Drains and Mains

Beneath Charleston's streets still there are remains a maze of historic drains and mains that once served the city. Miles of pipe were first laid in the late 1870's as a means of creating water pressure for 165 hydrants installed on curbs around the city. Until that time, there was no abundant water source for the city, but the first successful artesian well drilled in 1876 would change things dramatically. The continuous flow of water from underground aquifers, as well as above-ground pumping stations that supplied pressure, made the hydrants far more effective than the city's archaic fire wells that had to be pumped by fire companies' individual steam engines. The new main system would dramatically improve Charleston's fire fighting capabilities with the new city-wide department created in 1881, and the technology of pressured underground pipes would lead to the first sewer connections for downtown houses in the early 1890's.
Lots of water wasn't always a good thing for the old city, which is largely built on land reclaimed from marsh, mudflat and tidal creek. Flooding was an issue throughout Charleston's history, and high tides constantly made streets into quagmires. Shortly after the Revolution, city engineers came up with a surprisingly effective solution, using a technology that had served rice plantations for many years.
The idea was to build underground water tunnels called “tidal drains” that collected street water and opened into the surrounding rivers, and equip them adjoining “traps” where high tides would push in swinging doors and be held in place. A mechanism could release the water from the traps, which would flow by gravity at considerable force back out in the harbor. By trapping and releasing the tides, the engineers could effectively flush the city streets.
Over the years, the brick tidal drains were supplanted by iron and steel pipes of more modern drainage, but many of the old brick tunnels still exist beneath the streets of Charleston.

Charleston Grey Brick

Charleston's historic district is dominated by brick houses, which account for about 65 per cent of the residential construction. Although blessed with abundant pine and cypress forests nearby, the early city favored brick construction because of its fire deterrent capabilities, and after several fires swept the city during colonial times, "brick ordinances" were passed compelling that material for new construction. The coastal plain around Charleston was also a natural source of clay and lime for brick making. Nearby plantations along the Cooper and Wando Rivers made fortunes by using slave labor to dig subterranean layers, then form them into loaf-sized sections, bake them in massive kilns to hardness. Large operations could turn out millions of bricks each year, and by the 1720's, Charleston was dominated by this construction. Uneven baking in kilns did create some problems, such as undercooked soft bricks that were notoriously known as "soakers" because they were so porous to water intrusion. To remedy that problem, brick exteriors were often sealed with layers of lime and sand called stucco, and the 1720-era Col. Robert Brewton house at 73 Church Street is considered to be the first house in Charleston adorned with decorative stucco. Still, brick was a staple in construction and in much demand. Most brick makers created standard sizes used in England, measuring 9 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½ inches. A typical two-story house would require as many as 100,000 bricks, laid in thicker courses in the foundation, tapering to thinner walls in the upper floors so as not to create top-heavy instability. An important ingredient to maintain the structural integrity of buildings standing in this hurricane and earthquake prone area was the heavily line-based mortar that joined bricks together. The lime mortar actually expands and contracts under pressure, providing a much-needed "give" in walls that might crack if too rigid. The most common brick displayed in historic houses is Charleston Grey Brick, so-called because of the drab-colored clay excavated along the coast. Baking in kilns imparts pigments from the burning wood, as well as creating a chemical change that turned finished brick into the mottled red color so dominant in Charleston today.