RR Line reached Pendleton in 1850 but was stopped by the Blue Ridge Mountains. Irish laborers, who had completed work on the Columbia Canal in 1824 and helped found St. Peter’s Catholic Church, were called on to dig tunnels through the mountains.
They set up camp, called Tunnel Hill, and began digging at Stumphouse, Middle, and Saddle Mountains.
To quell the reckless behavior of the Irish workers, Father O’Connell founded a church and a school for his Catholic families. Germans moved in and built a powder mill for blasting and founded the town of Walhalla.
By 1859, the General Assembly of South Carolina declared the million dollars allocated for the tunnel was enough and diverted attention to the impending Civil War. Tunnel Hill faded away along with the dreams of reaching Cincinnati.