Sinkhole on East Bay Street, credit Charleston Water System
Friday, September 29, 2017 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

One of the most dramatic local effects wrought by the recent passing of Hurricane Irma was the opening of a large sinkhole on East Bay Street. According to the good folks at Charleston Water Systems (CWS), a main water pipe measuring ten inches in diameter burst under the street in front of the brick building at 215 East Bay Street, and the gushing water carved away the soil and caused the asphalt surface to collapse.

Weather conditions prevented CWS from repairing the damage until after the storm passed, by which time lots of people, including the local media, had an opportunity to view the gaping hole in the middle of the busy street.  Almost immediately, I began hearing from people who wondered if the location of the sinkhole and the collapse of the roadway might be related to some historical phenomenon at this site.  More specifically, did this spot collapse during the storm because it was once an old creek bed, or perhaps part of the city’s colonial fortifications?  After looking over my research notes and consulting a number of old plats, I think I’m ready to answer that question.

The location of the recent sinkhole in front of 215 East Bay Street is not directly related to the old creek that became Market Street two hundred years ago, nor is it directly related to the colonial-era fortification called Craven Bastion on the opposite side of the street.  Rather, the recent sinkhole occurred on natural high ground (or at least a relatively high spot) that may have been the southern end of an old feature called Governor’s Bridge. 

Not familiar with the story of Governor’s Bridge?  Give me a few minutes of your time and I’ll bring you up to speed.

In the spring of 1680 Sir Peter Colleton received a grant for a nine-acre parcel of land in urban Charleston known as Lot No. 80.  The area we now call Market Street occupies most, but not all of Lot No. 80, also known as Colleton Square, which was once home to a tidal creek and swamp.  In the early days of Charleston this creek was commonly called Daniel’s Creek because Robert Daniel owned the property immediately to the south.  Daniel didn’t own the creek or even its banks, however, so I’ll avoid using that misleading name for the present conversation.  Sir Peter Colleton’s nine-acre lot originally stretched from the modern site of the Market Pavillion Hotel (225 East Bay Street) northward to Pinckney Street, and from the Cooper River westward to Meeting Street.  Colleton never improved the site, and decades later it passed through several heirs and into the hands of John Colleton of Fairlawn Barony.

In the summer of 1736, John Colleton sold all of Lot No. 80 to a trio of investors in Charleston: George Hunter, Thomas Ellery, and Charles Pinckney.  At that time, Colleton Square was just a vacant marsh located between the heart of the town, to the south, and Trott’s Point to the north, around what is now Hasell and Wentworth Streets.  In the years after they acquired the nine-acre lot, Hunter, Ellery, and Pinckney subdivided the property into dozens of smaller lots located on either side of a tidal creek that they planned to convert into a navigable canal.  To facilitate access to the new lots, the investors laid out new streets (including Hunter, Ellery, and Pinckney Streets) and constructed a wooden bridge in East Bay Street over the east end of the creek, adjacent to Craven Bastion (now the site of the U.S. Customs House).  In the spring of 1743 George Hunter and Charles Pinckney offered to cede the bridge to the government as a public thoroughfare in exchange for funds to improve the bridge.  The South Carolina legislature approved the measure by a law passed in May of 1744, and the development of East Bay Street soon began to creep northward, into a new neighborhood that became known as Ansonborough.

Over the next twenty-odd years, our provincial legislature was slow to appropriate funds for the repair and improvement of the wooden bridge across Colleton Square, and lots of people in the neighborhood complained about the government’s lack of action.  Finally, in mid-April 1767, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified an act “for building a Bridge and Causey [causeway] at the North end of the Bay of Charlestown.”  In the preamble to this act, the text recognized the great need for a bridge “to lead over a creek near Craven’s bastion, to the north parts of the said town,” and empowered commissioners to hire contractors “without delay.”  The law even specified the dimensions of the bridge:

“a substantial brick bridge and causey [causeway], to be cased on each side with brick or stone, and filled up with earth, of the width of twenty-two feet in the clear, with a sufficient and secure foot path, well posted in, on one side thereof, and having a proper brick arch under the same.”

