Travel

Canal floats visitors through history

Along the western bank of the Catawba River, just a few miles southeast of Rock Hill, you can see the remnants of an early 19th-century aid to transportation: the 448-acre Landsford Canal State Park, which contains the best-preserved canal in the state. Although only two miles in length, this man-made waterway, envisioned by William R. Davie and built on land given by him for its construction, was a vital link in South Carolina's internal improvements program of the 1820s.

Distance

From Charlotte, it's 40 miles to the park, about a 50-minute drive one-way.

Getting there

Take Interstate 77 South to Rock Hill. At Exit 77, take U.S. 5/S.C. 21 South. In 16 miles, turn left at the park sign.

To see and do

The canal was built during the early 1820s. Its purpose: to allow shallow-draught boats laden with goods and foodstuffs to bypass the rocky shoals that made navigating this portion of the Catawba difficult or impossible. Much of the stonework – still visible today – was the work of Irish masons under the direction of master contractor Robert Leckie of Scotland.

The Canal Trail, 1.25 miles (one-way), begins near the main parking area. Visitors will first notice the diversion dam, made of piles of loose stone; the dam directed both water and boats from the river to the canal. Close by the river and dam is the guard lock, used to limit the amount of water entering the canal when the water level of the river was high (this protected the canal from damage). It was here that a horse or mule was tied to the boat to pull it through the canal.

At several places along the trail, remnants of other stone structures can be seen. Although the wooden footbridge itself no longer exists, the stone abutments which supported it still stand. Of the four bridges that crossed the canal at various points, this was the only one with masonry supports. Several culverts were built so that water from natural streams would flow under the canal; many of these still remain.

Just past the halfway point on the trail, visitors will see the location of a mill owned by the Davie family. Here, grain was ground and trees were cut into lumber. Last to be seen are the lifting locks, the most important feature of the canal. Along the two-mile length of the canal, the Catawba River undergoes a 36-foot drop in elevation. Using 16th-century technology, the locks compensated for this rapid change in elevation, safely raising or lowering the boats. A second lock half a mile downriver performed a similar function.

Back in the parking lot, try taking the nature trail, which hugs the Catawba and offers scenic views of the river. Particularly worthwhile is the spider lily overlook. Rocky shoal spider lilies require clean, free-flowing water with an uneven, rocky bottom, and this small stretch includes the largest known stand along the entire Catawba. The delicate white blooms are at their peak from May through June.

Near the parking area is a dog-trot-style log cabin (the Simpson-Wise House) built in the 1790s. It was moved from its original location outside Chester in 1979 and reconstructed at the park the following year. Ninety-five percent of the logs are original, and the facility can be rented for social gatherings and special functions. A small museum is open by appointment only, Thursday-Monday.

The interpretive center, housed in an impressive stone building, includes information on the early history of the Landsford area, the construction of the canal and its operation. There is also a scale model of the lifting lock to help explain its operation. The park also includes a spacious and shady picnic area and nearby playground. Gary McCullough

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