Touring by walking in scenic, historic Charleston SC is a wonderful thing for visitors to do who want the best experience during their stay. This architecture-rich, waterfront city blends the beauty of the pristine South Carolina coast with the amazing character of a storied past. Now that we are officially in Spring, blooms will be bursting forth in gardens and landscapes all around the city, adding an eye-pleasing luster to wrought iron gates, classic steeples, charming parks, cobblestone streets and moss-covered oaks.
People who visit historic Charleston are often told things that simply are not true, such as the oft-repeated story about 27 East Battery. People are told that it’s called “The Compromise House”, with the explanation that the alternating squared and rounded details were agreed to by a couple living there as a compromise because “he wanted square and she wanted round”. That is pure nonsense. There are other houses in Charleston with very similar contrasting Renaissance Revival details, such as over at 68 Meeting Street, which also features that alternating squared and rounded look. Neither house had these built originally, by the way, as in both cases, the details were Victorian-era additions.
I have written two books about Charleston – The Charm of Charleston and Charleston, Yesterday and Today – which include the history, architecture, legends, gardens and gates, and wildlife that are unique to this city. Both are coffee table books with plenty of pictures and illustrations from past and present. A good place to find them is the Historic Charleston Foundation gift shop at 108 Meeting Street where I begin my walking tours.
This is the old central police station at Vanderhorst and St. Philip streets was built in 1905 in a castellated style to appear more imposing to those who saw it. In truth, the city police department was understaffed in the early 1900’s, and a big, scary police station perhaps made up for the lack of real authority. According to reliable stories from old-timers now dead, the station was notorious for the storage and resale of confiscated alcohol during prohibition. The city yearbooks say that many gallons were “flushed down the drains” of the station, when it was common knowledge that much of the stuff went out the back door. The building was demolished after the police station was moved to it current location in 1974.
Charleston was among ports all over the South subject to a Federal military blockade during the Civil War to cut off supplies to the Confederate forces. The South countered with elusive ships built to be difficult to see, hear or catch, that took out supplies of cotton overseas and returned with munitions, medicines and food. Despite dozens of warships guarding Charleston harbor day and night, thousands of blockade-running voyages got through, right up until the last day of the war.
Harnessing wind energy is nothing new in Charleston, and it began here literally as a Dutch treat. Timber was a big industry in colonial Charleston, but the hand-powered saw pits made for slow, grueling work. Coastal sea breezes were a potential source of power, but finding a way to tap into it meant seeking help from 4500 miles away. Dutch windmill engineers were first hired and sailed to Charleston in 1713 to build a wind sawmill at the foot of the peninsula, and in the ensuing years, skilled artisans such as Jonathan Lucas and David Cannon copied the intricate technology, as a number of wind sawmills and wind rice mills cropped up along the coast by the turn of the 19th century.
Some visitors to Charleston are being told that the stone blocks they often see on historic sidewalks were for selling slaves. This is absolutely not true. These are mounting blocks, which equestrians have used for centuries to get astride a high horse. They were also known as “upping stones” and the Charleston newspapers throughout the 1700’s and 1800’s feature advertisements by stone cutters such as Robert Givan, who made his from sandstone, which is easily shaped. All of the pictures below are historic mounting blocks found in Northern cities, including one in front of a church, so the slave sale narrative is easily contradicted. Riders still use stone blocks to mount, so the blocks can still serve a purpose. Real slave sales long ago typically involved a higher platform made of wood, and although there are images of them in places such as the Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street, I doubt that any still exist.
There are many historic pictures of Charleston from days gone by that offer some telling information about locations in the past. This picture is at the West end of Broad Street at the turn of the 20th century. The absence of motor vehicles along with the bicycles, telegraph poles and trolley tracks is a good clue to the time frame, as autos did not appear in any great number until the early 1900’s, when bicycling was all the rage and the poles give away that the trolleys were electric-powered, which didn’t happen until the 1890’s. The various signs show that this part of the city was very commercial with retail shops that had been offices for brokers earlier in the city’s history, and the road surface is creosote blocks, which became very popular in the late 1800’s and where replaced by Macadam surfaces by the 1920’s.
I have found that on walking tours of Charleston, that visitors really enjoy wandering through some of the historic alleys. There are a number of alleys that still hold a special charm off the beaten track, such as Philadelphia Alley, Stoll’s Alley, Zig Zag Alley, Lodge Alley, Bedon’s Alley and Longitude Lane. These were back streets up until fairly recent times, and became home mostly to descendents of the formerly enslaved after the Civil War. Modern times have brought higher real estate prices, and the quiet alleys are in demand, so like most of us who can’t afford to live on the streets where we grew up in Charleston, the demographics have changed dramatically. Still, though, there are photographic reminders of the alleys’ character that transcends time.
February 22nd marks the true birthday of George Washington, and it is sad that, for all he did to help win our independence and create this great country, that the federal holiday is not in his name. Visitors to Charleston can see and hear about Washington’s exploits in several historic locations, and I always include a nod to his statue at Washington Square on my walking tours. People can visit the Old Exchange Museum where Washington attended a grand ball in his honor in 1791, or take a tour of the Hayward-Washington House where Washington stayed for his week-long visit to Charleston. There is also a wonderful painting of Washington in city council chambers at City Hall on the second floor, which is open to the public. The painting by John Trumbull shows Washington and his warhorse that he famously used to block the American retreat at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778 and spur the troops on to victory. Thank you George for your service!