The Port of Charleston: Cornerstone of Charleston's Success


By: Tour Management Editor
June 06, 2016

Charleston SC owes much of its history and vitality to its shipping port, the Port of Charleston. Port access was a big reason that the first settlers abandoned Charles Towne Landing – the first European settlement in the Carolinas – and hopped the Ashley River for life on the Peninsula.

It was a wise choice, evident from the very beginning. Cotton, rice, indigo, hemp, timber and all manner of staples flowed out from the Port of Charleston in Colonial times, while European finished goods and, regrettably, African slaves poured in. Business was booming, and Carolina was one of the richest English colonies.

Military Presence in the Port of Charleston
After the Revolutionary War, the young United States saw the need to defend its coastlines and shipping lanes against European powers and pirates. This led to a large, permanent military presence in the Port of Charleston. Fort Moultrie guarded the Harbor and Port as early as 1776. By the early 1800s, Forts Johnson and Sumter and Castle Pinckney had been added.

After the Civil War, the Port of Charleston was a ruin. Naval mines and wrecked boats littered the waters. The plantation economy was destroyed and there was little to export. Shipping would never die out in the Port, but it was hampered for decades to come. At this time, the military presence grew even stronger, with the construction of a major Navy base. The improvements this entailed would slowly rebuild the Port of Charleston over the years.

Eventually the Charleston Naval Base would be the third-largest in the US, serving over 80 ships. When it closed in 1996, it transferred to private use. Today, the commercial shipyard in the Port of Charleston is the largest in America.

Twilight and Rebirth in the Port of Charleston
In the 1930s, the Great Depression saw a number of public works projects enacted to boost employment and the economy; projects such as roads, dams, parks and other infrastructure. One proposal was a hydroelectric dam in the South Carolina interior. To make it work, the Santee River was dammed and diverted to form Lake Moultrie. The water then passed through hydroelectric generators, spilled into the Cooper River and then flowed into the Harbor and the Port of Charleston.

The system came online in the 1940s. By the 1960s, however, the Law of Unintended Consequences had taken effect. The culprit was silt, and the victim was the Port of Charleston. When the Cooper River hit Charleston Harbor, it brought river silt and other suspended solids. At high and low tide, when the water is more still, these particles sink to the bottom and collect. And collect. And collect.

The Port of Charleston was slowly becoming shallower. This wouldn't have been a problem for the schooners of old carrying hemp or cotton. But for modern container ships carrying steel and oil and automobiles, the Port of Charleston was slowly becoming impassable.

The short term solution was dredging - scraping tons upon tons of silt from the bottom of the Port of Charleston, and putting it…somewhere. This was hugely expensive, and getting worse. By 1964, authorities were seriously considering abandoning the Port of Charleston.

The solution was another ton of money and effort, but it worked. They called it Rediversion. After the Santee River was diverted into the Lake/Hydroelectric Dam/Cooper River, it was now RE-diverted back to the Santee. The silt flowing into the Harbor was dramatically reduced, and the Port was saved.

Continued Vitality in the Port of Charleston
Today, the Port of Charleston is the 4th busiest port on the Eastern Seaboard, and the 8th busiest in the United States. Container ships full of vehicles, steel, coal and petroleum, as well as passenger cruise ships travel the Port of Charleston daily, contributing greatly to the economy of Charleston SC.

The many things that locals and visitors enjoy about Charleston – the Old World charm, the plantation tours, the beauty of Charleston Harbor, the well-kept public beaches and protected natural areas – can be tied to the positive economic impact of the Port of Charleston. From Colonial times to today, Charleston has remained a gem that is here to be enjoyed. For more information, contact Adventure Sightseeing!


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