Steamboating from Edisto to Charleston ca. 1900
Have you ever wondered what it was like to ride a steamboat from Edisto Island to Charleston around the turn of the twentieth century, before the arrival of the automobile? Today we’ll board the steamer Pilot Boy and make that journey with a young man who later wrote a charming description of the sights, smells, and sounds of that by-gone experience once treasured by generations of islanders.
The distance from my office at the Charlestown County Public Library’s main branch in downtown Charleston and the Edisto Island branch library is almost exactly 42 miles. It’s a pretty straightforward route with only a handful of turns. Thanks to the modern conveniences of steel-belted rubber tires, asphalt roads, and concrete bridges, it’s not a difficult journey at all. If traffic is light, I can make the drive in about sixty minutes. If traffic is heavy, however (and it usually is these days), then it could be a ninety-minute trip, or longer, replete with the frustration that usually accompanies the twenty-first-century suburban commute.
All of these travel details were in my mind recently as I headed to the Edisto Island library to present a lecture about the history of the different modes of transportation that have connected Edisto Island with Charleston over the past three hundred and fifty years. It’s easy to take travel and mobility for granted these days, and the past century of automobile domination has clouded our memory of how transportation worked in the past. As our roads become more and more crowded every day here in the Lowcountry, I believe it’s important to remember how earlier generations moved from one place to another, and how the rhythms of their lives were shaped by the modes of travel and the routes available to them. We could talk for hours about the history of Lowcountry boats, roads, bridges, ferries, street cars, trolleys, passenger trains, and bicycles, but today I want to narrow the focus to just one place—Edisto Island—and one mode of travel—the steamboat.
Edisto Island is one of several large sea islands that form the fragmented Atlantic coastline of South Carolina. Located about halfway between the urban centers of Charleston and Beaufort, most of Edisto Island is within the jurisdiction of Charleston County (Edisto Beach is part of Colleton County). The people of Edisto have maintained a strong relationship with Charleston since Europeans first began settling on the Island in the 1680s. In those early years of the Carolina colony, travelers between Charleston and the sea islands were obliged to travel by watercraft. The roads, bridges, and ferries necessary to facilitate an overland trip took many generations to build. For most of recorded history, therefore, travelers between Edisto and Charleston followed a water route.
If you look at a map of the coastline of Charleston county, you’ll see two possible routes for traveling by water between Edisto Island and Charleston. The first and most obvious route is the “outer passage,” a phrase that refers to sailing into the shallows of the Atlantic Ocean and around the “outside” of the Wadmalaw, Seabrook, Kiawah, Johns, James, and Folly Islands. This route of fifty or sixty-odd miles is rather direct, but it involves some degree of danger from the potential of rough seas and high winds. The second option is the “inner passage,” a route that follows the meandering paths of the several coastal rivers that flow towards the ocean. By following the waters that separate the various sea islands from the mainland, travelers traded a slightly longer journey for a safer and quieter route.
This “inner passage” between the sea islands and the mainland is now called the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a marvel of engineering that reflects a great deal of work done during the 1920s. Prior to that time, however, the early settlers of the South Carolina Lowcountry understood the the value of the inner passage and made efforts to open routes from the sea island plantations to the great marketplace in Charleston. The various coastal rivers weren’t exactly interconnected, so white plantation owners forced enslaved labors to dig what they called “cuts” through the marshes to connect the rivers. In the early years of the eighteenth century, these men created what became known as “Watt’s Cut” to connect the South Edisto River with the Dawhoo River. That stream then flows into the North Edisto River, the upper reaches of which naturally intermingle with the Wadmalaw River. A broad, man-made ditch created three hundred years ago and called “New Cut” connects the Wadmalaw River to the Stono River. Wappoo Creek was once a natural stream that linked the Stono with the Ashley River, but the Wappoo was likewise “cut” several times to widen it for boat traffic.
