Water, water everywhere: The history behind Columbia, South Carolina's troubled canal
Engineering infrastructure usually isn't the most compelling topic for a blog post—except when it fails dramatically. In the wake of a 1,000-year rain event (meaning in a given year there is a one in 1,000 chance of observing rainfall totals of this magnitude) that has flooded much of South Carolina, the invisible history of technology is suddenly in the news. Right now, the city of Columbia, South Carolina, has all eyes focused on the damaged 191-year old canal that supplies its drinking water.
From 1880 to 1895 the canal was widened and profitable textile manufacturing finally reached Columbia. Lockwood, Greene & Co., one of the nation's oldest engineering companies, pioneered mill construction in the South and created the prototype for the southern textile industry. In 1893 the company was asked to design Columbia Mills along the banks of the existing canal.
Due to geographic considerations, Columbia Mills was built on a bluff 600 feet east of the Columbia Canal. This created the challenge of mechanically transmitting power from the canal to the mill. After consulting with Sidney B. Paine of the General Electric Company, Stephen Greene (the resident engineer on the project) decided to experiment with electrical power.
In 1894 Columbia Mills opened as the first fully electrified textile mill in the world. It also featured the largest installation of General Electric generators at the time. The success of the electrified Columbia Mills proved that there were viable alternatives to steam power in the textile industry.
Columbia grew with the textile industry, and the city needed a dependable water supply. With a much-improved filtration system, the canal eventually became the main source of the city's water. This week's breach in the dike that separates the canal from the Congaree River is especially significant because as the flood waters recede, the level of the canal has fallen. The water pumps need a minimum level of water to operate.
As for Columbia Mills, it continued to manufacture cotton duck fabric until it closed in 1981. The Columbia Mills building now houses the South Carolina State Museum and the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum. The museums are currently closed while work continues to stabilize the canal. Curator of History JoAnn Zeise reports that their artifacts are safe and dry.
Allison Marsh is the director of Public History at the University of South Carolina (USC). USC canceled classes for the week, citing the lack of potable water available on campus as a key concern. In 2013 she was the Goldman Sachs Senior Fellow in the National Museum of American History's engineering collections.