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Steamboat experiments on the Wateree River, 1869-70

Posted: May 2, 2014 10:51 a.m.
Updated: May 5, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Efforts to improve navigation of the Wateree River along the Kershaw County area of the river dates from just after the Revolutionary War. From 1818 to 1828, South Carolina funded extensive internal improvement projects along most state rivers, including the Wateree/Catawba. Locks and canals were built to facilitate passage through shoals and other impediments to navigation.

After the Civil War, neither the money nor the will to mount extensive internal improvement projects existed in state government. However, two entrepreneurs from Fairfield County did attempt to improve navigation on the Wateree.

On July 20, 1870, Ladd Bros. wrote a letter to the Honorable A.G. Magrath, former governor of South Carolina, and to his brother, William J. Magrath, director of the South Carolina Railroad. Ladd Bros. were cotton buyers and merchants from Winnsboro who had moved one of their stores to Flint Hill because of customers they had along the Wateree River.

They wrote: “We have for the past twelve months been engaged in projecting the navigation of the upper waters of the Wateree River from Flint Hill (on the Peays Ferry) to Camden. In the first place let me give you the exact location of Flint Hill.”

They stated Flint Hill was located in Fairfield County about six miles from Peay’s Ferry on the Wateree River, nine miles from Liberty Hill, 22 miles from Camden, 25 miles from Lancaster, 16 miles from Winnsboro and 15 miles from Ridgeway.

They proposed the South Carolina Railroad provide them a small steam engine that would be used on a boat they would build that would run from Peay’s Ferry to Camden. In return, the railroad would get the business of transporting the cotton southward to market and bring back up stream merchandise and freight. If the venture were to fail, Ladd. Bros. would return the engine to the railroad.

They further proposed, “As we get well established at Flint Hill, we will extend the route seven (7) miles up the river to Rocky Mount. This will give a run of 30 miles and through the best cotton growing land in the state.”

Their efforts to improve navigation are interesting and reveal much information about that area of Kershaw County during Reconstruction.

“Last year we built a boat 60 ft. long & 8 ft. wide in which we put an engine of about 15 H P. This was a great mistake. The engine, wood & water weighed too much-displacing about 18 BC [bales of cotton]. The boat too was about 10 ft. too long, besides, we had a stern wheel extending about 8 ft., which made the whole too long for rapid handling in the shoals….

“After this, our pilot (an old Negro who had not boated the river in 20 yrs.) became completely lost and ran by so close to the bank that we ran on the old dam built by the state to throw water into the Canal. We were about 30 yds form the main stream as we have been told by numbers of Negroes since, and as we have demonstrated ourselves.”

After they had encountered some shoals near present day Lake Wateree Dam, we continue their story. “…several old Negroes-former boatmen on the river-say that they saw but one boat damaged before the war.

“We know that we can run through with 30 to 50 B/C. But going down stream we want to get back. The old way of poling a boat is entirely too slow these days. And yet we can’t do entirely away with poles. They not only will assist in guiding, but will materially help the engine in pushing up through shoals.

“A four (4) HP engine would not displace much cotton & would make us nearly double our speed downstream and would quad triple it coming up. We can easily carry 30 B/C and a small engine or we may decide to build a 40 X 8 ft. boat and use them as a try.

“If we get a good engine (light), we have no fear about the results as we intend to make several trips up and down the river this summer (August) in order to be thoroughly acquainted with the best route. Now, Dear Sirs, we want you to help us….

“[We] would here state that so many small farmers (mostly Negroes) are so anxious for us to succeed, that about 50 have volunteered to help us a week as soon as crops are finished.” Ladd Bros. needed the cooperation of those along the river in order to work out landing sites, schedules, etc.

As to whether or not the railroad “loaned” them the engine is unknown. It is likewise unknown if they succeeded in establishing a regular run from Peay’s Ferry to Camden. Steamboats were known to have operated in this area until the late 1890s.

Ladd Brothers may have achieved some success in their endeavors at Flint Hill. An A.W. Ladd became the postmaster of the post office established there in 1876.

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