By the early 1700s, it was possible to sail or row from Edisto Island to Charleston by way of this meandering inner passage of interconnected coastal rivers. Plantation crops and passengers flowed to the port city by way of canoes, petiaugers, flat boats, and schooners, while imported goods, supplies, and passengers flowed from Charleston back to the island. A century later, this wind- and human-powered traffic was augmented by the arrival of faster moving and more reliable steam-powered vessels. The first steamboat appeared in Charleston harbor in 1816, and by the spring of 1818 there was a regularly-scheduled steamboat service plying between Charleston and Savannah, stopping at Edisto Island and many other points along the way.
For nearly a century—right up to about 1918, a steamboat landed and departed once or twice a week from a wharf on Edisto Island’s Russell Creek, which flows into the North Edisto River. That traffic became so integral to the island’s commerce and culture that the creek was renamed Steamboat Creek, and the wharf simply known as Steamboat Landing. These powerful vessels carried passengers as well as freight, and formed an essential part of Edisto’s Antebellum economy based on sea island cotton. The steamers continued running long after the Civil War destroyed the local economy, and continued to serve as the island’s principal connection with the outside world.
At the turn of the twentieth century, some Edisto Islanders were still planting sea island cotton and sending it to Charleston on the steamboats. There was no bridge or ferry connecting the island to the mainland, so all travelers wishing to go north to Charleston or south to Beaufort were obliged to wait at Steamboat Landing for the arrival of one of the regularly-scheduled steamers. Black and white, rich and poor, the people of Edisto Island crowded onto the landing on the appointed days in what must have been a very lively and colorful scene.
Fortunately for us, one of the islanders who participated in this ritual of taking the steamboat from Edisto to Charleston later recalled the experience fondly and described it from the vantage point of a young boy. Chalmers Swinton Murray (died 1975) was born on the island in 1894 and later became a professional journalist and freelance writer. In the autumn of 1930, about “ten years or so” after the demise of the steamboat service, Murray wrote a charming essay for the Charleston News and Courier titled “Steamboating in South Carolina. A Trip up from Edisto.” This essay, in which the author harkens back to his childhood memories, provides an excellent first-person snapshot of an afternoon’s ride aboard the steamer Pilot Boy from Edisto Island to Charleston around the turn of the twentieth century.
I’d like to share with you the full text of Mr. Murray’s essay, but first I’ll preface his words with a few of my own. This text is a historical document that contains some of the ideas and language of a different era. It was written from the perspective of a young white boy living in a rural environment in which the politics known as “Jim Crow” dominated the society of his day. The majority of the white population, which formed a numerical minority but controlled the political process, viewed people of African descent—who formed the majority of the population—as second class citizens. In his 1930 essay, Murray’s references to those people as “darkies,” “negroes,” and “colored” people reflects the typical discriminatory language deployed by the white community at that time. Furthermore, some of Mr. Murray’s text includes dialect—the attempt to capture the sound of spoken language with irregular spelling and grammar. In this case, the dialect imperfectly represents persons of African descent who were speaking what we would now proudly describe as the language of Gullah. I mean no disrespect to anyone by presenting this material to the public. Rather, I hope this historical document will help modern audiences understand a bit of the good, bad, and the ugly in the daily life in the Lowcountry more than a century ago.
Steamboating in South Carolina. A Trip up from Edisto. By C. S. Murray.
“Only ten years or so have passed since the steamboats vanished from the rivers of Charleston county, but their demise caused so little notice that members of the younger generation are surprised when some ‘old timer’ tells them that the streams of lower South Carolina once echoed with the whistle of side wheelers, tugs and steam launches which plied between Charleston, Georgetown and Beaufort, carrying hundreds of passengers, and cargoes valued at thousands of dollars.
In those days, names like the Pilot Boy, Planter, Louise, Islander, Thistle, Lotta and Mary Draper were words to conjure with. Most of these steamers have now gone to their reward, but the memories they kindled will live in the minds of every man and woman who once trod the decks of these crafts.
There are many in Charleston who will remember the Planter, the Merchant, and the Pilot Boy. These steamers generally docked at Accommodation Wharf [in Charleston] and their arrival was greeted by throngs of people, including cabmen, draymen, Charlestonians expecting guests from the sea islands, and others who came out of mere curiosity.
