Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series that breaks down the origins of Horry County's "Independent Republic" motto.
Weaving through Little River to Socastee, the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is a boating lifeline in Horry County.
Initially built for travel, defense and trade routes, the entirety of the waterway still not only serves as a route from the north east, down the east coast to the southern tip of Florida — it now has shifted to host leisure activities for boaters, at least in its section within Horry County.
The waterway is now integral to the recreational offerings of the Myrtle Beach area as restaurants, boat rental companies and docks rely on it for their businesses to operate.
But well before the AIWW became a main attraction in the Independent Republic, some of the United States earliest political leaders dreamed of a continuous waterway that would bolster the national economy and defenses during the 18th Century.
The history of the AIWW can be traced back to the origins of the United States. Building the waterway, especially the portion in Horry County, was not a simple task and took over a century of planning and political fighting.
Like the modern fight to build an I-73 in Horry County, the effort to build the AIWW took decades as generations of political leaders debated the merits of the plan, where the money would come from and which levels of government were responsible for leading the effort.
But all that effort resulted in a marine highway that continues to shape the Myrtle Beach area’s economy to this day.
The funding fight
Early citizens of the United States in the beginning of the 19th realized the need to avoid using the ocean for interstate travel. Seaworthy ships were larger and more expensive, but smaller boats could be used on calmer waters. In addition, promoting interstate trade made the U.S. more economically self-reliant and able to ship products without fear of foreign blockades.
“The Revolution disclosed the isolation of the colonies from one another and the difficulties of moving men, military supplies, and goods up and down the seaboard. Roads were few and poor, all but the smallest rivers had to be ferried, and British warships menaced the customary traffic of coastal sailers,” according to a 1970s government report on the history of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.
Brad Pickel, the director of the American Intracoastal Waterway Association, said the newly formed United States federal government began looking at ways to connect existing waterways — like lakes, inlets or rivers — to make a continuous shipping lanes through the mid-Atlantic region of the country.
Congress quickly realized that the country needed the ability to sail within its borders in order to ship supplies and troops for the war effort. Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin in 1808 created plans to build national roadways and waterways in an effort to promote connectivity in the new nation.
Originally President Thomas Jefferson, who tended to support a small federal government, opposed using federal dollars to build Gallatin’s infrastructure project. The War of 1812, however, and the return of British blockades, reminded the early Americans that the U.S’s lack of connectivity was a deterrent to national defense efforts.
“The real kick off that led to the investment of federal dollars was the war of 1812. So the national defense goes back to then,” Pickel said. “They thought ‘we need an inland system that will stop these blockades from closing our ports.”
But even with a recent war painfully reminding Americans of their lack of connectivity, the federal government struggled to find the political power and money to take on large infrastructure projects.
The Grand Strand’s carved out
In 1824, more than 100 years before work would begin in Horry County, the U.S. Congress approved the ‘General Survey Act’ that allowed the president to use Army engineers to identify important road and canal plans in need of funding. Gallatin’s plan was revisited.
Earlier in the century Gallatin created an interstate waterway that used existing rivers, with the help of soon to be constructed canals, to connect Massachusetts all the way down to Swansboro, NC.
But one major issue was Gallatin’s plan listed a stretch of land below the Cape Fear River that would require ships to enter the open ocean. Gallatin was likely referring to Horry County’s soon-to-be-famous 60 miles of uninterrupted coast.
“Before construction began in 1930 inland navigation between the Cape Fear River and Winyah Bay had been totally impossible,” according to the government’s historical records of the AIWW.
Over the next century, the United States worked to build and connect canals to existing rivers to create a contentious waterway. While the waterway can help boaters reach New England, the AIWW itself runs from Norfolk, Va. down to Key West, Fla.
While some dredging work was done on the Waccamaw River during the 1880s, it became clear the Horry County portion of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway would have to be dug out since there was no other way to avoid sending ships into the open ocean.
Construction began in 1930 to carve out 22 miles of land to connect the Little River area to Socastee Creek. The resulting ditch was carved out to be 12 feet deep and 90 feet wide.
“It had to be dug,” Pickel said. “But the area in Horry County was one of the later projects because it was literally earth moving.”
Dr. Paul Gayes, director of Coastal Carolina University's Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies and Palmetto Professor of marine science and geology, said the sediment dug out to create the waterway was used for one of the first large-scale beach renourishment projects in Myrtle Beach in the 1980s.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took on the project of digging the Intracoastal in Horry County. It was completed in 1936, and drew in national figures for a ribbon cutting.
It was one of the last portions of the Intracoastal built, with construction on parts south of the Carolinas being completed in the late 1930s.
Keeping the waterway alive
The Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway is still a functioning marine highway that requires regular maintenance to keep it alive.
These days the U.S. Department of Transportation recognizes the AIWW as a marine highway, or M-95, that mirrors I-95 for travelers looking for a quick way to sail north or south along the eastern seaboard.
While the AIWW is most obviously used in the 21st century as a recreational body of water, in many ways it still serves the initial goals of some of its earliest supporters as businesses and the military still use the aquatic superhighway.
Pickel’s organization is dedicated to helping governments and businesses that rely on the IWA to lobby for further government support. He said the military, law enforcement agencies and commercial shippers still use the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway regularly.
“It’s always had a two-pronged value: national defense and commercial,” Pickel said. “We are using the waterway, a marine highway to ship goods in a more cost effective way and also more sustainable. We can move more products at a lower cost and a lower environmental impact than we can truck or rail.”
For the AIWW to fulfill its purpose, it needed to be dredged and maintained. Horry County’s portion of the waterway, being entirely man made, requires less regular dredging than more natural parts of the waterway.
Jeremy Johnson, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the Charleston District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers does not currently have any active maintenance dredging on the Intracoastal in Horry County.
The last maintenance dredging contract on the AIWW in Horry County was in 2002. Approximately 300,000 cubic yards of material was removed at a cost of $2.3 million.
Historically, the portion of the AIWW located in Horry County maintains natural depth, so maintenance dredging in this area is not needed, Johnson said. The Charleston District performs annual channel condition surveys of the AIWW, which are available for public download on its website.
Pickel said dredging is important to keep debris out from affecting the depth of the waterway as defined by the federal government. Typically, a hopper wedge and cutter suction dredge machines are most commonly used in South Carolina to clean out the waterway.
Just as the waterway’s earliest supporters wanted, the AIWW continues to be an economic driver with the power to unite and defend the American people. Waterway maintenance keeps the AIWW as an integral part of transportation networks in the United States.
“Just like we have I-95, we have M-95,” Pickel said. “It’s not just a hope and desire of a few stakeholders to keep this maintained, it is literally designated by a federal agency as a marine highway.”