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The Destruction and Renewal of Charleston’s Street Trees, 1837–1865
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Civic improvements like street paving and drainage upgrades sometimes require us to accept a few temporary hardships in order to enjoy future benefits. Such projects are often accompanied by conversations with our neighbors and public representatives about how the world of tomorrow should look and feel. That’s exactly what happened in mid-nineteenth-century Charleston, when the city government sacrificed a forest of street trees in the name of civic progress. That loss triggered a long debate about the value of urban trees, and the role of local government in nurturing the health and comfort of its constituents.
Let’s begin with a brief recap of last week’s program. Beginning in the year 1750, South Carolina’s provincial government encouraged the private citizens of Charles Town to plant trees in the public streets in front of their houses. The newly-created Commissioners of Streets superintended the town’s growing tree canopy, and their efforts were continued by the City Council of incorporated Charleston in 1783. The new municipal government continued this tradition of passive encouragement of street-tree-planting into the early nineteenth century. By the early 1800s, several historical sources tell us, most of the streets of Charleston were shaded by a number of different types of trees. By the early 1830s, the most common street trees in the city were two Asian species, the Pride of India tree and the “male” or “paper” mulberry. During the late 1830s, however, a necessary campaign to improve the city’s basic infrastructure led to the devastation of its urban treescape.
Charleston’s municipal government experienced a significant growth spurt in the autumn of 1836. The most visible aspect of this episode was the change from a part-time intendant to a full-time mayor (see Episode No. 130). More generally, the city government took a big step towards becoming the pro-active entity that we take for granted today. One manifestation of this maturation was the creation of a new standing committee, called the “Committee on City Improvements.” The most obvious and enduring legacy of this new committee was the creation of the city’s first municipal park, named White Point Garden in 1838. Prior to setting aside that valuable real estate for public use, however, City Council initiated another large project that has been long forgotten. In the autumn of 1837, the city launched a sustained campaign to regrade the principal streets in accordance with the latest engineering standards. Owing to the historic profile of the city’s streets and drains, that work required the destruction of most of Charleston’s street trees.
Since the 1730s, when South Carolina’s provincial government first began to construct underground street drains in urban Charleston, the drains had been laid in the centers of the streets, and the streets were graded in a concave manner to channel rainwater to iron grates laid in the center channels of the streets. In March 1837, Charleston’s City Council appointed a new board of commissioners to radically reshape the urban streets, and in late August of the same year ratified an ordinance that put their work in motion. Beginning with the city’s principal streets in the autumn of 1837 and continuing eventually to all the smaller lanes and alleys, the commissioners began to regrade the streets “in a convex form, rising gradually from the sides to the centre.” The old center drains and grates were replaced by gutters and grates on the sides of the streets, adjacent to the sidewalks. Because the street trees of early Charleston stood along the periphery of the streets, rather than in the sidewalks, the new grading and drainage campaign would inevitably require the removal of most, if not all of the street trees. Accordingly, the city ordinance of August 1837 empowered the commissioners to cut down or remove any street tree “whenever they shall deem it necessary to the public health or the improvement of the city.”
Between the autumn of 1837 and the summer of 1838, contractors working for the city government removed hundreds of trees from the principal streets of Charleston, including East Bay, Broad, Meeting, and King Streets. The exact number and variety of trees cut down during this episode was never recorded, but numerous complaints addressed to local newspaper editors in the aftermath of the cutting campaign suggest that the Palmetto City had suddenly become a rather bald city. A small number of citizens were pleased to see the deciduous street trees disappear because they subscribed the theory that rotting leaves produced a poisonous “miasma” that corrupted the air every autumn. The majority of the inhabitants lamented the mass tree removal, however, for a variety of reasons. The discovery of photosynthesis in the late eighteenth century had proven that trees were instrumental in the production of healthful oxygen, and their noble presence beautified the city’s sandy streets. At the very least, the street trees had provided welcome shade during the long warm seasons of the year. “It occurs to me,” said one correspondent, “that the cutting down the trees in our streets was about as suicidal an act as we could well have performed.”
