Remembering the Irish Who Built the Columbia Canal

By:Kerry Egan

Date:9/9/2014

South Carolina Irish Memorial in Columbia
The South Carolina Irish Memorial, which tells the history of the Irish indentured servants who dug the three-mile historic canal, is located just before you cross the bridge to the old towpath at Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park.

On our way to the Columbia Canal and Riverside Park, we ducked down three or four steps to a sunken, bricked-in area in front of an old brick building. We were just looking for a bathroom.

But instead, the history we learned there in that spot — the story of the Irish workers — kept us planted in place for a while.

"What's this?" my daughter asked about the tall column of granite stones, stacked one upon the other in the middle of the tiny plaza. "'They were indentured to the River they linked,'" she read. "What does that mean?" she asked as she touched the smooth, white rocks.

The Columbia Canal, we learned, was built by Irish indentured servants between 1820 and 1824. They were brought to South Carolina in bondage and made to earn their freedom by digging the canal. Many of them succumbed to disease and were buried where they fell, right in the embankments. Plaques and signs tell their history.

"What is bondage? What is indentured? Why were they just buried in the mud walls of the canals, instead of with their families? Why did they come here?" Hard questions from the children peppered us.

The canal, along the Broad and Congaree rivers, allowed boat traffic to circumvent the rocky shoals of a glacial fall line and continue into the Upstate. It was an engineering marvel at the time. Once the railroad came, the canal was no longer needed for navigation and shipping. Instead, it found new use in creating hydroelectricity.

We crossed the black iron footbridge to the other side, what was once the towpath on the levee between canal and river. An old brick building housing a huge turbine is now open to the public. The turbine was once used to pump water for the city's municipal water department.

Those water works, now modernized, are still right there along the river. The kids were fascinated by the giant gears and machinery. My husband and I were enthralled with the view out over the water.

The rocky shoals that once caused such hardship and the need for the canal are now the most beautiful reason to visit. They are strewn across the enormous river, which twists and braids among the outcroppings. The sunlight glints and flies across the rapids.

A great time to visit is in the spring, where just a hint of lime green and dark red leaf buds appearing like mist on the trees will let you see all the way across to the place where the two rivers converge. We could clearly see the two different-colored rivers running side by side.

Heading in one direction away from town and down the paved path will lead you past blooming trees and park benches and under a train trestle and bridges. It was especially exciting for the kids when a locomotive pulling dozens of hoppers lumbered by above us. The engineer waved back at us, and the sound of the train was deafening. The canal, just a few feet away to our right, was calm. The river was down the wooded hillside and rocky and wild and enormous.

Head the other way for a shorter walk and the path becomes a boardwalk that will lead you toward Columbia and the hydroelectric plant, still in use today. You'll walk over the old stone dam and spillway and behind EdVenture and the State Museum, which was itself once the very first mill in the country to run on AC power.

If you’re feeling like a bit more adventure, walk the almost three miles to the end of the towpath, up to the diversion dam that creates the canal to the north. Or you can just meander slowly, looking at the ways modern technology, history and the natural world all exist in this same place and remembering the people whose work built this lovely spot.

The South Carolina Irish Memorial is located at the Columbia Canal and Riverfront Park, at 312 Laurel St. Admission is free.

For more information, visit the Columbia Riverfront Park on Facebook.

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