Charleston’s Shrinking “Colonial Common”

On 12 April 1768, Governor Charles Greville Montagu and the South Carolina General Assembly ratified a law directing that a large expanse of vacant marsh land at the west end of Broad Street “shall forever hereafter be reserved and kept for the use of a common for Charlestown.” Later sources describe this public common as a tract of about forty acres, bounded on the south by Tradd Street, on the north by Beaufain Street, on the east by Rutledge Avenue, and on the west by the channel of the Ashley River. Today, most of this land is actually private property, in contradiction to the intent of the 1768 law. How did large parcels of this supposedly protected public land slip into private hands? The answer to this important question is a complicated tale of battling interests, punctuated by a trail of litigation that stretches from the late colonial era to the present day.

Although the common was created by the South Carolina colonial legislature, it fell under the jurisdiction of the City Council of Charleston when the city was incorporated in 1783. The first lawsuit challenging the city’s title to the property came in 1794, when the heirs of Isaac Mazyck claimed the property under a grant made to him in 1698. After six years of legal wrangling and a jury trial, that suit was settled in the city’s favor in June 1800. In the decades that followed, the city government did very little to protect or improve the public common on the west side of the peninsula. In fact, in 1817 the city sold a large portion of the common between the west ends of Tradd and Broad Streets to private interests who eventually built a commercial rice mill (now a U.S. Coast Guard station). By the 1830s, the city had subdivided large parts of the common and leased lots to commercial interests, principally in the lumber industry. From time to time, some of these leases evolved into outright sales, and the size of the public common space continued to shrink.

In 1840 the City Council of Charleston ordered the city attorney to determine the extent of the city’s title to the waterfront land adjacent to the west end of Broad Street. Attorney George B. Eckhard reported that of the land set aside “forever” in 1768 as a public common, all that remained in city hands was the area bounded by Beaufain Street, Rutledge Avenue, Broad Street, and the Ashley River, which was commonly used as a dumping ground by the city scavengers. Into the 1850s the city continued to subdivide and lease this diminished public common, but not everyone in the community was pleased by the city’s actions. In 1853 a group of citizens filed a court action to force the city to stop dumping garbage at the common and to vacate the existing private leases on tracts at the site. That year the S.C. Court of Equity filed an injunction to prevent the dumping of garbage at the common, but stopped short of interfering with the city’s practice of leasing public lands. Shortly thereafter, John L. Strohecker, living on the north side of the common, filed suit against the city for damages to his property caused by the city’s stopping up Cumming’s Creek, which ran through the public common. That suit was abandoned when Mr. Strohecker died, but his widow pursued his claim for damages as late as 1858.

In the years after the Civil War, the lumber industry on the city’s west side continued to expand and soon dominated the former public common. In 1875 a lumber dealer named Patrick Toale purchased a lease on a tract of the city’s common, and this action proved to be the final straw for a number of citizens in the neighborhood. That year a group filed a suit in the Court of Common Pleas arguing that the City of Charleston’s practice of leasing public lands was a violation of the intent of the 1768 law reserving this land as a common. The court agreed, and in 1881 ordered that the remaining lands dedicated in 1768, not already sold, “shall forever hereafter be and be held, used, and kept as and for a Common for the use of the people of Charleston.” That summer the city ratified “An Ordinance to carry into effect the decree of the Court of Common Pleas of Charleston County restoring the remaining marsh lands not already sold by the City Council to the uses declared of them by the Colonial Government under the administration of Lord Charles Greville Montagu, A.D. 1768.” In this law, the city created a board of commissioners to administer, “beautify,” and protect the “Colonial Common,” which included a body of water commonly called the Rutledge Street Pond, but which became known as Colonial Lake.

The outline of the remnants of the Colonial Common inscribed in red on a 1942 map of Charleston.

The outline of the remnants of the Colonial Common inscribed in red on a 1942 map of Charleston.

Beginning in 1881, what we now call Colonial Lake was transformed from a muddy tidal pond into a beautiful work of civic landscaping. In 1931, the city opened William Moultrie Playground, immediately west of the lake, where citizens were invited to enjoy the Colonial Common for sports and other forms of recreation. The future of the public common looked bright until the late 1940s, when a cloud of controversy descended on the neighborhood. The city was under pressure from higher authorities to cede lands for public housing, and the developer, J. C. Long, had his eyes set on the west end of the Colonial Common. In 1949, after much debate and gnashing of teeth, and contrary to the recommendations of the Commissioners of the Colonial Common, the City Council of Charleston voted to sell a lot of land on the west side of Moultrie Playground for a new high-rise building named the Sergeant Jasper Apartments. The neighborhood was up in arms over the sale, and shortly afterwards the outraged Commissioners of the Colonial Common ceased meeting.

Today, the Sergeant Jasper Apartments are vacant and slated for demolition. Once again there is a great debate taking place in our community as competing interests struggle to determine what sort of structure will replace the aging, unpopular building. From a historians point of view, this debate is simply the latest chapter in a long series of similar conversations that have percolated in our community for two and a half centuries. I don’t have a stake in the outcome of the current contest, but it is my sincere hope that the historical record of previous struggles over the use of our Colonial Common will help the parties involved gain a better understanding of the issues at hand.

With that goal in mind, I offer two invitations to the citizens of Charleston:

First, please feel free to peruse the surviving manuscript records of the Commissioners of the Colonial Common, which can be found in the Charleston Archive here at the Charleston County Public Library. Click on this link to download a PDF file containing a detailed description of the Records of the Commissioners of the Colonial Common, 1881–1952.

Second, I invite the community to learn more about this story by joining me for an upcoming program titled:

“A Citizens’ Guide to the History of Charleston’s Colonial Common”

Thursday, June 11th 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.

One thought on “Charleston’s Shrinking “Colonial Common”

  1. Pingback: Voice Your “Common” Interest | Charleston Time Machine

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