You'll dig Landsford Canal

Winter fun: Road trips close to home

02/15/2012 12:00 AM

02/16/2012 7:09 PM

Landsford Canal State Park

2051 Park Drive, Catawba, S.C. 803-789-5800. www.southcarolinaparks.com/landsfordcanal.

You can see a feat of engineering so amazing in its day that South Carolina named a park after it.

In Colonial times and the early days of the Republic, a common barrier to noncoastal development were river rapids: Boats could go only so far up or down a waterway without encountering an elevation change occasioned by rapids. Cargo would have to be unloaded at those "fall lines," moved by primitive roadways, then loaded again on a boat plying the next stretch of water.

That was the case in South Carolina, where the Catawba River becomes the Wateree, which feeds into the Congaree southeast of Columbia, and eventually reaches the coast.

A series of canals and locks was commissioned to fix this: Cotton was "king," and the state's well-being depended on getting the crop from the upstate to the Lowcountry. Of those constructed, Landsford - on a Chester Country tract that had been owned by Thomas Land - was the northernmost.

Construction began in 1820, with Robert Mills - the Charleston engineer who later designed the Washington Monument - its designer. It included five locks over two miles, to accommodate a 32-foot drop in elevation. The canal and locks were built between 1820 and 1825 by slave and immigrant laborers - 12 feet wide and 10 feet deep to handle flat-bottom riverboats.

But the project was short-lived: The advent of railroads made it obsolete; the canal's heyday barely lasted a decade.

The park's 448 acres hug the west bank of the Catawba, and a 1 1/2-mile trail walks you through the project's history. The granite locks survive, as do several stone bridges and buildings from that time, plus others that were moved there later.

From an overlook you can see the rapids the canal sought to avoid and which, ironically, provide a nonhistory draw. The park is home to a massive population of rock shoals spider lilies - about 20 acres of large, hardy plants that sport large white blooms mid-May through mid-June. The swift-moving water also attracts canoers and kayakers. Rentals available from Catawba River Expeditions: 803-327-9335; www.catawba-river-expeditions.com.

Admission: $2; $1.25 for S.C. seniors; 15 and younger, free.

Hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily.

Travel time from Charlotte: 50 minutes.

Directions: Interstate 77 South to Exit 77 (S.C. 5 and U.S. 21). Turn left (south) and drive 16 miles to the park sign; turn left.

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