Today we are featuring, Michael Trouche, a 7th-generation Charleston native who operates Charleston Footprints Walking Tours, and has written two books on the city – The Charm of Charleston and Charleston Yesterday and Today.
Maps of Charleston from the 17th and 18th centuries show a much different land mass than exists in the city today. The western half of the peninsula was originally a forbidding maze of tidal creeks, marsh and mudflat that early settlers avoided due to the swarms of mosquitoes. The first use of these wind-swept wetlands along the Ashley River came in the form of jails, public burial grounds, and powder magazines that were kept a safe distance from the heavily-populated eastern peninsula and busy wharves that faced the sea.
Commercial enterprise would set changed in motion by the late 1700’s, as rice and lumber mills were built and powered by a geography-altering system of impoundments that produced water power in the age before steam. Huge mill ponds trapped water that flowed through successively smaller pipes to create force that pushed sawing and winnowing machines, and towering windmills were added to take advantage of the prevailing westerly river breezes.
Rice and timber brought staggering wealth that beckoned entrepreneurship, and by the early 1800’s, the suburbs of Cannonborough, Harleston Village and Cannonborough literally began to grow with “made land” that was filled with anything from animal carcasses to rice husks. With mosquitoes reduced by filling marshes, land along the windy Ashley River became more appealing, and wealthy planters began to build houses in a variety of elaborate styles. By the turn of the 20th century, the western peninsula had doubled in land mass and was mostly residential, a mix of historic homes, remnants of the mill industry, and a few gloomy reminders of its more notorious past.
Unlike the older eastern section of Charleston, which lost many original structures to fire, warfare and urban renewal, there are streets in the western peninsula that have changed very little, and offer majestic historic houses along sidewalks that are far less crowded with tourists. Among the notable locations are the 1857 Isaac Jenkins Mikell house, whose grand piazza is highlighted by rare “tower-of-the-winds” capitals; the 1887 Wentworth Mansion is now an inn that boasts 14,000 square feet and a rooftop cupola that has the best views in the city; the 1802 District Jail is built in castellated style and is open for tours; the 1859 West Point Mill once was the largest rice mill in the world and now overlooks the city’s Ashley Marina, and Colonial Lake is a former rice mill pond that was made into an enjoyable public park ringed with blooming azaleas and oleanders.
A nice half-day itinerary of the western boroughs begins with breakfast overlooking the Ashley River at the Variety Store restaurant in the city marina, where the cook’s tradition was to mark the vernal and autumnal equinox by eggs that would stand on end. By foot, bike or car, go down Montagu Street to the dazzling Gaillard-Bennett house, built in 1800 in Federal style T-shaped plan that allowed all rooms to be exposed to river breezes. Although private, the house’s topiary garden is easily visible from the sidewalk and is spectacular with color and shape. Along Rutledge Avenue, the mostly antebellum houses are amazing with elaborate detail, such as the Hirsch house, where the window is carved in the shape of a stag, which is the German translation of the family name.
The name Bull is a street noted for its grandeur, most notably the 1800 Blacklocke House which is very popular as a wedding reception venue. Wandering over to George Street, young faces dominate one of America’s oldest campuses at the College of Charleston, where famed Randolph Hall was used in the memorable independence scene of the movie “The Patriot”. Up Coming Street, the 1815 Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul was nicknamed the “planter’s church” for those who built summer mansions near the Ashley, and its tower bells are rung by hand every Sunday morning in a gloriously appealing peal. Turning on Radcliffe Street takes visitors past Ashley Hall School, whose main building is an 1815 Regency-style mansion once owned by Charleston duelist and blockade runner George Trenholm, the man Margaret Mitchell patterned her character Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind”.
If walking or biking, turn back down Rutledge Avenue past stately Cannon Park for a spot of refreshment at the Bull Street Gourmet, converted from a 19th century corner grocery as a delightful deli. If driving, go up Ashley Avenue to Hampton Park, which was created from grounds used for thoroughbred racing before the Civil War. The 60-acre park is Charleston’s largest and borders The Citadel, South Carolina’s historic military academy. The Citadel grounds are open to the public daily and the campus is beautifully laid out on grounds that were originally used during the 18th century for cavalry training. One of Charleston’s most enjoyable spectacles is the Friday afternoon parade on Summerall Field, where bands play and the ranks of cadets march as they have since 1843. The parade schedule can be found at www.citadel.edu/root/parade-schedule
If you are looking for things to do in Charleston SC, you should make sure to check out TripAdvisor.