Elliot's Cut-- A Water Thoroughfare

John Kozma
1970

The residents of Riverland Terrace and Edgewater Park who live on either side of Elliot's Cut, which connects Wappoo Creek with the Stono River, are as accustomed to the buzz of a motorboat engine or the sight of a large pleasure yacht under full sail as are those who live next to Savannah Highway accustomed to the sights and sounds of wheeled vehicles of every type. At any time one might see coming through the cut a row of fifty foot barges piled high with timber on its way to the IP paper plant in Savannah, or an even larger chain of barges supporting a maze of cranes, pipes, and various superstructures headed to the sight of some dredging operation. On certain days the cut is frequented by tour boats swarming with tourists and sightseers or dirty looking shrimp boats strewn with nets, poles and rigging. On a pleasant Sunday afternoon anyone can usually count half a dozen pleasure craft within the space of a half hour, and if the season's right, there's bound to be some water skiers. Sometimes a canoe or a sailboat or rowing crew might even pass through the cut.

Wappoo Creek Bridge

Wappoo Creek Bridge, Wikimedia Commons

Wappoo Creek Bridge

Wappoo Creek Bridge, Wikimedia Commons

Wappoo Creek Bridge

Wappoo Creek Bridge, Wikimedia Commons

One of the first things a boater notices on passing through Elliot's Cut is how remarkably straight the waterway is. And, of course, there's a reason for this. Elliot's Cut is one of a series of man-made waterways along the coast of South Carolina, which with the natural waterways they connect, form what is called the Intracoastal Waterway. This waterway system provides an entirely inland route for water vehicles traveling north and south anywhere between Hampton Roads and Florida Bay. Today, the ICW is not only a boon to boating tourists, but a vital asset to commerce.

Elliot's Cut is an important link in the ICW. Its history and modern problems, though not exactly typical of the rest of the waterway, do provide a key to understanding the importance of the boating industry and water transportation in America today.

The first settlers of South Carolina made their livings as planters, and one of their greatest problems was getting their crops to market. To bring crops by land to Charleston, the main seaport servicing the coast for many miles around, was next to impossible. Because of the geography of the area, one could not travel more than a couple of miles without having to cross a creek or marsh of some size, and the technology of the period did not allow the planters to build all the bridges that we have today. Since overland transportation was ruled out it was necessary to bring produce to market by water.

Still, the natural waterways presented a problem, because they were inevitably long and meandering or too shallow to be navigable, forcing the planters to send their flimsy plantation barges across the open sea. Help was sought in the colonial legislature, but little more was done than to set up commissions which were in turn empowered to appoint committees who were assigned the tasks of building some particular road, clearing out some creek or the like. These committees were the overseers for the actual projects: it was the custom that the men and funds to undertake the various projects were supplied directly by the planters and and other colonists who would benefit by them.

The first legislation in South Carolina which called for the digging Elliot's Cut was an act passed in 1712 in the colonial legislature bearing the somewhat cumbersome title, "An Act to impower the several Commissioners of High Roads, Private Paths, Bridges, Creeks, Causeys, and cleansing of the Water Passages in South Carolina, to alter and lay out the same for the more direct and better Convenience of the Inhabitants thereof." As the case was, however, the title of the act was almost as specific as the act itself and was only the subject of continual debating and redrafting; and though several bills were passed over the next half century explaining the original act, no action was taken on the specific provision (calling for the digging of what is now Elliot's Cut.)

The portion of the Act of 1712 which dealt with the cutting of a passage from Wappoo Creek to Stono River was as follows : "The head of Wappoo Creek going into the Stono, be cut and made sufficiently wide, or that a new creek more convenient be cut from the head of Wappoo into the Stono at the discretion of the commissioners..." The act went on to specify that "the creek... shall be made ten feet wide and six deep..." and that it was to be dug "at the usual charge and labor of all male persons... living from New cut to the head of Stono River to the plantation of Colonel Robert Gibbes...." The carrying out of this portion of the act of 1712 would have entailed the drafting of almost all the male residents, slaves included, of James Island, John's Island, Wadmalaw Island and the West Ashley mainland district, excepting only those residents already employed in the digging of another creek.