Governor’s Bridge, as surveyed in 1788 and published in 1790 in the “Ichnography of Charleston.” The approximate site of the 2017 sinkhole is marked with a red circle (not to scale).

Days later, in early May 1767, the commissioners of Charleston’s streets published a request for building proposals in the South Carolina Gazette, using the descriptive language borrowed from the recent statute.  At a board meeting in early November, the commissioners selected bricklayers Timothy Crosby and Anthony Toomer for the job.  In early September 1768, Peter Timothy of Charleston informed his Philadelphia friend, Benjamin Franklin, that “a Stone Bridge at the North End of the Town is completed.”

The 1768 stone bridge, probably made of locally made bricks and a bit of Bermuda stone, was one of several public building projects approved during the administration of South Carolina’s penultimate Royal Governor, Lord Charles Greville Montagu.  Soon after its construction, the bridge became known as Governor’s Bridge.  Robert Raper, the namesake of Charleston’s unfortunately named Raper’s Alley, used that name in August 1770, when he advertised to sell a small sailboat, “as he can no longer get her through the Arch of the Bridge commonly called the Governor’s, both sides whereof are considerably sunk, but especially the Westernmost, which is already two Feet two Inches lower than the Easternmost.”

Raper’s brief 1770 description tells us two important things about the bridge.  First, it was built on unstable ground, and second, that the bridge featured a central arch that was probably flanked by earthen causeways.  Repairs were not made until after the American Revolution, however, by which time the newly incorporated City Council of Charleston became responsible for the maintenance of the bridge and adjoining streets.

In late March of 1788, the City of Charleston signed an agreement with the heirs and assigns of George Hunter, Thomas Ellery, and Charles Pinckney, who donated a wet, marshy swath of Colleton Square for the creation of a large city market place.  From that time through the year 1810, the City of Charleston began gradually filling the creek in an effort to create Market Street.  They began filling at the western end of the property, between Meeting and Church Streets, and slowly worked their way east to the Governor’s Bridge.  In the meantime, the city undertook major repairs to the bridge in the mid-1790s and again as late as 1803.

The creation of Market Street out of the creek that once bisected Colleton Square occurred slowly, in stages, during which time the Pinckney family ceded additional bits of property around Governor’s Bridge to help the city widen East Bay Street.  Fortunately for us, in October 1801 surveyor Joseph Purcell created a wonderful plat of the bridge and parts of the adjacent street that helps us visualize the scene.

A view of Governor’s Bridge (center) from a 1788 plat accompanying the city’s deed to the lands forming Market Street. The approximate site of the 2017 sinkhole is marked with a red circle (not to scale).

Between Craven Bastion (now the U.S. Customs House) on the south, and Ellery Street (now part of North Market Street) on the north, the plat shows that Governor’s Bridge was 250 feet long on the east side and 285 feet long on the west side.  Its total width was 25 feet, but the width of the street was 22 feet, as specified in the 1767 act commissioning the bridge.  The plat shows “Canal Street” running under the center of the bridge, forty feet wide to the west of the bridge and sixty feet wide to the east of the bridge.  Two projecting points are shown each side of the center of the bridge–two to the east and two to the west.  These points probably represent the edges of the brick or stone arch that was ordered in 1767 to be built over the creek.  On the north and south sides of Canal Street is a large “Shoal and mud flat” that is “dry at low water.” Based on this illustration, and the text of the 1767 law commissioning the bridge, we see that Governor’s Bridge was really more of a long causeway over a mud flat, with a low, central arch spanning a forty-foot-wide creek.