Charleston’s city government might have planned to replace the street trees felled during the street grading campaign of 1837–38, but the advent of a national financial crisis precluded any such work. The Panic of 1837, as it was called, precipitated an economic depression that lasted into the mid-1840s. During that time, Charleston’s municipal government scaled-back or shelved its grand plans to beautify the city and spent several years tightening its financial belt. The original grand plan for White Point Garden, for example, was greatly reduced. In the meantime, City Council continued to encourage citizens to plant trees in front of their own houses, as local government had done since 1750. Such encouragement included a new qualification, however. The street-grading ordinance of August 1837, which initiated the mass tree removal, also limited the choice of replacement trees. Citizens could replant any variety of tree they desired, except the Pride of India tree and the “male” or “paper” mulberry. These two Asian species, which dominated the streets of Charleston before 1837, were now banished and deemed unlawful.
In July 1839, City Council directed its Committee on City Improvements “to investigate and report on the expediency of having trees of a certain description planted in the improved streets.” The committee reported back in August with a balanced assessment of the facts. “Although it may have been necessary, in order to make the important improvements in the streets, to destroy the trees, yet serious inconveniences have subsequently been felt by the citizens from the want of them.” The trees formerly cooled the sidewalks in hot weather, and they absorbed impure air and produced healthful oxygen. On the other hand, the tree canopies obscured the street lamps at night; their leaf litter created extra work for city scavengers or trash collectors; and autumnal gales often felled them, causing damage to the sidewalks. Weighing the pros and cons, however, the Committee on City Improvements came to the following conclusion:
“The committee feel persuaded that the citizens of Charleston will not be deterred from planting ornamental and shady trees, from the little expense which may arise to them. If the City Council were to undertake the replanting of trees, the expense would be enormous, and it was deemed better that the owners of lots should have the choice of trees they should place before their residences, and superintend the same at their own expense, than that it should be at the expense, and under the superintendance of the city.”
Accordingly, the City Council ratified another ordinance in August 1839 to encourage private tree planting in the public streets. The law’s preamble acknowledged that “the citizens of Charleston, in many instances, suffer great inconvenience in their residences, and in their daily occupation, from the want of trees in the streets.” Henceforth, property owners were allowed to plant trees “on the edge of any foot pavement, in any street, lane, alley or open court, in front of any such house or lot,” under certain restrictions. Such plantings had to be authorized by the clerk of the Board of Streets and Lamps, who would “assign the distance and place thereof.” Citizens could plant any variety of trees except the “male” or “paper” mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera). The Pride of India tree, once an urban favorite, was either too passé to mention or its reputation had been rehabilitated. Like earlier tree laws in urban Charleston dating back to 1750, the 1839 ordinance reserved to the city the right to remove any non-conforming trees and to prosecute anyone causing damage to the street trees or their protective boxes.
Despite the municipal government’s persistently passive position on this topic, citizens continued to pressure City Council to take a more active role in greening the city’s streets. In late December 1842, Council attempted to placate their constituents by appointing a committee “to inquire into the expediency of planting shade trees in the city.” The committee never made a report or recommendations, however, and nothing was done. Again, in December 1843, the city appointed another committee for the same purpose. At the same time, Mayor John Schnierle consulted with a local intellectual in search of expert horticultural advice. If the city were to undertake a tree-planting campaign, the mayor asked, what types of trees should be planted in the streets of Charleston?
Mayor Schnierle’s learned friend obliged with a lengthy essay about shade trees, which the mayor handed to the local newspaper for publication in January 1844. In his introduction to the essay, Schnierle explained that he had asked his “esteemed friend to give the public the benefit of his experience and observation; fortified as you will perceive, by that character of patient thought and scientific research, to which he is so eminently entitled.” The printed text did not include the author’s full name, but identified him with just a single letter: “B.” This was probably the Reverend Dr. John Bachman, an avid naturalist and Lutheran minister at St. John’s Church in Archdale Street. His essay opened with a brief prelude worth reciting:
“A few years ago, the rage for improvements ran so high, that the trees which ornamented our streets and served to cool our pavements during our hot summers, were all indiscriminately consigned to destruction. Having formerly used my efforts in vain to preserve them, I have waited patiently till the great teacher, experience, should prepare the way for their being re-planted. The time, I think, has now arrived when our citizens in general are once more in favor of having our streets lined with shade trees, as I perceive a number have recently been planted in every part of the city. Among these, however, I regret to see several kinds which past experience has proved not to answer the desired purpose. I propose briefly to point out the objections that may be advanced against most of the species of shade trees hitherto planted in our streets, and to recommend such as experience has shown are better adapted to our soil and locality.”