As an invariable rule, it seemed, the steamers reached Charleston late at night, and it was not many years ago that the passengers were forced to stumble along the best they could, through the ill-lighted streets and alley-ways and across railroad tracks. Tales of daring robberies—which never happened—frightened the wits out of timid passengers, and great was the relief when the parties from the boat entered East Bay [Street] and caught the first sight of the spluttering arc lights.
Docking Gala Event.
Though the arrival of the river steamers attracted only passing notice in Charleston, the docking of these boats at some sea island wharf was a gala event. A vivid picture of a scene at ‘Steamboat Landing’ on Edisto Island is stamped on the writer’s mind, for many is the time as a small boy he watched the Pilot Boy and her sister ships slide up to the dock, and embark passengers for Charleston and way stations.
Long before the boat was scheduled to arrive the crowd would gather. Here would be seen at least one hundred and fifty carts—for which Edisto is said to be famous—several hundred darkies [that is, African-Americans] holding squawking chickens and ducks; others bearing large baskets containing food for the voyage, and white people sitting in shining buggies and surries [a type of light carriage] trying hard to look bored. Boys raced around between buggy and cart; little girls watched the games with envious eyes; fathers talked about the price of cotton, and mothers gossiped in small groups.
One could feel the undercurrent of excitement. The very chickens which would be sold at the Charleston market on the morrow, seemed to sense the approach of the steamer and raised an awful hubbub. The horses refused to stay quiet and every once in a while some planter would shout ‘Here John, unhitch that animal and let him get some rest. The boat is not in sight yet.’
‘De Boat Do Come’
Across the river and marshland, one could barely see White Point landing [at the southeast end of Slann’s Island]. This was the first place the boat could be plainly sighted from Edisto, and when someone informed the crowd that he saw smoke, pandemonium broke loose among the negroes. Everyone tried to talk at the same time. ‘Great Gawd gal, tie de chicken, or put ‘um in your apron!’ on old negro would tell her daughter. Then another voice could be heard above the din: ‘Where my money anyhow. I bet some colored lady done stole ebery cent I hab.’ Then another: ‘Collect your mind boy and hold my hand. When I get home I goin’ mak your back bun.’
Suddenly a negro man shouts: ‘Dere de Pilot Boy. I see ‘um der coming around de bend now!’
Sure enough the river steamer, belching smoke from her slender stack is gracefully rounding the point. One can hear the hum of machinery, and the swish of paddles cleaving the water. As she draws nearer the voice of the deck hands can be heard, and above all the hiss of escaping steam. Then the people on shore catch sight of Captain Phillips on the bridge, issuing orders at the top of his lungs. ‘Throw out the bow line there!’ he yells. ‘Jump off drat you and catch the bow line—nobody on the wharf has sense enough to do it.’
The Pilot Boy eases by the wharf. A line is thrown off and misses the dock by a few feet. Profanity from members of the crew, and a second attempt as the wheels start churning the water in reverse. The faithful old walking beam—the delight of every small boy on the island—is ‘letting the cat die,’ and with a jingle of bells the engine quits work.
Gang Plank Hits Wharf.
Captain Ferguson, first mate, is standing on the bridge with Captain Phillips, busily engaged in issuing instructions to the deck hands. Mr. Foster, the purser, genial and polished gentleman that he is, is standing by ready to help the ladies aboard, and the gang plank hits the wharf with a thud.
The passengers troop aboard, boys running ahead, little girls holding tightly to their mother’s hands, and the men smoking long cigars, bringing up the rear. The white people mount to the first deck and make themselves comfortable in the air chairs grouped just below the pilot house. Most of the women repair to the main saloon, where they are met by the frail little stewardess, who was said to be a Creole from Louisiana. It is almost 1 o’clock and the table has been set for the full quota of guests. On this trip it may be necessary to have a third table, for it is ‘Gala Week’ [an annual civic fête] in Charleston and the islanders will attend the event in large numbers. Scores have already left on the Mary Draper—known as ‘The Railroad Boat,’ because of the connection it makes with the train at Yonge’s Island—but the Pilot Boy will carry the rest of the crowd. The stewardess shows the ladies to their state rooms, for although this will be a daylight trip, the passengers are welcomed to the use of the little cubby holes during the voyage.