E. & G. W. Blunt's map of Charleston and vicinity

E. & G. W. Blunt's map of Charleston and vicinity, Library of Congress

E. & G. W. Blunt's map of Charleston and vicinity

E. & G. W. Blunt's map of Charleston and vicinity, Library of Congress

The actual construction of the cut was quite a bit more difficult than the act implied. The colonists made use of an effect known as "sluicing," whereby once a new waterway was cut which provided a shorter route to the ocean for tidal water flow, the tides would pass through this outlet much faster than through the natural outlet, and by the process of erosion cause the newly cut waterway to become eventually as wide as the old one. This is the reason that the act only specified a creek ten feet wide and six feet deep-- today the cut is several hundred feet wide and from 12 to 18 feet deep.

But even with all the help nature would have given, the digging of the cut was an almost insurmountable task. To be of any value, the cut would have to make the natural route from Stono river to Charleston harbor substantially shorter; and near its head, Wappoo Creek makes several large loops and turns, so this was the obvious portion to bypass via a new waterway. The best site was at the base of a hill, requiring a straight section of cut almost a half mile long. A half mile is a pretty long way digging by hand, even if it's only a ditch ten feet wide and six feet deep.

Attempts were made, unsuccessfully, to complete the digging of the cut prior to 1881, when federal aid was sought to complete the project. The committee appointed to oversee the task consisted of the following men: Colonel John Fenwick, John Godfrey, Captain Thomas Elliot (after whom the the cut was named), John Williamson and John Stanyarne.

Even though the cut was not completed until the 1880's when the rice industry, the success of which was one of the main reasons the cut was needed, was in its final stages of decline, the main transportation lines were still the waterways. But the shift has been toward overland transportation in recent years, with the advent of automobiles, modern bridge construction techniques, an the expansion of residential areas into places where plantations formerly stood.

An interesting comparison can be made between commercial and recreational, large scale and private, and local and long distance uses of local roads and waterways now and a hundred years ago. Today, most overland transportation is done by residents of suburban areas commuting to and from work. Use of the waterways is more or less restricted to recreation or commerce. Local commercial use of the waterways is no where nearly as great as it was 100 years ago-- the fishing industry takes up the major portion of this category. However, the use of the inland waterway in the transport of goods to different parts of the country is much greater than it was 100 years ago. Also, recreational employment of waterways has increased tremendously during this period.

Two trends along these lines unaccompanied by appropriate changes in legislation have given rise to a somewhat heated controversy as to which mode of transportation-- land or water-- should have the right of way when such a question arises. The case in point is the late debate between pleasure boaters passing through the drawbridge over Wappoo Creek at all hours of the day and commuters who line traffic up on either side of the bridge every morning and evening. The logical solution, it would seem, is to close the bridge to pleasure boats during the peak traffic hours, but traditionally, the water traffic has always had the right of way. This is because before the bridge was even constructed, the major mode of transportation was by boat. Right of way was never a problem, for almost all overland vehicles made use of ferries to get from place to place. When bridges came into existence, no one thought to close them to water traffic in order to allow cars to pass, because there were more boats than cars. The two trends which gradually put the situation into a different light were first, the change in the employment of the water vehicle from an item of business to one of recreation and second, the growing use of the automobile as a means of commuter transportation. Together these two trends spell the replacement of the boat by the car as the standard household vehicle.

The laws regulating traffic flow over and under bridges have been slow to catch up with these trends. The visual effects of this lag are terrific traffic jams on mornings when the bridges open to let some yacht whose top mast just fails to clear by a couple of inches and once the bridge is open gets stuck in the open position. Several such occasions have backed up the traffic on James Island in front of the Wappoo Creek bridge for several hours and several miles. It is no wonder the Island people were so fed up with the old bridge (which got stuck rather often, I have heard) and finally got a new one in 1955 at the cost of almost a million dollars. It's no wonder that even now they want their own bridge across the Ashley River!

Well, it seems our forefathers, in a rather indirect way, have left us a sort of transportation problem. Another problem which has been bequeathed us, though it is by no means as controversial or as much a problem, is the continuing erosion of the banks of Elliot's Cut. The reason I mention this is that my family live on a waterfront lot which when purchased was held intact in one part by a large tree trunk and along the rest of the waterfront by a quantity of old building material salvaged from some war barracks no longer needed and dumped rather precariously along the bank of the cut to lessen the effects of erosion. Since the lot was purchased the tree trunk has died and is slowly being washed away, and our land has begun to wash away with it. The concrete blocks along the rest of the bank have also proved inadequate, and now the erosion is being corrected by using these blocks to build a seawall.

