Charleston has a charm that is unlike every other city we have visited. Nearly every building in Charleston is more than 200 years old. During the 18th century, Charleston was the richest city in the English Colonies. Following the Revolutionary War Charleston, continued to be the richest city in the United States.
For the most part, Charleston’s charm is because it was built when money was plentiful and because the economy was destroyed during the Civil War. They didn’t have money to tear down and replace old things. More than any other city, Charleston’s economy was destroyed because it was nearly all dependent on slavery. For the next one hundred years, Charleston was too poor to replace any of the old buildings with new ones. They decided instead to remodel the old ones without changing the look and feel of the city.
Old Charleston was built at the end of a peninsula between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers. The further south on the peninsula you go, the older the city becomes. The oldest section is between Market Street and Broad Street. The city fathers created a walled city like in Europe to protect the city from attack. King Street marks the west part of the walled section and Bay Street is on the east side. When Charleston was originally built, Bay Street was right on the water.
Gradually the walls that were around the old city were dismantled and most remnants are gone. One section that remains is under the Old Exchange and Custom House. Over the last two hundred and fifty years, fill dirt (and rubble) has been added on all sides of the peninsula filling in the swamp to the west and south. Now the bay is about two blocks further east than it was when the city was founded.
In 1670, Charles Town was founded as a settlement by English charter. The name was changed to Charleston after the Revolutionary War between England and the United States. For the first fifty years, Charles Town was a favorite of pirates and slave traders. Black slaves were imported into the colonies in Charles Town. Nearly unmentioned in history, American Indian Slaves, captured during wars between the American Indian Tribes, were then sold to the English and were exported from Charles Town to the Caribbean.
Charles Town was an important port during the age of piracy. Gradually Charles Town became less of a pirate town and more an important English port. In 1718, the pirate Blackbeard laid siege to Charles Town and was paid off with a chest of medicine. Blackbeard and many other pirates had frequented Charles Town often to sell loot for years. In 1718, Charles Town turned against the pirates hanging all they could find or accuse of piracy.
Gradually as the swamps to the west were filled making more room, the walls around the city were dismantled. Really the walls on the south, north, and west side were not necessary because this area was a huge swamp. Only the wall along the bayside of Charles Town remained.
We found the best self-guided walking tours including Meeting Street, Broad Street, and King Streets. Later in the day, we took a tour van around the city. The tour included all these streets and others both inside and outside the oldest parts of the city.
Old Exchange and Prevost Dungeon
One of the oldest English government buildings was the Exchange. All “legitimate” goods entered the city from the port through the Exchange. If you wanted to sell something and export it, then you made your sale at the exchange. Originally the building was small and even part of the wall along the bay.
As imports and exports increased, the size and taxes collected at the Old Exchange increased. This financed a huge improvement to the Exchange and Customs building. The gun emplacements are still in the basement as part of the foundation of the new building.
Just prior to the Revolutionary War, the English military police took over governing Charles Town. The military governor (called a Provost), renamed the Old Exchange the Charles Town Provost Headquarters. The upstairs of the building was used for offices and housing for English Military Officers. The first use of the dining room in the next picture was for these English Officers.
The basement of the exchange was converted from tax collection into a dungeon. The dungeon was filled with anyone suspected to be associated with the Revolution, but also held common criminals.
Charles Town was hotly contested during the Revolutionary War and was a stronghold for the English. The English believed that most of the area was loyal to the crown. Changes in England politics prohibiting slavery in England and Wales (1772) along with Lord Dunsmore’s (1775) declaration emancipating slaves in the colonies changed this. These new policies turned potential loyalists against the continuation of English rule.
After American Independence, Charles Town, which was already being spelled Charlestown gained its new name of Charleston to make it sound a little less English.
Just to the south of Broad Street, there is a community of houses built just after American Independence from England. As was typical the bottom floor was a commercial shop and the owners lived above the shop.
After the Civil War, the homes, along with the rest of Charleston fell into disrepair. It wasn’t until 1931 when downtown Charleston started revitalizing and the Rainbow Row houses were painted their pastels colors.
Angel Oak Park
When staying in Charleston we started noticing the massive Oak Trees. Typically they were about one hundred years old planted in the early 1900s. Most of the trees were covered with what is known as Spanish Moss. Our last post mentions this while I was discussing the plantations in this post from last week. Carolina Plantations
While we were at the McLeod Plantation, we saw a massive oak that was much older than the others. That Oak was estimated to be more than 400 years old. This is when we knew that we had to visit the Charleston Angel Oak Tree. The Angel Oak may not be the oldest oak tree in Charleston, but it is the biggest old Oak Tree.
There isn’t much new in Charleston. The United States Custom house started construction just prior to the Civil War. Compared to the rest of the city, the Custom House qualifies as one of the newest buildings in Charleston and is only 170 years old.
In 1989, Charleston was devastated by Hurricane Hugo. Many buildings that were along the Cooper River vanished in the storm surge. The eye of the hurricane made landfall just north of the city. Devastating winds in this massive storm hit more than 200 miles per hour along the bayside of Charleston. The entire city was flooded and many people died. This area is now home to the Bay Park and the Pineapple fountain.
No high-rise buildings and few buildings with modern style. The building behind the Pineapple Fountain was one of the few buildings that seemed to be modern. Both this building and the fountain were built after Hurricane Hugo destroyed the area with the storm surge. Buildings to the south of the fountain along the Cooper River had between eight and twelve feet of standing water as part of the storm.
Obviously new and modern style is the bridge over the Cooper River. This bridge is one of the most beautiful bridges we have found in our travels.