The Fall of the Urban Vultures

Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry natural history to continue and conclude our discussion of vultures in urban Charleston.  In the previous episode, I talked about the presence of these scavenging birds in the early days of Charleston, especially their long relationship with the butchers of Charleston.  From the opening of the new Centre Market in Market Street in August 1807, black vultures earned a level of government protection because they provided an important public service: the birds ate all of the animal scraps and leftovers cast aside by the butchers who plied their trade in the city’s busy food market.  Numerous nineteenth-century visitors to the Charleston market remarked on the city’s strange relationship with the vultures, and today this story is still part of every tour guide’s standard repertoire.  But in Market Street today you’ll find a population of zero vultures, or “turkey buzzards,” as people commonly called them.  So, what happened to the big black birds?  When, how, and why were vultures banished from the city?  The answers to these questions can be found in archival records like newspapers, diaries, and the records of the city government, scattered over a period of nearly half a century.  So, set your mental time machines back to post-Civil-War Charleston, and let’s take a tour of the evidence.

The Fall of the Urban Vultures


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The Rise of the Urban Vultures

Today we travel back in Lowcountry natural history to explore a very specific aspect of Charleston’s famous public market, which is the oldest institution of its kind in the United States.  Two hundred and ten years ago this August, Charleston’s principal food market in Market Street formally opened to the public.  As of the first day of August 1807, all of Charleston’s scattered marketplaces were officially closed, and the new Centre Market, as it was long called, became the daily gathering place for people buying and selling fruit, vegetables, meat, and seafood.  A decade ago, back in the summer of 2007, I presented a series of public lectures about this topic, and the Post and Courier published a series of articles drawing attention to the Market’s bicentennial anniversary.  Time doesn’t permit a full recital of the convoluted history of early market activity in our city, but a few weeks ago I mentioned a number of the most salient facts in a story about the genesis of Charleston’s Vendue Range.

Rather than attempting to condense this vast story, today want to focus on one character that was once a familiar fixture in Centre Market, and whose presence in market lore is often misunderstood today.  I’m talking about the black vulture, a scavenging bird that appears in numerous historic descriptions of the market and in countless old photos of the site.  In the days before modern refrigeration, and especially in the days before modern sanitation laws, these scavenging birds were daily visitors to the marketplace, where their presence was not only tolerated but protected.  You won’t find any vultures in Market Street today because the city expelled the birds in the early years of the twentieth century.  Since the urban exodus of these feathered scavengers a century ago, the story of market vultures has become part of the colorful lore of Charleston, complete with a few important inaccuracies.  In honor of the 210th anniversary of the Centre Market, let’s travel back to the early days of Charleston and explore the facts surrounding the city’s relationship with the venerable vulture.

The Rise of the Urban Vultures


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Huzzah For Bastille Day?

Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history to talk about Bastille Day, which is celebrated on the 14th of July by Francophiles around the world.  I wrote an essay about this topic a couple of years ago, before I launched this radio series, so I’d like to revisit the topic for the benefit of those who might not have seen the original post.

Come mid-July in Charleston, you can be sure that someone, somewhere in our community is hosting a Bastille Day party, celebrating the day with the usual routine of flying the tricolor flag, singing French patriotic songs, imbibing strong beverages, and launching colorful fireworks.  I’ve even heard some people refer to this practice as a Charleston tradition.  But that’s not exactly an accurate statement.  Yes, it is true that that emigrants from France formed a significant portion of our local population in the early days of South Carolina, and it is indeed a fact that the French military provided invaluable assistance to the United States during our War of Independence with Great Britain.  One can be excused for assuming that our fore-bearers here in Charleston celebrated Bastille Day, and that it’s proper we should continue that tradition in the spirit of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  History tells a different story, however, and it’s worth noting that the anniversary of the French Revolution was not always regarded as a joyous occasion in this city. So, to celebrate, or not to celebrate—that is the question of the day.

Huzzah For Bastille Day?


