It’s time for our annual ShakeOut.! No, I’m not talking about some retro-themed dance contest, I’m talking about the Great Southeast ShakeOut of 2017, which is sponsored by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to promote earthquake awareness in seismically-active areas–like Charleston. With this broadcast, the Charleston County Public Library is joining millions of other people around the world who are taking a moment to reflect on the potential danger that lurks in the earth just below our feet.
Philadelphia Alley is not the shortest or narrowest thoroughfare in the city of Charleston, but it is sufficiently small to escape the attention of many residents and tourists. For those who have stumbled into its entrances on Queen and Cumberland Streets in the past, they have discovered a picturesque yet historically mute piece of Charleston. The facts behind the creation and early existence of Philadelphia Alley have been forgotten by the living, only to be replaced by rumors and fabrication. Its proximity to the city’s historic Market District, opened in 1807, has exposed the alley to a steady stream of inebriates for over two hundred years. The decline of Charleston in the decades after the Civil War was especially hard on small corners of the city like this, which suffered generations of neglect and abuse. In recent years, local tour guides have delighted visitors with largely fictional tales of fatal duels and ghosts in this ancient alley. But what facts can we find about the real history of Philadelphia Alley, and how can that history help us preserve its character for the future?
“Dutch Town” was a short-lived phenomenon that may have been Charleston’s first ethnic neighborhood. It emerged in the late 1750s and its growth was fueled by the arrival of large numbers of German immigrants in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Unlike many other ethnic neighborhoods, the clustering of these German immigrants into an urban enclave was not motivated by issues of prejudice or segregation. Rather, the birth of Dutch Town in mid-eighteenth-century Charleston was an interesting response to a specific set of circumstances and real estate opportunities that existed at that moment. As those circumstances changed, however, and its German denizens moved on to greener pastures, Dutch Town’s identify faded into obscurity more than two centuries ago.
One of the most dramatic local effects wrought by the recent passing of Hurricane Irma was the opening of a large sinkhole on East Bay Street. According to the good folks at Charleston Water Systems (CWS), a main water pipe measuring ten inches in diameter burst under the street in front of the brick building at 215 East Bay Street, and the gushing water carved away the soil and caused the asphalt surface to collapse. Weather conditions prevented CWS from repairing the damage until after the storm passed, by which time lots of people, including the local media, had an opportunity to view the gaping hole in the middle of the busy street. Almost immediately, I began hearing from people who wondered if the location of the sinkhole and the collapse of the roadway might be related to some historical phenomenon at this site. More specifically, did this spot collapse during the storm because it was once an old creek bed, or perhaps part of the city’s colonial fortifications? After looking over my research notes and consulting a number of old plats, I think I’m ready to answer that question.
I’d like to share with you a little mystery that I’ve been trying to solve recently. Late one evening in early May 1822, a group of four men gathered on a Charleston street, under the cover of some overhanging tree branches, to discuss a secret plan. Three of the group, Frank, Monday, and Jack, were enslaved men of African descent, while the fourth, Denmark Vesey, was known as a “free negro.” According to testimony given later in the summer of 1822, their nocturnal meeting took place “under Mr. Duncan’s trees,” a place where these men apparently felt confident that their rebellious conversation would not be overheard. Within a matter of weeks, however, authorities in Charleston had uncovered their plot to foment a murderous uprising against the city’s white population, and each of four men who met under Mr. Duncan’s trees was among dozens who were arrested and tried. The Denmark Vesey affair of 1822 was definitely one of the most important episodes in the history of Charleston, and numerous historians have collectively devoted thousands of pages of scholarly ink to examining the details of the evidence presented at the trial of Vesey and his alleged confederates. Rather than attempting to summarize that mountain of work, I’d like to focus today’s conversation on one small, contextual detail of this sprawling story: where, in the Charleston of 1822, would one find “Mr. Duncan’s trees,” and where is that site in Charleston today?
Hurricane season brings its share of anxiety, so I’d like to offer a bit of distraction from our current weather uncertainties. At the risk of adding to your stress, let’s turn back the calendar to early September of 1811, when a tornado measuring approximately one hundred yards in diameter churned diagonally across the city of Charleston, leaving a swath of death and destruction in its furious wake.
For the first 180 years of Charleston’s existence—from the arrival of the first settlers, through the entire colonial era and the American Revolution, through the War of 1812 and the Nullification Crisis, right up to the middle of the nineteenth century—Charlestonians rode their horses and drove their carriages on the leftside of the road. Why? Because we were once a British colony, and driving on the left side of the road was one of many English traditions that came here from the “mother country.” Even after we declared and won a war for our independence, many South Carolinians, especially those in and around Charleston, continued to practice a host of British cultural patterns. In fact, it took several generations before our customs became more distinctively “American.” Throughout the nineteenth century, however, each community and each state in the Union followed their own inclination when it came to driving. There were no Federal traffic regulations until the early twentieth century, when the fast-moving automobile made it imperative to regulate the flow of traffic, or the “rules of the road.” So how did the drivers in and around early Charleston fit into this picture?
Let’s roll back the hands of time to talk about a nineteenth-century transportation phenomenon that few people remember, but one that revolutionized the concept of mobility in the Charleston area and continues to impact our community in the twenty-first century. I’m talking about the omnibus. More than just a curious episode in history of transportation, the horse-drawn omnibus was an important step in the economic growth of the Charleston region. As a historian, I’m convinced that understanding the facts surrounding the rise and fall and resurgence of the omnibus in the nineteenth century can help us better understand our current transportation crisis. And in case you didn’t know, the legacy of the omnibus is alive, but not-so-well on our streets today.
Bee’s Ferry—or more precisely, Bee’s Ferry Road—is a name that’s familiar to everyone who lives west of the Ashley River, or to anyone who has spent time traveling through that area. If you’re a curious sort of person, perhaps you’ve wondered how this name came to be. Was it named after a person or an insect? And what about the ferry? Today’s Bee’s Ferry Road doesn’t cross any significant body of water, nor does it lead to any body of water. If there was a ferry, where was it, and when did it disappear?
These questions came to mind recently when Charleston County Council announced its official name selection for a new library branch to be built next to West Ashley High School, just off Glenn McConnell Parkway. The new library building will be called the “Bee’s Ferry West Ashley Public Library,” and you can read more about that project on the library’s website. I’m sure most folks will soon get in the habit of calling this new building “the Bee’s Ferry branch,” and I’ll wager that more than a few people might scratch their heads and wonder about the origin of this familiar, yet obscure place-name. Before any unnecessary confusion sets in, let’s take a few minutes to travel back in Lowcountry history and explore the rise and fall of the landmark called Bee’s Ferry.
Let’s travel back in Lowcountry music history to talk about South Carolina’s first state anthem, or at least the state’s first unofficial anthem. I’m talking about a piece of music called “the South Carolina Hymn,” which was written in the summer of 1807 and first performed in Charleston on August 22nd of that year. Following its debut in 1807, “The South Carolina Hymn” became somewhat of a popular hit song in the Lowcountry, and it was performed at patriotic events in our community for several decades. The hymn was never published, however, and it appears to have been forgotten by the time of the Civil War. Several years ago I discovered two manuscript versions of “The South Carolina Hymn” in two local archives, and since then I’ve been trying to raise awareness of our state’s first unofficial anthem. It’s a decent little tune, and the story of its creation is an interesting story as well. Set your time-travelling brain cells for the summer of 1807, and let’s explore the origins of “the South Carolina Hymn.”