The Intracoastal Waterway

By Catherine H. Lewis


It's hard to remember that the Intracoastal Waterway, so much a part of our lives and local geography, appeared on maps only a little more than fifty years ago. The section through Horry County was the last to be constructed in its entire length. There was a gala national opening at Socastee on April 11, 1936.

George Washington dreamed of an intracoastal waterway. The great canal building era in this country resulted in the Erie and other westward looking canals that connected major waterways and provided safe passage for the barges that transported goods and people. The maturing of the railroad system eroded their importance, so that the Intracoastal Waterway was almost an anachronism as a commercial enterprise when was completed. It still had strategic importance for defense by providing safe passage away from enemy ships and submarines. Pulpwood barges, shrimp and fishing boats of local people, and pleasure boats of various sizes and elegance make up the chief traffic on our stretch now. The luxurious "snow birds" going south in the fall and north in the spring provide a show.

In the 19th century local citizens gave thought to a short canal from the Waccamaw to Little River, a distance of about five to seven miles. This seemed a logical point to construct a man-made water passage for barges, rafts and small sailing craft that transported timber and turpentine. These products could be shipped north from the village port.

Naturally, residents thought this logical route would be selected when plans began in earnest about 1930. It would restore Conway as a riverport, providing new revenue to the county seat. Imagine their chagrin when the Corps of Engineers decided to make a straight cut through some of the highest land in the county from Little River to Socastee Creek, the longest man-made ditch in the entire length of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Our section begins at the north in Little River, along which it runs for 5 nautical miles. It then follows Pine Island Cut for about 24 miles before it intersects Socastee Creek. The Cut, 90' wide and 8' deep, lays bare our geological history, creating a fossil hunter's paradise. Here are the fossil remains of ancient land and sea animals that have in different ages inhabited this area.

Leaving the Cut, the Waterway follows Socastee Creek until it joins the Waccamaw River near Enterprise Landing. The Waccamaw swamps provide the black water characteristic of this section of the Waterway. Tannin in tree roots and other vegetation colors it. It appears black and visibility in it is limited, but, if you hold a glass of it up to the light, it has the color of strong tea or--if you prefer --of good bourbon. Hydrologists say that water from the Waccamaw flows back along the Waterway to Little River, taking six days to reach Little River Inlet!

From Enterprise to Winyah Bay is 22 nautical miles. A book about the Waterway, written by Allan Fisher for The National Geographic Society in 1973, says, "Since the time of the Indians, boatmen have been groping for superlatives to describe the Waccamaw. Many believe it to be the loveliest part of the southern Waterway."

In Horry County there are now only three places where automobile traffic can cross the Waterway. At Hwy 9 and Hwy 501 high rise bridges allow boat traffic without interrupting the flow of automobile traffic. At Socastee, when the bridge turns for boats to pass, automobiles wait. Until promised improvements occur,. those who use that road must build the possibility of delay into their schedule.

Along the route the Corps of Engineers has reserved spoilage sites where it dumps mud, sand and other debris that it dredges from the canal to keep it open for navigation. Recently the Corps has begun to negotiate with Horry County to release some sites for development. No permanent structures can be built on these easements, as long as the Corp controls them.

There are several guides for cruising the ICW, including Cruising Guide to Coastal South Carolina by Claiborne S. Young (1985). Local cruises leave Vereen's Marina in North Myrtle Beach, from Socastee and from Georgetown, but no local tours cover the entire length in Horry County. Travelers can board cruise ships that travel the Waterway at strategic points such as Norfolk, Savannah and Miami.

The Independent Republic Quarterly
Vol.25 Winter 1991, pp 5-6

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