It is left to each individual landowner to care for his own waterfront. Most have constructed some sort of wall, but there are some stretches of bank which are unprotected, either because they are municipally owned or because their owners don't bother to do anything about the problem. While passing though the cut, it is interesting to notice all the different sea barriers the residents have constructed along the banks. Various types of sea-walls include concrete facing, walls of piling and timber, cinder-block walls, clay brick and concrete blocks. Some of these schemes, even the concrete facing, have proved inadequate and have had to be replaced.

Both the problem of priority in transportation lines and erosion along the banks of the cut have arisen, either directly or coincidentally, from the methods and way of life of the early South Carolina planters. Changes in transportation and technology give testimony to the fact that new ideas and developments are all too often incompatible with old customs and traditions.

Postscript: October 2021

Royal portable typewriter

Royal portable typewriter,
photo by J. Kozma

Royal portable typewriter

Royal portable typewriter,
photo by J. Kozma

Fifty years later, barges and recreational boats still churn through Elliot's Cut and the battle against erosion on its banks continues. The drawbridge over Wappoo Creek remains, but, at least during rush hour, car traffic has the right of way. Competition between boats and cars along the ICW has abated with the replacement of old bridges by fixed spans like those over Wappoo Creek and the Ashley River that now connect James Island directly to downtown Charleston with no delays for boat traffic.

Royal portable typewriter

Royal portable typewriter, photo by J. Kozma

Living in the same house on Elliot's Cut, I still have my mom's old Royal portable typewriter that I used to type the above report. It was a paper I wrote for a high school English class, and I recently found the original typewritten pages in a cache of long neglected clutter. Reading them again now led me to reflect as much on changes in how we read and write and disseminate information as on the ways transportation and commerce along the ICW have evolved.

Just observing how straight it is, anyone would conclude that Elliot's Cut was man-made. To get relevant information for my English class assignment about how and when it was constructed, I visited the Post and Courier offices on Columbus Street to look through their archives. Having gone to such lengths to do my research, I've considered myself since then something of an expert on the history of the waterway. I could recite Elliot's Cut trivia like the fact that its original purpose was to provide planters a shorter route to market or that the original plan called for a ditch just 10 feet wide and six deep. Oddly enough, however, the actual year when the Cut was dug had slipped my memory. I'm not sure how, but somehow I'd formed the impression that the work had been completed before the Civil War.

My memory lapse made me wonder whether the information in my report was accurate, but by searching on the Internet I was able to verify the broad details with a reasonable degree of confidence. There was no need to spend an afternoon in the library stacks or, as I did back in high school, visit the morgue at the local paper.

One reference I found, History of Wappoo Creek — Elliott Cut, AICW Statute Miles 470 to 472 (cruisernet.net), was a response to a question about the history of Elliot's Cut from one of my neighbors. It corroborates the 1881 construction date and includes links to several pages with additional information.

The first source cited on the cruisernet page, A History of Rivers Point Plantation Locale (note, link on the cruisernet page is broken, but corrected here), describes early references to Wappoo Creek but does not specifically mention Elliot's Cut by name. It also notes that the bridge over Wappoo Creek was first opened February 1, 1899, which piqued my curiosity because I suspect there were as many horse drawn vehicles as cars at that time. From the eponymous Wikipedia article, the source of the illustration above, I learned that the current bridge was actually the third one built over Wappoo Creek at that general location. The first one was a privately owned toll bridge constructed of wood, which led me to wonder whether it could be opened to let boats through. It seems unlikely that the government would make significant improvements to the inland waterway only to have a new bridge prevent boats from using it. Through the library website I was able to access an 1898 Evening Post newspaper article cited on the Wikipedia page. It detailed concerns about the proposed bridge impeding navigation, but did not indicate definitively how boat traffic was accommodated.

The next cruisernet reference is from carolana.com, a website featuring information about North and South Carolina compiled by amateur historian J.D. Lewis. SC Intracoastal Waterway, includes details about the various federal projects for improving navigation along the length of the Atlantic ICW. Elliot's Cut, referred to as Wappoo Cut, was one of the earliest projects. The last sections of the ICW were not completed till the 1930's.

