A testament to the engineering skills, Herculean labor and indomitable spirit of its people, South Carolina has a long history of building the unbuilable. Here are seven of the state's most famous engineering marvels and how you can experience them firsthand.
Historic Rice Fields
What: From the 1720s to the early 1860s, the economy of South Carolina was based overwhelmingly on the cultivation of rice. Some 160,000 acres of tidally influenced rice fields were built by hand by enslaved Africans. With only rough tools to work with, the slaves cut down massive cypress-gum forests, drained off the wetlands and enclosed them with dikes. They dug 780 miles of canals and constructed extensive earthen dams and floodgates to irrigate the rice fields where they sowed and weeded the grain. Historians compare the back-breaking feat to building the pyramids.
Where: South Carolina Lowcountry
See and Do: One of the best places to view historic rice fields is in Ravenel at the Caw Caw Interpretive Center, featuring more than 6 miles of trails with trail-side exhibits. Once part of several rice plantations, the preserved fields include the original canals and working replicas of tidal rice trunks used for irrigation.
Historic Columbia Canal
What: The canal that runs along the beautiful Riverfront Park in the capital city was part of a complex waterway system built in 1824 by Irish indentured servants working to earn their freedom. A notable example of the engineering expertise of the 19th century, the canal was designed to allow river traffic from the Upstate to the Midlands bypass the rapids where the Saluda and Broad rivers join to form the Congaree River.
See and Do: Riverfront Park features a 4-mile pathway between the canal and Broad River perfect for walking or cycling. The flat, paved trail follows the old towpath of the Columbia Canal.
Strom Thurmond Dam
What: Constructed between 1946 and 1954, the Thurmond Dam was the first of three dams built in the Savanah River Basin for hydroelectric power, flood control and commercial navigation. The concrete structure, flanked on both sides by earthen embankments, is over a mile long and 200 feet high. More than one million cubic yards of concrete were used during construction—enough to build a sidewalk from Augusta to San Francisco. The “penstock” pipes that bring water from Lake Thurmond into the power plant are so large a school bus could pass through them. Every minute, two to three million gallons of water flow through the pipes located far below the surface of the reservoir.
Where: Clarks Hill
See and Do: Learn more about the history of the area, the construction of the dam and the 71,000-acre lake it created at the Thurmond Lake and Dam Visitor Center. Below the dam is a park with a launch ramp for the Savannah River, picnic shelters, a playground, fishing pier and fish cleaning station. The roadway across the top of the dam features a sidewalk, allowing you to walk across the dam to get a different perspective of the structure and a spectacular view of the lake below.
What: Located adjacent to Issaqueena Falls in Sumter National Forest, this curious historic landmark was part of a project to build a rail line from Anderson, South Carolina, to Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1856, a team of 1,500 Irish miners began cutting through Stumphouse Mountain’s blue granite rock using hand drills, hammers, chisels and black powder. They had dug through 1,617 feet of the planned 5,863-foot tunnel before the project was abandoned due to the start of the Civil War.
See and Do: Approximately a quarter-mile of the tunnel is open to the public to explore. Be aware, the inside of the tunnel is damp and a cool 50 degrees year-round. Flashlights are recommended.
Historic Santee-Cooper Pinopolis Lock
What: A remarkable engineering achievement for its time, the Pinopolis lock was the highest single-lift system in the world when it was built in 1941. It takes six million gallons of water to fill the 180-foot by 60-foot concrete chamber and raise boats as large as 150 feet from sea level to the 75-foot elevation of Lake Moultrie at full pool. Part of an elaborate waterway system that provided a navigable route from the Midlands to the Lowcountry, the New Deal-era project redirected the Santee River to flow into the Cooper River, allowing passage from Columbia to Charleston Harbor.
See and Do: Recreational boaters can travel through the lock from the Tailrace Canal or Lake Moultrie. There are currently no public boat tours offering passage through the historic lock.
Arthur Ravenel Bridge
What: Connecting Charleston to Mount Pleasant, this iconic cable-stayed bridge over the Cooper River has a main span of 1,546 feet, making it the third largest bridge of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. The 128 individual cables anchored to the inside of two diamond-shaped, 575-foot towers suspend the deck 186 feet above the river. The span is designed to endure an earthquake of approximately 7.4 magnitude and wind gusts in excess of 300 mph, far stronger than those Charleston experienced during the devastating Hurricane Hugo.
Where: Between Charleston and Mount Pleasant
See and Do: The highly popular bicycle and pedestrian path running along the south edge of the bridge allows walkers and cyclists to traverse the 2.7-mile structure and enjoy stunning views of Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean.
What: Overlooking Falls Park on the Reedy, the landmark pedestrian bridge over the Reedy River is unlike any other bridge in the United States. Its unique geometry is designed to look almost like it’s floating on water. Supported by a single suspension cable, the 345-foot-long, 12-foot-wide bridge features a distinctive curve that is cantilevered toward the waterfall with two 90-foot tall masts that lean away from the bridge at a 15-degree angle.
Where: Downtown Greenville
See and Do: Walk or bike across the bridge to access both sides of the beautiful Falls Park and enjoy a spectacular aerial view of Reedy River Falls.