Historical Downtown Charleston Overview
Charleston SC is a city of many faces, and there is no place — and no lifestyle — quite like Charleston. South of Broad Street is an area of historic homes where old Charleston families live side-by-side with transplanted professionals.
Tourists wander the ancient narrow streets and alleys. The sound of hooves on pavement and cobblestone marks the passing of another horse drawn carriage tour. Movie crews periodically change the street signs and put up old gas lamps. Along the Battery, visitors drop their quarters into mounted binoculars so they can view Ft. Sumter, the place where The War Between the States began.
Up King Street, along Calhoun, the spirit changes and so do the faces. Here is the College of Charleston, surrounded by neighborhoods of still old homes, but smaller and filled with younger professionals. Towards the Ashley River is the Medical University of South Carolina and the Roper Hospital complex. Along the banks of the river are new hotels, a renovated old warehouse filled with new businesses, and marinas..
Between the recreational development along the Ashley River and the South Carolina Ports Authority terminals on the Cooper lies a city where residents and business people live and work side-by-side. Walking along East Bay Street or Meeting Street, it is not always clear which of the old homes are residences, which are businesses and which are historic sites.
Finally, along King and Market Streets, along East Bay, Church and Broad, one finds hundreds of storefronts, from Saks Fifth Avenue to consignment jewelry shops and sidewalk Sweetgrass basket weavers. The Port of Charleston is the fourth largest container port in the United States. Along its docks are parking lots packed with brand new BMWs on their way around the world. Mountains of containers waiting to be hauled to Singapore and Liverpool line the Cooper River waterfront.
Charleston’s cultural roots are as diverse as the home ports of her modern day tourists. Charleston exists as a mixed tribute to her early English, Irish, French, Spanish, German, Swiss, Santo Domingan, African, American Indian and Caribbean connections.
The early settlers were English and Irish. Adventurers sailed up what would become Charleston Harbor, past piles of bleached oyster shells at the tip of the peninsula, and then headed up the Ashley River to a high bank they called Albemarle Point. They named their settlement Charles Towne for King Charles II. A decade later, the lure of the pretty shellfish remnants and the safety element of a prominent vantage point drew the Charles Towne colonists back to the peninsula to build a new and permanent settlement between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. British plans for the development of the colony were called the Grand Modell and were sent over to guide development of 600 prime acres into a proper town.
The Spanish and the French were early threats, but Charles Towne withstood their advances and became the capital of the Province of Carolina. An aristocratic society evolved, and slipped easily into its Golden Age in the 18th century. Rice was king and Charleston was the busiest seaport south of Philadelphia.
The Revolutionary and Civil Wars resulted in Charleston’s occupation by two enemy forces. Many Charlestonians were forced to suffer, with rumpled dignity the humiliation during these enemy occupations. Colonists resisted bombardment and rose to provide the patriots’ first victory in their war for independence. Then once again, as Confederates, the citizenry rallied to overtake Fort Sumter, only to fall at the end and hear the drumbeat of Sherman’s army as it destroyed so much of the wealth that had been built.
Certainly all was not bleak as the century unfolded. Between the periods of tribulation, the city was renamed Charleston and experienced an incredible building boom. Also, the wagon trade on upper King Street was an important outgrowth of the cotton and tobacco industries, and preempted the retail stores that make up our present day shopping district.
Fire, earthquake, hurricane, yellow fever epidemic and even the boll weevil have threatened Charlestonians’ health and economic stability. But nothing crippled their spirit. There was a silver lining in that cloud of financial hard times. Those buildings, which our ancestors could not afford to replace in the name of progress at the turn of this century escaped the fate of structures in more affluent communities.
Today, Charleston’s collection of historically significant architecture attracts tourists from around the world.