The remainder of “B”’s essay describes the characteristics of twenty-five species divided into two categories—“objectionable trees” and “recommended” trees. The objectionable trees included species that could already be found in the city, including the paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), Pride of India (Melia azadarach), wild orange or Carolina cherry (Prunus carolinensis), red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), holly (Ilex opaca), “whohoo” or winged elm (Ulumus alata), locust (Robinia pseudoaccacia), catalpa (Catalpa syringifolia), pine, live oak, magnolia grandiflora, and any other evergreens. “In our moist and warm climate we require shade in summer,” said “B,” “but in winter our streets are benefitted by the continued effects of air and sun, and therefore in all cases I prefer deciduous to evergreen trees.”
The author “B” then described thirteen recommended species, many of which were already present in the city, in order of preference: American elm (Ulmus americana), the Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus glandulosa, aka Ailanthus altissima), water oaks (Quercus aquatica and Q. laurifolia), ash-leaved maple or box elder (Negundo accroides), Irish poplar (Populous alba), cotton wood tree (Populus angulata), sycamore or buttonwood tree (Plantanus occidentalis), red bay (Lauras carolinensis; probably meaning Persea borbonia), red maple (Acer rubrum), varnish tree (no scientific name given), sugarberry or hackberry tree (Celtis occidentalis), Abyssinia (Albizia julibrissin), and French tamarisk (Tamarix gallica). Whichever of these trees the city or its citizens chose to plant, “B” recommended placing them 25 to 30 feet apart along the edges of Charleston’s streets.
In February 1844, the city’s recently-appointed Committee on Shade Trees responded to “B”’s essay with a long review of the benefits of street trees in general. In 1795, the Medical Society of South Carolina had advised the planting of more trees to improve the city’s health, and Dr. David Ramsay had echoed that advice in his History of South Carolina in 1809. Since that time, scores of other scientists had advocated the role of trees in promoting urban health. In light of such recommendations, and “B”’s very specific advice, the committee reported to City Council “that it would be expedient to cultivate trees in our city as extensively as practicable.” Such work would require a “large outlay of money,” however, and the city was simply unable to meet the necessary expense at that time. The committee therefore recommended to the mayor, “that you plant trees at the public expense, in front of all the city institutions; and to such an extent in the Battery garden as a Committee of Council, to be appointed, may determine.”
Two years later, in the late winter of 1846, correspondents to the local newspapers reported that the people of Charleston had made some progress towards the greening of the city streets. “But there is still time and room for much more to be done,” said one tree advocate, while another urged fellow citizens to “‘put their shoulders to the wheel’ about the matter.” Rather than dictating the preferred species, an anonymous writer invited home owners to follow their fancy. “We would . . . prefer that each individual should consult his own taste, and have such [a] favorite tree placed in his vicinity as suits the situation, and as variety is said to be charming, we should not only have an opportunity of testing the fact, but also of knowing the most becoming ornamental trees to our particular streets and suburbs. Things now look very bare indeed, and vigorous efforts ought to be made to prepare for the approaching warm season.”
A further two years later, in 1848, the city-wide conversation about street trees continued to occupy the minds of professionals concerned with issues of public health in urban Charleston. Charles Parker, who held the title of City Surveyor (engineer), for example, responded to queries from the city’s Board of Health by publishing a pamphlet titled Essays on Reflected Heat in Cities, Shading by Trees, Sidewalks, and Carriage Ways. Parker, like many of his contemporaries, lamented the loss of the city’s tree canopy in the street-improvement scheme of the late 1830s. In the aftermath of that loss, he observed, an increase in reflected sunlight had rendered the streets and buildings of Charleston hotter and more uncomfortable. The street trees had cooled the streets, pedestrians, and their homes and business. “To produce the greatest counteracting effect on reflection,” said Parker, street trees “should be, not only planted, but cultivated.” That is to say, they should be rationally selected and shaped to maximize the production of shade.
“To effect this object, said Parker, “the white elm [Ulmus americana] is best adapted.” He explained that tall, upright trees like the American elm produced a great deal of shade for pedestrians and rooftops and were less likely to be toppled by autumnal gales. Tall, umbrageous trees stripped of lower branches promoted beneficial air circulation, while shorter trees interfered with windows and tended to foster puddles on street surfaces. “In wide streets, such as East-Bay, Broad, Meeting and Wentworth,” said Parker, “trees should be grown on both sides. In narrower streets, running north and south, a single row on the west side will suffice and answer better than two; and in those running east and west, a single row on the north side would prove most useful.”