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How Longitude Lane Got Its Name

Longitude Lane is a short, narrow alley in urban Charleston that has captured the imagination of countless tourists and residents alike.  Measuring approximately 540 feet long and just over ten feet wide, Longitude Lane is parallel to and approximately 150 feet south of Tradd Street.  Like Tradd Street, it intersects with East Bay Street at a right angle.  It offers one of the most picturesque views in the city, giving pedestrians a glimpse back in time to what Charleston must have looked like before the modern age of transportation.  For many generations, however, locals and tourists have been scratching their heads in wonder about the origin of the name. Numerous theories have appeared over the years, but none offers a satisfactory degree of authenticity, or even logic.  Longitude Lane is oriented on the east-west axis, like a line of latitude, not a line of longitude.  The precise geographic location of the lane doesn’t coincide with any significant longitudinal phenomenon.  In short, Longitude Lane isn’t very longitudinal at all.  So what’s the origin of its alliterative name?

How Longitude Lane Got Its Name


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Lord Adam Gordon’s description of Charleston, 1765

Today we’re going to travel back to the year 1765 and listen to the words of Lord Adam Gordon, who visited Charleston and the Lowcountry of South Carolina as part of an extended tour of the American colonies.

Lord Adam Gordon’s Description of Charleston, 1765


Adam Gordon was born around the year 1726, the fourth son of Alexander, second Duke of Gordon.  A native of Scotland, Lord Adam entered the British military at an early age, and in 1763 he was promoted to colonel of the 66th Regiment of Foot, a position he held until 1775. I n the early 1760s he was stationed briefly in the West Indies.  Before returning home, 38-year-old Lord Adam sailed to Florida and began a long, slow northward tour through the other American colonies.  He arrived in Charleston by way of Savannah in early December 1764 and lingered here in the Lowcountry until the middle of March 1765.  After his return to Britain, Lord Adam never returned to the colonies, or the United States, and his long travel diary was forgotten among his papers.  He died in 1801, and his manuscript journal eventually found its way to the British Museum.  In 1916 it was finally published among a collection of colonial-era travel accounts, which you can find online through the Library of Congress:  “Journal of an Officer who Traveled in America and the West Indies in 1764 and 1765,” in Travels in the American Colonies, 1690–1783, ed. Newton D. Mereness (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 365–453.

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Carolina Day: A Primer for Newcomers

Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history to explore the genesis and legacy of a public holiday called “Carolina Day.”  Carolina Day is celebrated on the 28th of June every year, and that’s been the case since 1777.  The day commemorates an important battle that took place on Sullivan’s Island, an action that could rightfully be called the first significant American military victory in the early days of our war for independence from Great Britain.  For some people in our community, the story of this battle and the traditions of its anniversary are familiar, even treasured stories.  I am very aware, however, that many good people in our community are new to the area and may not have heard of Carolina Day, or the events we commemorate each year on the 28th of June.  With that fact in mind, I’ve assembled an overview of both stories—the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776 and the traditional commemorations of that event—to help newcomers get up to speed on these important traditions. Time and space don’t permit an exhaustive account of every detail of the battle—I’ll leave that burden to other historians.  For the present, my goal here is to hit the highlights of the story, bring you quickly up to the present, and to encourage you to get involved in celebrating the 28th of June like a native of the Palmetto State.

Carolina Day: A Primer for Newcomers


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Vendue Range: A Brief History

Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history to explore the roots of a site in urban Charleston called Vendue Range.  Almost everybody who’s been to Charleston in the past twenty-odd years has probably visited Vendue Range, but the small site may not have made much of an impression besides serving as the path to the popular splash fountain in Waterfront Park.  Most visitors are a bit confused by the street’s odd name, and I’ll bet very few locals know much about the origins of this Charleston landmark.  As with everything in Charleston and our storied community, however, there’s actually an interesting, colorful tale about how it came to be.  So let’s set our time machine back to the earliest days of Charleston and take a quick tour of the slow rise of Vendue Range, from a vacant tidal mudflat to a picturesque destination.

Vendue Range: A Brief History


Let’s begin with the basics.  Vendue Range is a short street that runs eastward about 450 feet from the east side of East Bay Street to Concord Street, at the edge of the Cooper River waterfront.  The east end of Vendue Range terminates at a large fountain that forms one of the most popular features of Charleston’s Waterfront Park.  In the early days of Charleston—actually for the first 130 years of the city, from 1680 to 1810—this street did not have a name because there was no street here.  Originally it was a small tidal inlet that flowed west of East Bay Street at high tide.  By the 1720s the western part of this inlet had been filled and the resulting thoroughfare was called Dock Street.  Dock Street was officially renamed Queen Street in April of 1734, becoming the first of Charleston’s streets to have a legally sanctioned name.  We could talk for hours about the muddy origins of Queen Street, but we’ll save that for a future program.  Back to our story. . . .