The “Centre Market” in Market Street formally opened in August 1807, but the city had not yet finished filling the creek.  In 1805 the city paid the Horlbeck Brothers for building a brick drain through the center of Market Street, and probably connecting it to the brick arch in the center of the west side of Governor’s Bridge.  In advertisements published in August 1809 and April 1810, the city sought to hire any persons “willing to Contract for filling up and paving the Market near the Governor’s Bridge, with such materials (wood excepted) as can be paved on, in a firm and permanent manner.”  By the end of 1810, it seems that Governor’s Bridge had disappeared.

Notice that I did not say that Governor’s Bridge was dismantled.  After years of searching, I have found no documentary evidence that the city destroyed or removed the bridge.  Rather, I believe it’s more likely that the city filled up to and paved over the bridge. Once the creek forming Canal Street and the low ground to the east and west of the bridge had been completely filled, the earthen road surface of the old bridge was probably flush with the surrounding grounds.  In 1767 the bridge was to be “cased on each side with brick or stone,” but those “side rails” were probably knocked down to street level and paved over in the early 1800s.

According to Purcell’s plat of the intersection of Governor’s Bridge and East Bay Street, the 1801 plan was to widen East Bay Street between Craven Bastion and Ellery Street from 22 feet to 42 feet.  If you’ve ever driven through the intersection of Market Street and East Bay Street, you’ll recall that the road becomes a rather narrow bottleneck at that point, and makes a rather awkward bend to boot.  Why is that?  It’s because you’re passing over the (widened) remnants of Governor’s Bridge.  Imagine how unsettling it must have been to pass over the bridge before the street was widened.

So what does all of this history have to do with the sinkhole that appeared in East Bay Street on the 10th of September 2017?  As I said at the beginning of this history lesson, I don’t think the sinkhole is directly related to either the creek that once flowed through Colleton Square or to the old fortification called Craven Bastion.  According to my best guess, I think the sinkhole opened at or near the southern end of Governor’s Bridge.  Remember that the north and south ends of the bridge were actually causeways; that is, low berms of earth that led to a central brick or stone arch over the tidal creek.  These earthen berms are not necessarily unstable, and at their southernmost and northernmost points, they’re really not dissimilar to the earth that originally formed the rest of East Bay Street.

The eye of massive Hurricane Irma passed well west of South Carolina, but on September 11th the Charleston area still experienced a great deal of torrential rain and furious tropical-storm-force winds. The arrival of the worst of the wind, rain, and storm surge coincided with our high tide, and the result was epic flooding on the peninsula and other low-lying areas.

Detail from an 1898 copy of Joseph Purcell’s 1801 plat of Governor’s Bridge, made when General C. C. Pinckney ceded the areas shaded blue to the City to widen the East Bay Street. The approximate site of the 2017 sinkhole is marked with a red circle (not to scale).

So why did the ten-inch water main burst in front of 215 East Bay Street and cause part of the roadbed to collapse?  I’m not an engineer, of course, so I can’t offer a technical answer.  As a historian, however, I might hypothesize the sinkhole might have been the result of some strange hydrodynamic interplay between the vestiges of Daniel’s Creek, under modern Market Street, and strong tidal forces accompanying Hurricane Irma.  In response to the enhanced high tide, perhaps the man-made fill in the center of the intersection of Market and East Bay Streets (i.e., Governor’s Bridge) was more prone to movement than the more stable ground in front of 215 East Bay Street (i.e., the southern terminus of the bridge’s causeway), forcing the water main to flex beyond its structural capabilities.

But remember, too, that the water main break happened on September 10th, hours before the really strong wind, rain, and storm surge arrived along our coastline.  In the final analysis, the sinkhole probably wasn’t related to the failure of some forgotten historical artifact under East Bay Street, and it didn’t expose any interesting old features of Charleston’s past.  Nevertheless, I believe my historical analysis has some redeeming value. Charleston is a place that wears its history on its sleeve, and artifacts from our distant past frequently bubble up to the surface.  I’m proud to live in a place where, for better or for worse, history is relevant to our daily lives, and conversations about the past help us to interpret and understand the present.


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