Charleston Time Machine
About Charleston Time Machine
The Charleston Time Machine is an imaginary time-travel device created by historian Dr. Nic Butler. It uses stories and facts from the rich, deep, colorful history of Charleston, South Carolina, as a means to educate, inspire, amuse, and even amaze the minds of our community. By exploring the stories of our shared past, we can better understand our present world and plan more effectively for the future.
The Charleston Time Machine is piloted by Nic Butler, Ph.D., an interdisciplinary historian with an infectious enthusiasm for Charleston’s colorful past. A native of Greenville County, South Carolina, Dr. Butler attended the University of South Carolina before completing a Ph.D. in musicology at Indiana University. He has worked as archivist of the South Carolina Historical Society, as an adjunct faculty member at the College of Charleston, and as an historical consultant for the City of Charleston.
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Recent Trips in Charleston's History
Americans love novels and movies that portray detectives following a trail of clues to solve a crime. In our community, the City of Charleston hired its first plainclothes detectives in 1856, during the era of slavery, but a handful of Black detectives joined the force shortly after the Civil War. On February 10th, Charleston Time Machine will explore the brief careers of the city’s first Black detectives and the political forces that ended their employment.
If you’ve ever walked along the east side of East Bay Street in the heart of Charleston, you’ve stood atop a forgotten brick wall that once defined the city’s waterfront. This half-mile-long “wharf wall” or “curtain line” commenced in the 1690s to separate the street from the harbor, but it quickly evolved into a defensive fortification. Damaged by a series of hurricanes in the early 1700s, it was substantially rebuilt several times and finally leveled after the American Revolution. We’ll trace the rise and fall of Charleston’s eastern curtain wall and follow its path below the modern streetscape.
Can you imagine Savannah Highway as a narrow toll road traversing a patchwork of rural plantations? The present broad ribbon of asphalt covers a modest country path created more than two centuries ago by a private corporation. Its purpose was to funnel agricultural goods, animals, and people from the hinterland to markets in urban Charleston, across the first bridge connecting the city to the Parish of St. Andrew. In this episode of Charleston Time Machine, we’ll explore the commercial roots of a nine-mile path that evolved into a vital transportation corridor.
During the era of legal slavery in the United States, most people living in bondage enjoyed a brief respite at Christmas. Their holidays often included celebratory meals, music, and dancing, sometimes in company with their White neighbors. This seasonal liberty also generated great anxiety, however: Slaveowners dreaded Yuletide acts of resistance against their authority, while enslaved people feared violent rebukes of their festive joy. Conversations about the history of Christmas in the South benefit from an honest appraisal of the holiday’s troubled past.
Long before the rise of the present municipality, a group of capitalists coined the phrase “North Charleston” in 1912 to describe a bold development scheme on the west bank of the Cooper River. The heart of the proposed, 6,000-acre city was an upscale segregated community called Pinewood Park, nestled within a circular array of broad streets and verdant lots. Economic gloom eventually crushed the corporate scheme, but the footprint of the circular neighborhood survived and evolved into the modern community called Park Circle.
How did a maritime forest between the rivers Ashley and Cooper become the urban streetscape we call Charleston? The spark of this long transformation occurred in 1672, when South Carolina’s Surveyor General drew a plan for a town on the verdant peninsula called Oyster Point. Although John Culpeper’s “model” of the town was imperfectly inscribed on the forested landscape, the grid of streets and lots created 350 years ago framed the growth of Charleston and continue to shape the way residents and visitors experience the Palmetto City in the twenty-first century.
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