The seaport area in colonial Charleston extended as far as today’s Carolina yacht Club, whose south driveway was once the path of a riverside wharf. The high ground of the peninsular reached only as far as the East Bay Street sidewalk in those days, and beyond was marsh and shallow water.
To provide docking areas deep enough for sailing ships to load cargoes of rice, timber and indigo, city merchants came up with an unusual construction method. Palmetto trees were felled, tied together as rafts, and floated on the high tide away from the high land, then covered with ballast stones and debris and sunk several hundred feet away out into the river. This provided a surface platform above the water level that was then connected to the main land by filling a narrow space in between. Animal carcasses, trash, tree limbs and oyster shells were among the debris used to create long, linear paths out into the Cooper River, that were initially known as “bridges” because they bridged the distance from the bank to the sunken platform.
Such names as Elliot’s Bridge and Rhett’s Bridge adorn Charleston maps as late as the 1730’s, and allowed tall-masted ships to sail right up to the eastern shore of the peninsula. Eventually, the “bridges” became known as wharves, and by the Civil War, more than twenty existed along the Cooper from Hasell Street to the foot of East Bay.
With the building of deep-draft iron cargo ships after the Civil War, the shallow old wharf areas provided insufficient draft, and rock formations under the river bottom were difficult to dredge effectively. Deeper riverside sections of the upper peninsula near Town Creek became to new home of seaport activity by the early 20th century, and all that remains of the old docking areas are the wharf names of historic streets that once were approaches to the shipping berths.