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.

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