Thirty miles up the Cooper River from Charleston's history-steeped lore sits a tucked-away part of the region's Colonial, antebellum and Civil War past.
Atop a bluff overlooking the headwaters of the Cooper River, the eight-room Stony Landing House is all that remains of a critical inland trading juncture and the secret manufacturing site of the first semi-submersible craft to attack an enemy ship.
Built in 1843, the two-story, wood-frame house resting on 25 8-foot-tall brick pillars, first served as a summer home on an outcropping of limestone where Biggin and Wadboo creeks seeped their swampy runoff into the Cooper River.
Unlike the elegant plantation homes of its time, the box-like house was not designed with the same grandeur of its peers.
With a fireplace in each of its eight rooms, the home's front porch also didn't face the waterfront, which at the time was a swampy, barely navigable reach of the upper Cooper River. Instead, it faced south toward what was known at the time as Congaree Road, an inland passageway along the old Cherokee Path that served as the Interstate 26 of its day.
Inland farmers and traders brought their wares to the site to be loaded onto flatboats for the downriver ride to Charleston.
Boosting the importance of the location was the creation of the Santee Canal, built in the 1790s when America was still a teenager. It had been envisioned in the early 1770s, but the American Revolution interrupted construction plans. The invention of the cotton gin in the early 1790s hastened the canal's development so it could transport inland-grown cotton quickly by water to Charleston.
The man-made canal, one of the first in the nation, stretched 22 miles and connected the Santee River with the Cooper River at Stony Landing. It was meant to connect the state capital Columbia with the port of Charleston without sending goods all the way down the Santee River to the Atlantic Ocean.
Completed in 1800 after seven years, the 30-foot-wide canal was about 5 feet deep and controlled by a lock system. Unfortunately, it never really took off after its first few years of turning a profit.
The canal suffered from low traffic, poor construction and droughts. It was not a financial success, and, just three decades later, creation of railroads in the 1830s between Charleston and Columbia spelled its demise. The canal was abandoned in 1853.
Much of it now sits under Lake Moultrie, built in the Depression-era 1930s to support development of state-owned utility Santee Cooper, which now owns the park and is headquartered nearby.
The canal didn't totally disappear, though. Remnants can be found near Stony Landing since it tied into Biggin Creek, a swampy waterway jutting along the edges of the park and the house. Other remains of the canal can be found on the western side of Lake Moultrie.
Four miles of boardwalk over Biggin Creek and an Interpretive Center chronicling the area's history as far back as 4000 B.C. join the Stony Landing House and the Berkeley Museum as centerpieces of what's now Old Santee Canal Park.
Grand land grant
Stony Landing was originally part of the 12,000-acre Fairlawn Barony land grant in 1678. About one-fifth of the tract became Stone Landing, as it was originally spelled, in 1839 when Charleston merchant John H. Dawson bought 2,319 acres and constructed the house around 1843 as a summer retreat.
"He built the house here because this spot was always a big area for commerce and trade," said Brad Sale, director of Old Santee Canal Park.
Less than 20 years later at the start of the Civil War, Dr. St. Julien Ravenel owned the plantation. The physician gave up his medical practice to concentrate on chemical and plant research, but he also was behind another key development at the time — something made totally in secret.
In 1863, wealthy Charlestonian Theodore Stoney watched as Battery Wagner on Morris Island was repeatedly attacked by Union forces, so he went to visit Ravenel.
The Confederate government had promised a bounty of half the value of any Union blockade ship to the inventor of any device that broke the federal Navy's stranglehold on Southern ports.
With Stoney's encouragement and financial backing, Ravenel, a Southern defender, designed a semi-submersible torpedo boat based on a model created by Ross Winan, a northern sympathizer from Baltimore.
Head mechanic David Ebaugh oversaw the clandestine construction in a shop on the grounds of the Stony Landing House. The exact location of the former shop is not known, said Sale, the park director.
After being transported to Charleston for final fittings and under cover of darkness, on Oct. 5, 1863, Ravenel's creation, dubbed Little David, left the wharf and reached the Union ironclad steamer New Ironsides shortly before 9 p.m.
Spotted by a watchman on the federal ship about 50 yards away, Little David's captain, Lt. William T. Glassell, perched atop the David, fired a gunshot and killed the U.S. Navy ensign who sounded the alarm.
Almost immediately afterward, a torpedo from the end of the David's spar exploded under the starboard quarter of the New Ironsides, sending a column of water into the air and down Little David's smokestack to extinguish its fires.
Immobilized, the captain ordered the David to be abandoned, but the pilot, who could not swim, didn't leave and the engineer returned to join him when he noticed the vessel was not doomed. They rekindled the fires and returned safely into Charleston Harbor. The captain and another crewman were captured.
At first it was thought the explosion had not done much damage to the iron-plated federal ship, but after closer review, it was determined the blast had crippled the vessel, according to a history of the attack at Old Santee Canal Park.
The attack, though only partially successful, was enough for the Confederate Navy to order more Davids to be built.
In March 1864, David struck again, ramming the USS Memphis on the North Edisto River, but without success. "The torpedo failed to explode — it had been sabotaged," according to a plaque at the park.
None of the Davids ever resulted in sinking a ship, but they stoked fear in the Union blockade.
"The greatest vigilance will be needed to guard against them," Union Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren wrote on Jan. 7, 1864, from his ship off Morris Island.
The Little David's first attack is noteworthy because it came four months before the more famous Confederate-operated Hunley became the world's first combat submarine to sink a warship. That occurred in Charleston Harbor on Feb. 17, 1864, when the federal ship Housatonic sunk. The Hunley did not return.
"It should be celebrated more," Sale said of Little David. "It was built here in total secrecy and came before the Hunley."
Some say Little David was named after its builder while others say the moniker refers to the small craft in a David-versus-Goliath sense.
In 1910, Edward James Dennis bought 622 acres of the former plantation as a winter home. The house, which underwent modernization in the 1900s, remained occupied until the 1980s. It also served as the home of the late longtime Berkeley County state Sen. Rembert C. Dennis, who died in 1992.
Before his death, he asked that the plantation become a park so people could learn from the area's history, Sale said.
Before he died, his request became a reality when the park opened in 1989. The former expansive plantation is now 195 acres of park land.
In a restoration effort, all of the wings that had been added to the house over the years were dismantled. Its original heart pine floors remain. Old Santee Canal Park remained part of the state park system until 1999, when Santee Cooper took it over.
The house is now furnished with period reproduction furniture and is open for tours.
One other interesting note about the house is that with the Ravenels and Dennises previously owning the land, "Southern Charm" TV show stars Thomas Ravenel and Kathryn Dennis, relatives of the former owners, met there once to film an episode while they reminisced about both families living in the house at different times, according to Santee Cooper spokeswoman Nicole Aiello.
"I was here for that," she said from a restored living room in the house. "It was interesting seeing members of the two families that once lived here talking about the house."