One of the more recent plaques erected in Charleston on East Bay Street offers the story of the famous escape by black slave Robert Smalls and his family aboard the supply ship Planter, which Smalls piloted during the Civil War, and which he turned over to the Union blockading fleet and offered his services against the Confederate defenders of the city. The bravery of Smalls is well-documented and well-deserved, but the plaque omits another side of his story in which the brave souls fought for the other side, and a side whose people and stories has largely been ignored in recent years. Smalls was given charge of the Federal ironclad Keokuk, a double-turreted ship armed with two enormous XI-inch Dahlgren cannon, which was part of the Union squadron that tried to run past the Confederate defenses on April 7, 1863. The Union ships were badly mauled by Confederate guns, and the Keokuk sank in shallow water after being hit 90 times in 60 minutes, allow Smalls and the crew escaped. But in early may, Charleston engineers Adolphus and John Lacoste led two separate night-time forays by open boat under the noses of the Federal felt to cut open the Keokuk turrets “with sledge and chisel, wrench and crowbar” and hoist the two 16,000-pound guns on to barges and mount them on Sullivan’s Island to help defend the city. Today, the only remaining of the two stands at White Point Garden. We should be careful to include all historical perspectives and that should be on the plaque as well.<img.src=”Charleston Civl War History” alt=”The Keokuk Gun”
Each day on my tours of historic #Charleston, our group will pass at least several grand houses featuring a double frontal staircase. This is most typical on the “double-house” construction, in which two rooms face the street on each floor. These houses were most commonly cooled in the old days by building them higher on a raised basement, and thus the steps were need to ascend to the front door which is also typically shaded by a columned portico. The story most often heard explaining the two sides of the staircase is that one side was for men and the other for women. This is pure urban legend, and if anything, it would have been customary for a gentleman to escort a lady up or down such steps. No, the idea is purely European in origin, as is most of Charleston’s architecture, and is what is known as an Imperial Staircase, meant to replicate the grand stair cases of European royalty. Please remember, Charlestonians have always had an affinity for aristocrats, and the grander the look, the more acceptable it was in history. <img.src=”Charleston Architecture” alt=”Imperial Staircase”
One of the grand Victorian buildings that was known to so many who lived in and visited historic #Charleston was the 1907 Union Station on East Bay Street. This passenger railroad depot was Charleston’s primary connection to other parts of the country in the early part of the 20th century. Trolley lines led here from other parts of the city for trains destined anywhere from Columbia to New York City, and it was from here that many soldiers left for duty in both world wars. The unusual tower construction with the open-air top floor arcades was very Venetian in nature and somewhat a departure from Victorian-era norms. Expanded highways, bridges, and the burgeoning number of automobiles after World War made the old station obsolete, and shortly after it closed in 1947, most of the building was destroyed in a fire. The remnants were eventually pulled down, and there is no structure at the location at all today, just a few railroad tracks leading to the seaport terminals with railroad cars full of, ironically, automobiles. <img.src=”Charleston History” alt=”Union Station”
This old picture along Broad Street is a section of the city that we walk on my tour, and many of the buildings in the photo are still there. Notice the eagle in the triangular pediment of the corner building. It was built as a United States Bank in 1817, and the eagle, carved from oak and gilded with gold leaf, was the symbol of the bank. That building is still a bank today, and the eagle is still there. Sadly though, the building with the attractive portico on the other corner was razed in 1910 to make way for Charleston’s first skyscraper, the 8-story People’s Bank Building, an eyesore along the historic street still today. What is also interesting is, from the look of this 1865 picture, it seems that the surface of Broad Street is dirt. Yet, in fact, just breath the soil surface were rows of cobblestones, which in the old days were pounded down into the soil for drainage, and often did not seem to be there in images. <img.src=”Charleston Streets” alt=”Historic View of Broad Street”
