Visitors come to Charleston these days mostly by airline, car and ship, but in the 19th century, it was through the railroads. The old South Carolina Railroad Line first built in the 1840’s only came into the Charleston as far as John Street, out of fear that sparks from the locomotives might burn down older parts of the city, an you can still find segments of the old track line between King and Meeting streets. Shortly after the Civil War, a huge “roundhouse” was built along side the tracks between Columbus and Spring streets, to service the busy locomotives. By entering what essentially was a covered Lazy Susan, the locomotives could be uncoupled and pulled on auxiliary lines to a nearby foundry or a series of workshops, then a newly-repaired locomotive was maneuvered into position, and the train continued. The old wooden building was closed and obsolete by 1958, when it burned to the ground, and the property eventually was used to build the first Meeting Street Piggly Wiggly.
Often, people who visit Charleston and join my walking tours are very complimentary about my knowledge of a wide variety of subjects that they may be curious in relation to the city’s history. In fact, we’ve always had very bright Charlestonians. When the High School of Charleston opened on Society Street in 1849, young students were taught a curriculum that would seem incredibly difficult by today’s standards. Besides reading the Latin and Greek texts of Horace, Homer, Virgil and Cicero, the studies included geography, algebra, chronology, trigonometry, physiology, botany, anatomy, history, mammalogy, composition and declaration. The 118 students that year received as fine an education as any in America, keeping alive a legacy of very well-educated Charlestonians, such as Edward Brickell White, who studies engineering and architecture at West Point, and designed the school building that still stands today.
People who visit Charleston and go on my walking tours are usually surprised to learn that there is a lot of history beneath the surface here. Despite being so close to the sea, we have lots of underground cellars and tunnels from centuries ago. One of the most interesting things below us are the “water traps” along the edge of the Cooper River. With so much cotton stored in waterfront warehouses in the 1800’s, fire was a huge threat, so in 1838, the city began digging reservoirs of salt water, stating officially that these offered, “proper provision for such a supply of water as may be equal to the prompt and speedy suppression of fire”. This was long before pressurized water lines, and water for fire was pumped by steam and hydraulics, so the supply had to be contained and close. The water traps had underground doors that would push in with high tide and close when the tide turned, filling the spaces, and it’s interesting that the most significant waterfront fire didn’t occur until 1955, after the old traps were obsolete.
I have guests on my walking tours who often ask what is the grandest building in the historic city, and always on the list is the US Custom House on East Bay Street. Arguably one of Charleston’s most magnificent structures, it was intended to be much more magnificent, but literally came up short due to Civil War. New Hampshire architect Ammi Young created the design of the Custom House, which in his original plan, called for four great columned porticoes, topped by a massive cupola, as shown in the drawing below. The work began in 1852, requiring the hammering of 7,000 pilings by steam engine into former waterfront, and hauling in stone and brick in amounts much greater than any other Charleston building at that date. The picture shows how much was completed at the outbreak of the Civil War, and afterward, the Federal government cut funds, which altered the design to exclude the side porticoes and the cupola.
A number of visitors to Charleston have asked me where they can find the group of buildings is known as “The Three Sisters”. My response is, “in a scrap book or library file”, because The Three Sisters are long gone. This group of 19th century single-houses once stood on the South side of Calhoun Street, bordering East Bay Street, and were known for their similarity. Sadly, that part of the city declined in the early 20th century, and by the 1960’s, the old houses were empty and tattered, and were torn down.
Finding a true to life glimpse of the past was not possible until the early 19th century, with the first inventions of primitive photographic methods. One that quickly became very popular in antebellum Charleston was the daguerrotype, which was essentially a method to produce a mirror-like image. Invented by Frenchman Louis Jacque Mande Daguerre in 1839, the creation of an image was a multi-step process of polishing sheets of silver-plated copper, injecting gas fumes that made the surface sensitive to light, then exposing it through an aperture to light. A person standing in front of the device would have their mirror image imbedded by then adding mercury vapor and a series of rinsing, drying and sealing to complete the process. By 1850, numerous daguerrotype studios had opened in Charleston, and the old adds are still very illuminating.
How interesting that only days after I posted this about the Daguerrotype process, a story appeared in the local newspaper about daguerrotypes – in this case a dated story about some images of African-American slaves done in Columbia in the 1850’s. But the story was not about daguerrotypes, it was the endlessly recurrent theme of racial victimization and exploitation that dominates the paper and this writer’s articles. By dragging in references to George Floyd and a presumed interpretation of what Charlestonians thought of something John C Calhoun wrote in 1837, this writer suggests a collective guilt and a sense of shocking depravity over the nude images. In fact, nude daguerrotypes were quite common in the 1850’s, and nudes as both an art form and a scientific depiction have been common since ancient times. Leonardo DaVinci was famous for his sketches of nudes, and Pablo Picasso’s heralded “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” is nude art based on African themes. In Africa, the cultural tradition of depicting nude forms has a long history as well, so the 1850’s images should not be such a shock.
Visitors to Charleston find so many aspects of historical significance at every turn around the city, and one of these is the city burial grounds. I often have the chance to take guests on walking tours into some of the fabled graveyards, and there are many names they recognize that played a large role in American history. Over at my family’s church, St. Mary of the Annunciation, there are numerous stones in French, as the congregation was greatly influenced by French immigrants in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One family name there is De Grasse, and the graves of Amelie Rosalie Maxime deGrasses, and her sister Melanie Veronique Maxime deGrasse, daughters of Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse, who greatly helped Americans win their independence. His victory over the British while commanding the French fleet at the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781, allowed George Washington to achieve his great victory at Yorktown and end the war. The admiral’s daughters grew up in Saint Domingue in the West Indies, and migrated to Charleston in the 1790’s.
2021 represents the 205th year of La Societe Francaise de Beinfaisance (The French Charitable Society) here in Charleston, SC. This group that was formed to offer assistance to French immigrants such as my family, still provides humanitarian aid to those in need. We have an unusual French heritage in Charleston that encompassed three waves of immigration – French Huguenots in the late 1600’s, French Acadians in the 1750’s, and French Catholics in the 1790’s and early 1800’s.
The big Civil War cannon at White Point Garden are authentic guns that were actually used in combat, but they weren’t used at that location. These cannon were all military surplus that was moved to the garden in the late 1800’s to commemorate the defense of Charleston. I often lead walking tours that go past White Point Garden, and I point out to visitors that these great guns that caused so much destruction long ago have been silent for more than a century, but still lead to occasional injury when someone climbs on the cannon and falls off.
The Stevens-Lathers house on South Battery Street appears a good example of a common construction method in Charleston after the Civil War – but there is something different here. With fortunes lost and money scarce after the war, many Charlestonians could not afford to build anew in the ornate Victorian era styles that became so popular, so in a number of locations, Victorian details were added to the houses to give them the appearance of being new. The high-hipped Mansard roof was a very common and popular addition to older houses, and there are many in the city today on houses built long before the Victorian period. Such was not the case in the antebellum house purchased by Col. William Lathers in 1870. Col. Lathers had made a huge fortune in New York after the Civl War, and returned to his native South Carolina with the idea of restoring some of the former architectural grandeur. Certainly Lathers could have built a brand new mansion, but instead, preserved the 1840’s structure while giving it a dazzling multi-colored Victorian roof.