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.
The Charleston Area Regional Transit Authority (CARTA) operates two free trolley routes seven days a week in downtown Charleston with fourteen stops in various places from Broad Street to Spring Street. The distinctive-looking trolleys are fashioned to look like the old street trolleys that once plied these historic streets for nearly eighty years Horses and mules were the pulling power for Charleston's first public transit system that opened in 1866 with trolley cars on tracks laid down the center of major thoroughfares such as King, Broad and Meeting streets. Most Charlestonians road the trolleys, whose numbers increased so that one added line took picnickers to Magnolia Cemetery on Sundays.
The first electric-powered trolleys were added to routes in 1897, and conductors were equipped with removable controls after several of the cars were “borrowed” by pranksters. Known as “iron donkeys”, the electric trolleys briefly shared tracks with horse-drawn cars that were being phased out, and there were several accidents in which animals came face to face with mechanized vehicles, and broke and ran with loads of passengers inside.
The automobile had arrived on city streets by the 1920's, adding to the confusion. Before traffic lights and stop signs came along in the 1930's, city ordinances were passed requiring motorized vehicles to stop for any mule or horse rider who put a hand in the air, and gave cars bound north to south priority over those traveling east and west – which worked if everyone had a compass.
The trolley tracks became obsolete in 1938, as Charleston's new “belt line” bus service was created. For many years, some of the old tracks were still visible when street gangs dug beneath the layers of asphalt.
Today, there are are still occasional confrontations with powered vehicles and draft animals, nowadays pulling tourist wagons, but you'll have to drive yourself to Magnolia Cemetery.
Summer nights in Charleston often echo with a soft, high-pitched buzz that many people assume are crickets in the distance. In fact, this background music on balmy evenings comes from the Cicada (pronounced Sikaduh), a curious-looking critter with a fascinating lifestyle. Charleston's version of this entertaining insect is called the Periodical Cicada, because it only appears periodically, after long stretches of incubation. Each Summer, female Cicadas dig into tree bark and lay eggs. When hatched, the molting “nymphs” burrow underground, absorbing nutrients for as many as 17 years before re-emerging as winged adults. The heat of the Summer stimulates the Cicadas into action, and they have only a matter of months to mate and start the process all over again.
The familiar sound is a mating sound made by the male Cicada, who rubs of section of vertebrae called tymbals in order to attract and court a female. Cicadas in 2011 have hatched by the billions, according to biologists, so the sounds are very distinct that lover is in the air. In a few months, all will be quiet, as a new generation has been deposited, and waits its turn in the line of years of nymphs ready to hatch.
Fortunately, Cicadas don't bite humans, and are typically more on the menu for birds and other creatures. Even though they have wings, they are not inclined to do much flying, and typically cling to trees to make their sounds. Just by virtue of the fact that billions are all around us, and yet we rarely see them, shows how unobtrusive they are and how much they're being eaten.
One very interesting aspect of the Cicada symphony that fascinates scientists is the variance of decibel levels and speed of the insects' noise generator. Increased levels of the chirping sound have been shown to correspond to increases in temperature, so the Cicada is in effect, a living thermometer.
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.
A distinctive feature on many classic Charleston exteriors is the wavy ripple in historic, hand-made glass, which adds a subtle charm to windows of various sizes and shapes.
Glass making for much of Charleston’s early history was done by hand, heating combinations of silica and sand into molten globs that were then shaped by blowing through a blowpipe. Huffed and puffed into a flat circular-shaped mass known as a crown, the molten glass was then attached to a pole that as spun so fast that centrifugal force spread the crown into flat sheets that could be cut into panes.
The spinning motion is what causes the slight ripple in historic glass, and would also occasionally cause air pockets to appear. These were sometimes cut out and used as panes in lesser windows, along with the part of the glass were the spinning pole had been attached, called the “bullseye”.
A good example of these varying parts can be seen at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, whose second north side window still features a bullseye, two air pocket panes, and several others that ripple.
Although hand-made glass panes can still be created by artisans who continue to blow glass today, any breakage of historic panes are easier to replace with modern glass, which is also more durable and better insulation.
Cobblestone surfaces still adorn Chalmers Street, Maiden Lane, South and North Adgers Wharf, Gillon Street, and parts of Philadelphia Alley. As recently as the late 19th century, there were more than 10 miles of Charlestson street surface made from these hard, rounded stones. Cobblestones get their name from the old English word "cob", which means "lump", and the a mass of these lumpy stones was a cheap method of providing ballast for sailing ships during the colonial period. Piles of cobblestones placed in the ship's hull guaranteed it wouldn't capsize in heavy winds, but also subtracted from the amount of cargo that could be hauled.