The final reference, The Siege of Charleston - 1780, by Gen. Wilmot G. DeSaussure, is an account of the troop deployments during the British siege of Charleston during the Revolutionary War. The author was a Confederate general in the Civil War, possibly descended from one of the participants in the 1780 siege. Elliot's Cut is specifically referenced in the account, described as a ditch extending from the Stono River to Wappoo Cut, at either end of which the British had erected defensive structures. It was said to have been dug by William Elliot sometime prior to 1777, which would explain how the present day Cut got its name, but there is no indication of its original purpose or that it was navigable at the time.

I didn't include a bibliography with my English class report, but I'm pretty sure I didn't use any of the sources described above even though they may have been available when I was in high school. One source I'm sure I did consult, however, was a copy in some form, perhaps microfilm, of laws enacted by the South Carolina colonial legislature. The definitive collection of early law in SC, available in digital and hard copy on numerous websites, seems to be South Carolina Statutes at Large, edited by David James McCord. McCord a lawyer and political activist appointed by the SC legislature in the 1830's to compile and edit past and current statutes. I found a copy of Volume 9 of McCord's SC Statutes at Large-- "Acts relating to roads, bridges and ferries (1703-1838), with an appendix containing the militia acts prior to 1794"-- on the carolana.com site.

One of the Acts in Volume 9 (p 49 in the original text, p 65 in the pdf document) had exactly the same cumbersome title as that quoted in my report, except for minor differences in spelling and punctuation:

An Act to empower the several Commissioners of the High Roads, Private Paths, Bridges, Creeks, Causeys, and cleansing of the Water-passages in this Province of South Carolina, to alter and lay out the same, for the more direct and better conveniency of the inhabitants thereof.

Notably, thefreedictionary.com, an online dictionary, lists "impower" as "a less common spelling of empower" and "conveniency" as an archaic or obsolete form of "convenience".

The language quoted from the Act also corresponds closely with that found in the online copy of Volume 9 (pp 26-7 in the original text, pp 43-3 in the pdf document):

V. Be it likewise enacted by the authority aforesaid, That the head of Wapoo Creek, going into Stono river, be cut and made sufficiently wide, or that a new creek more convenient be cut, from the head of Wapoo into Stono river, at the discretion of the commissioners hereafter named; and that the creek so cut shall be made ten feet wide and six feet deep, at the equal charge and labor of all male persons, as well whites as slaves, living from New Cut, on the head of Stono River, to the plantation of Colonel Robert Gibbes, inclusive, that is, all the inhabitants of Stono Island, except such who are appointed by Act of Assembly to cut New Town Creek, and of that part of the continent opposite to the same, who either have landings, or usually cart to landings, upon any place of the branch or creek of Stono river or Wapoo creek; and that Colonel John Fenwick, Mr. John Godfrey, Captain Thomas Elliott, Mr. John Williamson, and Mr. John Stanyarne, or any three of them, be, and are hereby, appointed for the same.

It's possible that the copy of the Statute I found for my original report was not the 1941 McCord compilation, and that's why the wording and punctuation are slightly different. It's more likely that at least some of the small discrepancies are due to my having transcribed them incorrectly. In fact, while the description of the Cut quoted above did come from a 1712 Act, the title quoted above was from a different Act, passed in 1721.

One final inconsistency relates to who Elliot's Cut was named for. I may have assumed that it was Captain Thomas Elliot, because he was named in the 1712 Act as one of the commissioners in charge of digging the Cut. The 1721 Act (at p 52 in the original Volume 9 text, p 68 in the pdf document) lists a Mr. William Elliot as one of the commissioners appointed for the North side of the Ashley River, and the DeSaussure account, as noted above, indicates that a William Elliot was reportedly the one who first dug a ditch where the present Cut is located. These were probably two different people, given that the Siege of Charleston took place more than 50 years after 1721. In any case, the DeSaussure account was apparently written shortly after 1881 when the Cut was dug, so it seems most likely that the Elliot mentioned there is the one who gave the waterway it name.

The information I found on the Internet agrees with the general timeline in my original report– the initial proposal in the early 1700's and the actual construction of Elliot's Cut in the 1880's. I've also concluded that while historic documents are much easier to find now that we have the Internet, filtering out all the stuff that's not relevant has become more challenging.