This Story Sucks! The Unknown Story of World’s First Hydraulic Suction Dredge

Prior to the first shots over Fort Sumter, South Carolina had over 120,000 acres of hydraulic water wonder land filled with ditches, pumps, and small diversion dams. Believe it or not, this land led in North American rice production from the 1600s through 1880s. If it wasn’t for the millions of mosquitos, I am sure it would have been a sight to see. Out of this environment, came a radical invention that revolutionized the Port of Charleston and soon, other ports around the world.

Shifting sands formed a shallow barrier to the Port of Charleston. In fact, the allowable draft on ships was reduced from 13 feet in 1780 to 10.7 feet in 1851. Without a port deep enough for shipping, the Charleston port was going to get shoaled out of existence and commerce would find another port (sound familiar?). An experiment to use a big bucket ( aka clam hopper) to scoop out the sand failed in the 1850s.

Enter Nathaniel Lebby.

He had toiled in the rice plantations working on pumps that were used to flood the fields with river water and to drain them for harvest. He thought he had a better idea. He noticed his centrifugal pumps often passed rocks and all sorts of debris while working in the rice plantations. I suppose he may have thought, “If you can’t scoop it out, why not suck!”

With a vision and financing, the ship named General Moultrie was forged. The ship had a pump that sucked up sands from the area under the dredge and discharged the slurry into a hopper. Water poured over the top of the hopper leaving the dredge material in the hopper. When the material began to run out the top, pumping was stopped and the ship moved to the dump site. Results were impressive, however, progress was cut short, because of the outbreak of the Civil War.

Soon the first hydraulic suction dredge, General Moultrie, faced an unglamorous end as a blockade runner. One night, carrying 163 bales of cotton, she slipped out of Charleston undetected. No one knows exactly what happened to her after that night. A Nassau paper reported that it had been sold in 1866. Too bad.