The  Ashley River Historic District is particularly significant in the area of transportation because it demonstrates the earliest colonial efforts to develop and maintain roads and waterways for public benefit. Some of the earliest roads that traverse the district or are just on the outskirts are Ashley River Road (SC Hwy 61), Bear Swamp Road, Bee‘s Ferry Road, Davidson Road (Charleston /Dorchester County Line Road), and Delemar Highway or Bacon‘s Bridge Road (SC Hwy 165). These roads were all established and have remained in place since the early decades of colonization.

Although the earliest maps of the colony do not show any roads, they do indicate a line of settlements along the south side of the Ashley River. In addition to using the river for transportation, it is likely that a road or path was cut in some form to link these settlements with Charles Town. As early as 1671, paths were cut from the Ashley River plantations to Charles Town. Construction of Ashley River Road was authorized by an Act of the General Assembly in 1691. The road was to be “made, mended, and kept clear,” and was to be constructed from Charleston to the Ashley Barony. However, an additional statute was written in 1719 to extend the Ashley River Road from “Jacob‘s or Waite‘s Creek to Westoe Savana, Inclusive…” which was completed by 1721. This section was to be at least sixteen feet wide. The current road follows essentially the same route that is found on the Lodge-Cook Map (1771) and is likely the oldest road in South Carolina still in use. Additionally, it is believed to follow the path of an earlier Native American trading route. In 1721 statutes (for the entire province) were written which prohibited the cutting of shade trees “standing on or near the line of each such road or path when any road was ―laid out, altered or mended.” In light of this legislation, it is possible that many of the trees that line Ashley River Road (as well as the other historic roads in the periphery) date from 1721 or earlier. These trees make a significant contribution to the cultural landscape of the region. 

Also in 1721, a formal management structure for transportation infrastructure was developed based on elected commissioners selected from the property owners in the district. The act gave powers to the commissioners for laying out “both public and private paths, making causeys…building bridges…clearing of water-courses and creeks…for better communication of the inhabitants of this Province.” The commissioners had the power to choose overseers for each project and laws were enacted requiring a certain percentage of hands from adjacent plantations to be sent to work on each project.

Interlaced with the major byways are numerous historic secondary roads that served to connect riverside plantations and villages with interior settlements, processing sites, mining facilities, livestock pens, and pastures and fields. Some examples of these important secondary roads are Bear Swamp Road, Middleton‘s Savannah Road, and the road to Dorchester—which connected the village with Ashley River Road early in the 17th century. 

Many of these roads were used for different purposes throughout the history of the region. They may have been used originally for rice production, then later for phosphate mining, and again later for logging and sand mining, or for use by the hunt clubs. For many of the roads, little has changed about their route and integrity despite their multifaceted, long history.

Equally important to the road system of the district were its navigable bodies of water – specifically the Ashley River and Rantowles Creek. The Ashley and Rantowles (via the Stono River) waterways facilitated the constant movement of goods and livestock via canoe, barge, and sloop to Charleston‘s markets as well as between the plantations themselves. Essential boat landings, bridges, and causeway connections were established along both. Several ambitious antebellum plans to improve the area economy were drafted, most of which proposed increased use of the Ashley River as a transportation waterway. Proposals were based on the idea that inland navigation would be more efficient than roads for purposes of transporting produce and other goods to Charleston. One unimplemented plan to build a canal connecting the Ashley and the Edisto rivers was proposed as early as the 1780s.

Additionally, the importance of the Ashley River as a transportation route is easily recognized by the number of underwater archaeological sites that are extant and contribute to this district. There are no less than nine identified shipwrecks one of which dates from the late-18th century—the Magnolia Boat. Many of the other sites warrant more investigation, but all of them have the potential to yield information regarding types of vessels used on the Ashley River throughout its rich history and contributions to the development of the region and the state of South Carolina.

Conservation Spotlight

Poplar Grove and Watson Hill: A Case Study In Coalition Building and Land Conservation

Two converging development threats in the Ashley River Corridor beginning in 2003 catalyzed a major conservation effort led by the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and others…