Working Winds

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. 

Horse-mounting Honesty

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.

Curb Clues

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.

Ageless Alleys

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.

Wonderful Washington

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!

Vanishing Victorians

We had a wonderful walking tour today in cool, crisp weather, and most of my guests were first-timers to historic Charleston, all of who were in awe of the scenic architecture throughout the city. People are surprised to learn that we even had more great buildings that were lost to development and modernization back before the city protected them. Two such buildings were commercial structures on King Street built in the grand Victorian styles of the late 19th century – the Hirsch-Israel building and the Marks building. Both were demolished in the mid 20th century to make way for ugly, box-like structures that dominated the 50’s and 60’s, and are still there today. It is sad to think that there were those who did not recognize the beauty and character of such buildings, and that for all the beautiful architecture that Charleston is blessed with today, that there could have been more.

Muddy Murray

People who visit Charleston on vacation are often surprised to find out how much of Charleston is built on former wetlands. I explain on my walking tour that the peninsula was once ringed with marshes and mud and interlaced with tidal creeks that were gradually filled in. This picture below is just to the west of the foot of King Street, along an area of the Ashley River once called South Bay, and the original western wall of White Point Garden can be seen at the right. Beginning in 1911, the city, with the generous donations of Andrew Buist Murray, began filling to the west of White Point Garden with a grand thoroughfare that would become known as Murray Boulevard. Where the boat is in the picture is now approximately the southwest corner of the Sumter House, a condominium built as a hotel in the 1920’s.

Sleight of Height

One of the many great stories in historic Charleston SC is that of the Mills House Hotel on Meeting Street. The hotel was built there in the 1850’s by wealthy merchant Otis Mills, and it survived a huge fire in 1861 when people soaked blankets and sheets to hang from the side closest to the flames. Sadly, the original structure was town down in 1968 to make a larger version and, of course, more money, and although built to look like a carbon copy, two extra floors were added. The original had 5 floors with high ceilings, the replacement has two high ceilings on the first and second floor, but 8-foot ceilings in the 5 on top. Most people who glance at the old and new don’t notice the extra floors.

Clearly Confederate

Today is the anniversary of the first successful submarine attack in military history, the sinking of the USS Housatonic by the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley just outside Charleston harbor in 1864. The hand-propelled submarine was thought to have been lost for more than a century until it was found buried beneath the ocean floor in 1995, and recovered 5 years later. Today, it is preserved in the Hunley Museum, where sadly, political correctness has become so prevailing that the term “CSS” and “Confederate submarine” have been erased in describing the vessel. The simple historical fact is that it was a Confederate submarine and should be referred to as CSS Hunley.

Disappearing Detail

When I take visitors around historic Charleston on my walking tours, I always explain the height districts that exist throughout the city, and cite the People’s Building on Broad Street as a good example. Finished in 1911 as an office building originally called The People’s Bank Building, the eight-story structure towered above the other buildings on the street, and built largely of yellow Stoney Landing brick, has been one of the city’s biggest eyesores. Eventually the city realized that its historic skyline should be protected in certain areas, and he height districts were created to limit out-of-place edifices. No longer will anything close to the height of the People’s Building be erected in that part of town, as it stands more than twice the 55-foot limit in that height district. The ordinance can’t make the huge building disappear, but a tornado in 1938 nearly did, so badly damaging the original protruding cornice that it was completely taken off – a shame, considering it made the building much more attractive than it is today.