After reviewing the scientific evidence supporting the usefulness of trees in general, Parker concluded his essay with several recommendations. “Trees should be planted and cultivated by our public authorities throughout the principle streets; and that this very important business should not be left to individuals, who may indulge their taste in a variety of trees, ill adapted to the purpose.” He heartily endorsed the white or American elm as “the best adapted for shading the streets of cities,” but noted that the sycamore would make a fine companion for the sake of variety. “Meeting street studded with the elm,” said Parker, “and Broad with the sycamore, would enhance each other.” “The public have come to the conclusion,” he wrote “that trees are necessary. With a proper system, in a short time, we may have stately majestic ones, that would be useful and ornamental; otherwise the streets will be encumbered with a variety of, comparatively, useless shrubs. It may be advisable to make it unlawful for individuals to plant any other trees than white elms in the streets.”
Citing Charles Parker’s essay on shade trees in December 1848, the Charleston Board of Health once again urged the city government to take a more active role in planting street trees. They recalled that the Pride of India tree and the male mulberry had once been the most common street trees in the city, but those trees were now deemed problematic for various reasons. Since the great tree removal of 1837, “many citizens have, in different parts of the city, planted trees,” but the Board of Health advised in future that “trees could be more uniformly planted, especially in the larger streets.” Quoting from the advice offered by “B” in 1844, the board recommended “‘that the varieties of the oak, not evergreens, the elm, the varnish tree, and the Tree of Heaven, be planted at the sides of the pavements [that is, along the edges of the carriageways], not exceeding 40 feet apart.’ By this plan, it will be observed, that the streets will have the full advantage of the sun in winter and the shade in summer.”
In late December 1848, the city adopted the recommendations of the Board of Health and resolved “that white elm trees be planted in Meeting st. from Boundary-street to South Bay st., and that elm trees [not sycamore, as first proposed] be planted in Broad-st. the whole length; in such places in each street as other trees are not now planted, at not more than forty feet apart, at the expense of the city; and that the Mayor be authorized to advertise for contracts to plant said trees of good size; the growth of the same warranted; to have each tree properly boxed in, and that the work be done immediately under the superintendence of the Inspector of Streets.”
In accordance with Council’s resolution, Mayor T. Leger Hutchinson placed a notice in the local newspapers in January 1849, soliciting bids from contractors willing to plant an unspecified number of white elm trees, “of a good size,” in Meeting and Broad Streets. Paper records documenting this work disappeared in 1865, along with most of the records of Charleston’s City Council (see Episode No. 79), but a few acorns of data survive. In early 1850, and again in 1852, for example, Thomas M. Howard petitioned City Council to be paid, “in respect to his contract for the planting of trees throughout the city.”
While we cannot learn the details of Mr. Howard’s tree-planting work in the early 1850s, we can perhaps discern evidence of it in the earliest surviving photographs of the streets of Charleston. Consider, for example, the images captured by photographers accompanying the first Federal troops to enter Charleston in the spring of 1865. Those often-reproduced photos, captured on glass-plate negatives, offer crisp details of damaged buildings, empty streets, and many noteworthy trees. Consider the row of young trees standing on the west side of Meeting Street, opposite the hall of the South Carolina Society, the adolescent trees shading the south and west sides of City Hall, the tall trees on the north side of South Battery Street, and many others. At least some of these trees photographed in 1865 were likely the American elms planted by Thomas M. Howard in the early 1850s.
I’d like to end today’s program with a brief summary of the past two programs and a preview of next year’s Arbor Day essay. The civic leaders of eighteenth-century Charleston began encouraging citizens to plant trees along the edges of urban streets in the 1750s, and began protecting and valuing those trees in the 1780s. By the mid-1790s, Charlestonians knew that trees were both beautiful and beneficial to human health, and the city’s endorsement of street trees increased. The city’s passive reliance on private planting in the public streets led to the growth of a tree canopy dominated by imported species favored more as cosmopolitan curiosities than for practical considerations.