We walk past the Thomas Rose House each day on my Charleston Footprints Tour, and I tell the story about the man who supposedly haunts it with his ghost. He was doctor who lived in a room there when the building was a boarding house in 1786, and was known for whistling as he walked the streets. He was involved in a duel in October, 1786, in which he was mortally wounded and carried back to the house where he died of infection, and legend says his whistling can still be heard. The copy on the plaque outside the house was taken from a 1950’s newspaper article in which the writer incorrectly wrote the doctor’s name as Joseph Ladd Brown, when in fact, his name was Joseph Brown Ladd, and perhaps Dr. Ladd is still whistling to get someone’s attention to change the wording on the plaque. <img.src=”Charleston Ghosts” alt=”The Whistling Doctor”
People often ask me on the walking tour about notable people who live in Charleston. We walk past 37 East Bay Street on the tours, and there I explain about the friend of my younger brother who used to come over to our house all the time, who we referred to as Stephen Colbert, pronounced Colburt. The Colberts lived at this residence for many years, and I went to several parties there, and I tell the group on my tour that Colbert, pronounced Colbare, is just Stephen’s stage name, and that the rest of the family goes with the Colburt pronunciation, and that the only “Cold Beer” I experienced at the house was in the coolers of ice on the porches during the parties. <img.src=”Charleston Curiosities” alt=”Colbert House”
One of the most commonly used photographs of historic Charleston is the row of houses along the High Battery. This group of grand residences has stood majestically through years of hurricanes and an entire Civil War, and is one of the places we pass each day on my walking tour. The line of 11 huge houses, collectively known as Battery Row, range in age from 1818 to 1920, and eight are pre-Civl War. They embody the elegance of Charleston as well as its larger-than-life architectural styles, and to stand on the sidewalk next to one of these buildings is an awesome experience.
The South Carolina Historical Society has recently restored the famous Fireproof Building on Washington Square, and opened a museum to the public. The historic 1820’s building was designed by Charleston architect Robert Mills to be completely fireproof, constructed only of stone, brick, iron and glass. I point out details about the Fireproof Building each day on my walking tour, and I recommend the museum as a niche interest for those who are interested in historic manuscripts and architecture.
Historic #Charleston is a great city to explore at night. It is very safe in most parts of the old city, and the visual charm is often enhanced by interesting lighting schemes. Natural gas lines underground allow many downtown residents to burn flickering lamps that help create the feeling that pedestrians wandering old streets and alleys have been transported back in time to the days when gas lamps were the only source of illumination. Many historic church steeples are lit from below, giving a mesmerizing glow to spires and towers above, while soft garden lights offer enchanting silhouettes of exquisite wrought iron gates. It is one of the best ways to enjoy Charleston for free, and a pleasant excursion after an evening’s dinner. The South of Broad area and The French Quarter are my favorites, but there are also very enjoyable nocturnal views in Ansonbourough and around Marion Square. <img.src=”Charleston At Night” alt=”Lighting Historic Areas”
This impressive array of Civil War cannon stands outside Fort Moultrie on historic #Sullivan’s Island. The campaign in and around the Charleston area was largely dictated by firepower, and huge guns mounted on land fortifications or carried in ships. The North had a tremendous advantage with iron-making industries, and a far greater number of cannon. The South produced some cannon, but many guns used by the Confederates such as those in this picture were captured from Federal arsenals that fell into Southern hands. The Civil War saw the creation of the first “rifled” cannon, equipped with grooves inside the barrels to fire aerodynamic shells instead of cannonballs to make attacks more accurate. Another new technique for that era was the concept of “banding” cannon, by heating large wrought iron bands and placing them on the breech of the gun, where the calling metal contracted to form an extra layer of strength so that larger charges of gunpowder could be used without exploding the barrel. One of the guns in this row is a former Federal smooth-bore that was restructured by the Eason and Sons Foundry in Charleston during the war, as rifling grooves were cut inside the barrel, and iron bands added to the breech, to make it a stronger and more accurate weapon. <img.src=”Charleston Military History” alt=”Civl War Cannon”