Back in the 1700s, rice and other crops from the upcountry made their way to market by way of the Santee River and then to the Atlantic, for a coast-hugging journey to Charleston for export. By 1770, Charleston city fathers had decided that linking the Santee directly with Charleston’s wharves on the Cooper River was the way to go.
While the Revolutionary War held up the works for a while, by 1793 nearly a thousand workers began digging for seven years to complete the project. By 1800 the 22-mile, ten-lock Santee Canal was in operation, the first true canal in America.
George Washington himself was so impressed that he remarked, “it gives me great pleasure to find a spirit of inland navigation prevailing so generously. No country is more capable of improvements in this way than our own.” His words proved prophetic when an even greater engineering feat—the railroad—signaled the end of the canal’s viability in the mid-1800s.
Today most of the canal is under the waters of another immense engineering project, Lake Moultrie. However, Old Santee Canal Park (900 Stony Landing Rd., 843/899-5200, www.oldsanteecanalpark.org , daily 9 a.m.–5 p.m., $3) is located at a point where you can see part of the canal enter Biggin Creek, the headwaters of the Cooper River.
On the Stony Landing bluff stands an 1843 plantation house built by Charleston merchant John Dawson. You can tour the restored house, view exhibits in the excellent 11,000 square-foot Interpretive Center, and view the 1940s-era Tailrace Canal, which joins Lake Moultrie to the Cooper River.
Lots of school groups tour the site throughout the year, and a highlight for them are the various snake exhibits on-site—this swampy area being particularly suitable for the legless reptiles. Naturalists will note the unusual plant life typical of an area with limestone-heavy underlying soil, or marl.
Sharing the 195-acre grounds with the Old Santee Canal Park—and included in the cost of admission—is the Berkeley Museum (950 Stony Landing Rd., 843/899-5101, www.gobcweb.com , Mon.–Sat. 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 1–5 p.m.), which traces area history from prehistoric times to the present including, naturally, a goodly portion on Berkeley County’s most famous native son, Francis Marion, the legendary Swamp Fox  of Revolutionary War fame.
The museum also boasts a replica of the Confederate torpedo boat CSS David, built here at Stony Landing. In October 1863 the David attacked the USS New Ironsides, seriously damaging the Union ironclad. The David survived to fight another day, though its next attack, on the USS Wabash, was unsuccessful. No one really knows what happened to the David next, but its spirit lives on at the Berkeley Museum.