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A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 2

In our last episode, we talked about history of the Charleston park called Marion Square from the early 1700s through the American Civil War, so let’s resume the narrative with the Confederate evacuation of Charleston in February of 1865.

A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 2


On the 18th of February, the first soldiers of the United States Army moved into the nearly deserted town and set up camp.  For the next fourteen years, a period historians call the “Reconstruction Era,” Charleston was an occupied city.  The Citadel, the state-owned guard house that was converted into a military school in 1843, served as the barracks for United States Army units that represented Federal authority in post-war Charleston.  Citadel Square, the open green space in front of the barracks, continued to serve as a parade ground for military exercises, just as it had since 1833, when the City of Charleston sold the property to the Field Officers of the Fourth Brigade of the South Carolina Militia.  Per the details of that landmark agreement, however, the square in front of the Citadel also remained open to the community as a “public mall.”

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June 2017 Programs

If you missed last year’s exciting program about the invasion of French and Spanish forces into the Lowcountry in the autumn of 1706, then I hope you’ll join me for an encore performance of that lecture on Saturday, June 3rd at 11 a.m. at the Mt. Pleasant Regional Library.  Most of the action during that week-long struggle nearly 311 years ago took place east of the Cooper River, so I look forward to sharing this interesting story with the current residents of that long-forgotten battleground.

Mt. Pleasant is just one part of the larger Lowcountry that is gaining new residents at a rapid pace.  As we head toward the annual celebration of Carolina Day (June 28th) in the Charleston area, I am increasingly conscious of the fact that a large part of our population has never heard of Carolina Day, and has no idea was event it commemorates.   With that fact in mind I’m presenting a new program later this month titled “Carolina Day: A Primer for Charleston Newcomers.” There’s something for everyone in this program, whether you’ve just moved to the area “from off” or whether you’ve lived in the Lowcountry your entire life.  We’ll begin with the dramatic events of the 28th of June 1776, in which a small American force within an unfinished palmetto log fort defeated a well-armed squadron of the British Navy, and we’ll trace the highlights of the history of the annual commemorations of this battle from June of 1777 to the present. All of this will take place at the Main Library’s auditorium on Monday, June 19th at 6 p.m., which leaves you plenty of time to plan your patriotic festivities on the 28th of June.

As always, these events are free and open to the public, so bring a friend and come to the library!

 

A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 1

Today we’re going to explore the history of a specific piece of property in urban Charleston called Marion Square. I’m sure most of you know the piece of land I’m talking about, but in case you’re new to the Lowcountry, we’ll begin with the basics.

A Brief History of Marion Square, Part 1


Marion Square is a public green space in urban Charleston. It occupies more than six acres of land bounded to the south by Calhoun Street, to the west by King Street, and to the east by Meeting Street. The northern boundary of the square is the old Citadel building, formerly the home of the South Carolina Military Academy, but now a fancy hotel. Like all good public green spaces, or commons, Marion Square is a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike. Today you’ll find a weekly farmers’ market thronged with customers, sunbathers from the College of Charleston, locals and tourists enjoying the views and the shade, and also a fair share of our local inveterate inebriates looking for a handout. During the course of the year the park hosts a number of seasonal events such as the Spoleto Festival, Fashion Week, Food and Wine Week, and the like, each of which requires the erection of a number of temporary tents. Despite all this activity, the City of Charleston’s Parks Department does a fine job of keeping the grass, trees, and shrubbery looking its best, and Marion Square is really a public amenity that the city and the community can be proud of, and it really is a “people’s park.” But this hasn’t always been the case.

The urban success story that is Marion Square today is the result of many generations of work. Over the past 260 years the site has been used for a variety of purposes—military, political, and recreational—and it has endured periods of neglect and abuse. There is also a curious vestige of the past hanging over the very existence, the concept of Marion Square: it’s a wonderful city park that the city of Charleston does not own. That’s right—Marion Square is, technically speaking, not city property, and hasn’t been since our City Council sold the property in 1833. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s set our time machine back three hundred years and start from the beginning of this colorful story.

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