Changing Streetscapes

Charleston’s historic buildings retain much of their historic look and character, but the city’s streetscape has dramatically changed over the years. Going back to colonial times, streets were largely unpaved, and even with the advent of cobblestone and Belgian block, were rough rides for the carts, wagons and carriages that rumbled past in no particular order.
Early attempts to create some efficient traffic flow included an 1842 order by police captain James Duffus, stating that all drivers must use the right side of the road. In overlooking the fact that many illiterate slaves drove wagons, and would not be able to read the order, Capt. Duffus actually created more traffic confusion in truly living up to his unusual name.
Throughout the early days of Charleston, streets were plied by lamp lighters and ward foot patrols, vultures and wandering livestock were a common sight, street vendors pushed carts and carried baskets full of goods, and on curbs such as East Bay, slaves were displayed in open-air sales.
A dramatic change in the streets came in 1866, with the laying of the first trolley rails, and the hulking, train car-looking bodies would dominate traffic for nearly 70 years. Automobiles made their first appearance in the 1890’s, but were not common on the streets of Charleston until the 1910’s. The city had to create new ordinances to offset awkward confrontations between auto and wagon drivers. At first, hand signals and compass-direction right-of-way rules were implemented, but didn’t do much better than the efforts of poor Capt. Duffus. By the late 1920’s, the first stop signs were in place, followed by the traffic light.
Parking would soon become an issue, and on busy streets such as Broad where space was limited, autos were parked diagonally, with the trolley line running down the middle of the street. The 20th century would usher in the era of asphalt, and the old stone and brick surfaces largely disappeared. Trooleys gave way to buses in 1938, and as streets became busier, and cars larger, traffic was funneled down the first one-way streets in 1949.
Even with busier thoroughfares, street vendors continued to push carts by hand until the 1960’s, and as a boy, I remember the “shrimp man” and the “sugarcane man” coming down Legare Street on early mornings with hearty voices echoing their wares. At that time, a lone horse and buggy strode the streets with a then-tiny tourist contingent. Driven by John Waggoner, the old carriage was in many ways a transition from Charleston’s streets of long ago, and the busy tour trade that dominates them today.