Enterprising sea captains visiting colonial Charleston realized that the rich exports of rice, indigo and timber could be used to replace the weight of the ballast stones, thus Charleston eneded up with cobblestones dumped along its waterfront piers. Here on a peninsula that was interlaced with marshes and mud flats, Charleston was happy to receive these non-native stones to use for landfill, and tons were carted around the city to create more solid surfaces.
By the 1730's, the city was actively trading for ballast by offering ships freedom from taxes on goods in return for piles of cobblestones. Streets which once were muddy or paved in mushy layers of sand suddenly became firmer afoot with the new patina of hard stone.
Bricks, cut granite blocks, and finally asphalt spelled the end for most our cobblestone thorouhfares by the early 20th century, although a few still remain to show what a rough ride Charleston was long ago.
This August 17th marks the 315th anniversary of John Archdale’s appointment as governor of Carolina(which was not divided until 1710). It is significant because Archdale was a Quaker in a colony founded by English Anglicans, and benefitted from Carolina’s rare colonial practice of religious liberty. The Fundamental Constitutions of the colony were the work of eminent English philosopher John Locke, who was a firm believer in the right to choose one’s on beliefs. His exceptional document even provided for the right to be atheist – quite a step from those being burned at the stake up in New England, where ironically, dominant Quakers were far less open-minded.
Archdale was a pragmatist, however, and was among the first colonial officials to welcome Jews to Carolina – largely for their commercial acumen and the fact that many were families originally from the Iberian peninsula, and proved valuable as interpreters in negotiating with Spanish-speaking Indians to the south.
The Archdale name is still an historic street in the old city where two of the oldest churches – St. John’ Lutheran the Unitarian Church – represent the first of those congregations in the South. Ironically, the former Friend Street, named in honor of the Quaker congregation, was changed to become part of Legare Street.
The 18th century Quaker Meeting House burned in the great Charleston fire of 1861, and the original congregation no longer exists. A city parking garage now stands on the old site at King and Queen streets, which was formerly the northwest corner of what was Archdale Square.
Charles Towne, founded in 1670, was originally located on the west end of the Ashley River. Finding itself as an easy target of foreign invaders, colonists relocated the city to its current location at Oyster Point only 10 years after its original establishment. While the move aided in the protection of foreign invasions, it didn’t fend off unforeseen attacks below.
Charleston was built on the Woodstock Fault Line, the source of a devastating earthquake in 1886. The fault showed little activity prior to 1886, which scientists believe could’ve caused the severity of the disaster, damaging or destroying thousands of buildings in the area. Fault line activity has been recorded since then, but it’s believed that the tremors are actually aftershocks from the original earthquake.
In preparation for possible future quakes, architects rebuilt homes and buildings using “earthquake bolts,” formerly known as “pattress plates.” These bolts anchor iron rods that run through the walls of buildings to help support the structure during an earthquake. The design literally bolts the exterior of a building to its interior.
Home and business owners made these bolts more aesthetically pleasing by placing shapes on top of the bolts, such as lion heads, stars, rosettes or even using stucco material. Architects argue that the possibility of a future earthquake can be the only determining factor as to whether or not these bolts are actually beneficial. While this practice may seem one of the past, businesses, such as the Charleston Cigar Factory, continue to incorporate the design into recent renovations. Regardless, the bolts remain a staple of traditional Charleston architecture, and are still easily admired on many historical buildings.
Several historic graveyards in Charleston feature areas and stones marked by the term "strangers", referrring to visitors from other areas of the world who flocked to the city in colonial and anteellum era for business and pleasure. Charleston was the fourth largest city in America in 1800, and richest per capita, so business people came from as far as London, Liverpoo, Boston and New York. Riches also brought such pleasantries as thoroughbred horse-racing and international stars for local Charleston theater, which further attracted people from other parts of the world. Typically, they were not accustomed to Charleston's sub-tropical climate, which in the 18th and 19th century could be lethal with yellow fever. Charlestonians usually developed an immunity to this disease if they lived past age 13 or 14, but for many strangers, a visit sometimes was the end of the road, and so many died that yellow fever was nicknamed stranger's fever.