The Muddy Origins of Dock Street

It’s Spoleto season in Charleston, and each day of the festival the Dock Street Theatre is crammed to the rafters with amateurs of chamber music and opera.  This “historic” venue opened in November 1937 on the site of the site of a much smaller 1736 theater that was briefly known by the same name.  Visitors will be excused for expressing some confusion when they are directed to find the Dock Street Theatre at the southwest corner of Church and Queen Streets.  The inevitable question, “What happened to Dock Street?” is routinely met with the curt answer, “the watery street was filled and renamed Queen Street a long time ago.”  The details are obscure, and you won’t find very much at all about this topic in any book about the history of Charleston.  Behind this seemingly arcane matter, however, is a much larger and much more interesting story that tells us much about the early development of our city.

A twentieth-century copy of the ca. 1672 "Grand Modell" of Charleston

A twentieth-century copy of the ca. 1672 “Grand Modell” of Charleston

Around the year 1672 a team of surveyors laid out a new town on Oyster Point, the wooded peninsula at the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers.  In a plat that became known as the “Grand Modell” of the town, they created approximately 300 half-acre lots  and a dozen unnamed streets in a grid roughly aligned along the east-west and north-south axes.  As this “New Charles Town” was settled and the trees were cleared, however, a number of small adjustments to the plan altered the intended trajectory of several streets.  Over time, the ripple effect of such adjustments resulted in a number of property disputes and general confusion.

Such was the case with the northernmost east-west street in the Grand Modell, described in early records simply as “the north street.”  The street was largely unpopulated for the first three decades of the town’s life, until 1706 when house carpenter Edward Loughton (d. 1707) petitioned the legislature for permission to construct a “dock” or “wharf” out of the “marsh or swamp” that stood where Queen Street is now.  The legislature approved Loughton’s plan, but the precise location of his “dock” is not known.  In subsequent years, houses grew up along the margins of “the dock street,” and Loughton’s property passed into other hands.  Following the lines of the water course rather than the intended lines of the “north street,” however, many of the inhabitants of the neighborhood found themselves arguing over property boundaries.  As the town’s population expanded, in fact, a chorus of complaints arose from property owners frustrated over wandering street lines.

In 1721 the South Carolina legislature deemed it necessary to commission a re-survey of the town, and over the subsequent twenty-five years a significant number of urban property lines were re-drawn in the attempt to rectify the bounds of several streets.  The most dramatic chapter in this process was the arbitration over the proper course of “the dock street.”  By custom of use, the muddy eastern end of the Dock Street was found to have moved more than 100 feet north of the intended location of the North Street.  In 1733 a new team of surveyors and joint legislative committee examined the situation and filed an extensive report.  After the facts had been ascertained and digested, the legislature reached a compromise solution to relocate the path of the street with as little disruption to the neighborhood has possible.  To ensure the binding legality of these adjustments, the South Carolina General Assembly formally renamed the street and on 9 April 1734 ratified “An Act for the better and more certain regulating and adjusting the metes and boundaries of Queen-street, formerly called Dock-street, in Charles Town.”

The earliest illustration of the revised trajectory of Queen Street appears in the 1739 “Ichnography of Charles-Town,” published in London by Bishop Roberts and W. H. Toms.  In the illustration below, I’ve placed a slice of the ca. 1672 Grand Model and a slice of the 1739 “Ichnography” side-by-side and highlighted the North Street, alias Dock Street, alias Queen Street.

The "north street" ca. 1672 (left) and Queen Street, 1739 (right)

The “north street” ca. 1672 (left) and Queen Street, 1739 (right)

As you can see, the compromise involved making some sacrifices at the east end of the street, next to the Cooper River, while maintaining the “true” course of street at its western end.  Also in the image above, the “new” theater, opened in January 1736, is labeled “L” on the left side of the street.

If you look very closely at the 1739 image, you can also see the remnants of the watery swamp at the east end of Queen Street, and even the narrow bridge the government built in East Bay Street over the muddy remains of the ancient dock:

Watery remnants of "Dock Street" in 1739

Watery remnants of “Dock Street” in 1739

If you’d like to hear more details about this topic, please join me for a lecture titled:

“The Muddy Origins of Charleston’s Dock Street”

Tuesday, June 2nd 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

For more information, please contact Dr. Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.