Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a descendant of Captain George Anson, the former local celebrity whose name is permanently affixed to Charleston’s first suburb, Ansonborough. Charles Anson, a great-nephew of the famous captain, has had quite a distinguished career of his own, principally in the service of Her Majesty’s diplomatic corps around the world. During a recent literary sojourn to Charleston, however, Charles was eager to learn more about the Carolina exploits of his forebearer, Capt. Anson, and I was happy to share with him a few facts and stories. Captain George Anson was in Charleston, both on and off shore, during a colorful period of eleven years between 1724 and 1735, and there are many interesting anecdotes about his exploits here. For the purposes of brevity, however, and in honor of Charles Anson’s diplomatic service, I’d like to focus on a single, little-known incident that took place in the early days of Capt. Anson’s long naval career. To establish the proper historical the context of this 1725 story, let’s begin with a quick journey back to the 1660s.
Today’s program is Part 2 of a brief history of one of Charleston’s most iconic landmarks, generally called “the Battery.” Last week we discussed a series of building campaigns between the 1720s and the 1850s in which our local government gradually transformed the southernmost point of the Charleston peninsula, called White Point, from a sandy beach into scenic high ground. The so-called “High Battery,” that granite seawall protecting East Battery Street, looks today pretty much like it did by the end of the 1850s, after generations of building and rebuilding. Then, just a few years before South Carolina seceded from the Union, Charleston’s city leaders began planning a massive new project, to continue the seawall further westward, to extend White Point Garden, and to build a scenic promenade around the west side of the peninsula. That ambitious antebellum plan was derailed by a series of misfortunes, but it laid the groundwork for a dream that was finally realized in the 1920s by the completion of the so-called “Low Battery” and Murray Boulevard, and in the 1960s with the construction of Lockwood Drive. Today’s focus on the history of Charleston’s Low Battery begins in the autumn of 1856, when the first notions of extending the seawall westward first appeared on the city’s horizon.
A Brief History of the High and Low Battery Seawalls, Part 2
In Charleston parlance, “the Battery” is the common name for what is actually a pair of man-made seawalls that define the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula. The so-called “High Battery” measures just over 1,400 feet long and was built in the early nineteenth century to facilitate the creation of what we now call East Battery Street and White Point Garden. The so-called “Low Battery” is an adjacent seawall measuring nearly 5,000 feet in length that was built in the early twentieth century to facilitate the creation of what we now call Murray Boulevard. Collectively, these batteries afford panoramic vistas of Charleston harbor and the adjacent islands, but they’re also susceptible to being overflowed by crashing waves during strong storms and hurricanes. Furthermore, it’s become clear over the past several decades that these centuries-old walls are in need of some significant repairs. To address these issues, the City of Charleston is in the midst of a multi-year effort to stabilize, strengthen, and perhaps even enlarge these seawalls a bit. Also under consideration are various plans to improve the landscaping and perhaps to alter the flow of automobile traffic. To help our community understand the challenges posed by such multi-million-dollar projects, I think it’s important to look back at the many generations of labor that led to the creation of the present “High” and “Low” battery seawalls. Our brief journey begins nearly 300 years ago, when the entire area in question was just a bit of underwater, imaginary real estate.
A Brief History of the High and Low Battery Seawalls, Part 1
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?