In the aftermath of a mass tree removal in the late 1830s, the people of Charleston agreed that street trees were desirable and even necessary, but disagreed on other points. Many argued that the municipal government should be responsible for both planting and nurturing the trees, but the cash-strapped City Council was reluctant to take a leading role in such work. To promote the rapid renewal of the city’s street trees in the 1840s, some advocates encouraged citizens to plant whatever variety of tree struck their fancy, as long as they planted something. By 1849, and into the early 1850s, the city government resolved to take a more active role in greening the streets, and adopted the American elm as its tree of choice.
Charleston was not alone in this mid-nineteenth-century tree narrative. Tall, native, deciduous trees, including elms, poplars, oaks, and sycamores, dominated the streetscapes of many municipalities across South Carolina and beyond during the second half of the nineteenth century. But the streets of urban Charleston are now largely devoid of such majestic, umbrageous trees. In their place, we see lower species like crepe myrtles, palmettos, Chinese elms, and a handful of live oaks and magnolias. This arboreal evolution was driven by two factors that we’ll discuss in future programs—the rise of modern utility poles with overhead wires, and the marketing of Charleston as a distinctly “Southern” city draped with picturesque foliage to attract Northern tourists. In the meantime, I encourage you participate in an old Charleston tradition during this cool season of the year: plant a tree and make our community a little greener.
 See “An Ordinance establishing a board for levelling and filling up the streets, and keeping the same in order,” ratified on 3 March 1837, and “An ordinance to amend the law on the subject of drains, pavements, side walks, and leveling and keeping the public streets in order, and concerning trees in said streets,” 29 August 1837, in George B. Eckhard, compiler, A Digest of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Year 1783 to October 1844 (Charleston, S.C.: Walker & Burke, 1844), 61, 259.
 The work of street grading and tree removal spread slowly to the smaller streets. In the spring of 1840, for example, citizens in Tradd Street petitioned City Council to leave the part of the street’s concave profile and thus preserve some of the trees. See proceedings of City Council, 31 March 1840, in Charleston Courier, 3 April 1840.
 See, for example, Charleston Mercury, 17 October 1837, page 2, “Destruction of our Walks”; Courier, 25 July 1839, page 2, “For the Courier”; Southern Patriot, 27 July 1839, page 2, “For the Southern Patriot”; Courier, 29 July 1839, page 2, “For the Courier”; Samuel Gaillard Stoney, ed., “The Memoirs of Frederick Adolphus Porcher,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 47 (April 1946): 84. For an overview of the clashing concerns of civic improvement and public health during this era, see Christina Rae Butler, Lowcountry At High Tide: A History of Flooding, Drainage, and Reclamation in Charleston, South Carolina (Columbia, S.C. University of South Carolina Press, 2020), 60–63.
 Eckhard, A Digest of the Ordinances, 1783–1844, 61.
 Proceedings of City Council, 16 July 1839, printed in Courier, 19 July 1839; City Council proceedings, 12 August 1839, printed in Courier, 14 August 1839, page 2.
 “An ordinance to permit trees to be planted in the streets under the restrictions therein provided,” ratified on 26 August 1839, in Eckhard, A Digest of the Ordinances, 1783–1844, 291.
 Proceedings of City Council, December 28, in Courier, 30 December 1842; Proceedings of City Council, 18 December, in Mercury, 20 December 1843.
 Courier, 13 January 1844, page 2, “Mayor’s Office, Jan. 11, 1844.”
 Proceedings of City Council, 5 February 1844, printed in [Charleston] Southern Patriot, 6 February 1844, page 2.
 Courier, 11 February 1846; Southern Patriot, 13 February 1846.
 Charles Parker, Essays on Reflected Heat in Cities, Shading by Trees, Sidewalks, and Carriage Ways (Charleston, S.C.: Walker and Burke, 1848), 8–19. My thanks to Virginia Ellison at the South Carolina Historical Society for helping me access this pamphlet in the society’s collections.
 Proceedings of City Council, 12 December 1848, printed in Courier, 14 December 1848.
 Proceedings of City Council, 29 December 1848, printed in Mercury, 1 January 1849.
 See the mayor’s request for tree estimates in Courier, 1 January 1849, page 3.
 City Council proceedings, 7 February 1850, in Courier, 9 February 1850; City Council proceedings, 27 January 1852, in Courier, 30 January 1852.