Now the freight is being put aboard. Huge bales of sea island cotton carefully covered with burlap are being placed on hand trucks and rolled down the wharf, over the gang plank and stored forward by the husky deck hands, who sing lustily while they work. No busy scene on the Mississippi was ever as colorful as this. It seems as though every foot of space in a radius of a hundred yards from the dock is alive with negroes. They push and jam against each other in an effort to reach the wharf and give their relatives and friends last minute instructions. Some are dressed in field garb, but the majority are wearing their Sunday clothes, and are showing off this regalia to the best advantage. The stevedores can hardly secure the right-of-way for their [hand] trucks, and they curse heartily as an aged negro stumbles over the foremost truck and is rescued by Captain Ferguson who is making for the warehouse. Ben, the mulatto wheelman, sits in the pilot house and yawns. He is not interested in this performance and is longing for the time when he can ‘do his stuff’ at the wheel.
‘De Whistle Done Blow’
Ben looks at his watch, converses with Captain Phillips for a few moments and then reaches his hand for the whistle cord. A mighty blast is sounded and the cry goes up that ‘de fust whistle done blow.’ The deck hands quicken their pace and are now fairly running with the trucks. Capt. Ferguson is winding up his business at the warehouse, and in a few seconds he is striding towards the boat, with the same long cigar in his mouth. He will light it when the Pilot Boy gets under way.
The stream of freight pours into the hold, and the deck hands execute a shuffling dance as they pass up and down the gang plank. Finally the last piece of merchandise is stored away, and again the whistle sounds. On the wharf a sea of upturned black faces. Shouts of ‘Good-bye, tak care of your self,’ are heard and one woman cries: ‘Tell Lucy much huddy for me. Tell she I goin’ to see she soon.’
‘Take in your bow line,’ shouts Capt. Phillips . . . and then ‘slack up on your spring line!’ A black figure runs to a palmetto piling and releases the bow line, then throws it aboard. The bell rings, and the steamer moves slowly forward. ‘All right, loose up on your stern line, and be quick about it,’ Capt. Ferguson commands.
The last ties are severed and the Pilot Boy plows into the stream, the man at the wheel bringing her sharp to starboard. She swings into a long curve and heads up the river.
All Edisto There.
In the main saloon a merry group has gathered. It seems as though all of Edisto is represented. There is a ‘fair sprinkling’ of Seabrooks, Mikells, Jenkins, LaRoches, Baileys, Whaleys, Popes, Murrays, Mitchells, Townsends, Hills, and Popes. It is indeed a social occasion. Further up the river, Harts, Becketts and Wilsons from adjoining islands will join the party. The young people have already found a table in the forward saloon and a game of cards is in progress. Several elderly ladies have retreated to the little after deck with their knitting and some of the men have moved to the smoking saloon for cigars. Jesse, the red-headed cabin boy—a pure negro in spite of his red hair—is getting ready to serve dinner.
The person who has not made the trip from Edisto Island to Charleston by boat has no idea of the beauty of the river scenery. The boat passes over blue-green water which reflects the images of massive oaks and towering pines. The marsh is unbelievably green, and takes on all manner of picturesque shapes and patterns. Little creeks and gutters empty themselves into the main stream, after winding their way through miles of marshland, and if one mounts to the hurricane deck he can see other rivers in the far distance and their tiny tributaries.
In some places—near White Point [on Slann’s Island] for instance—the river is over two miles wide. On one side can be seen the flat marshy mainland, and on the other red bluffs of Wadmalaw Island, covered with the growth of virgin timber. The nearer the boat approaches Charleston, the narrower the river becomes until it seems as if the steamer will never be able to squeeze itself through the small opening. Some parts of the river are very shallow indeed, and if a boat the size of the Pilot Boy strikes Church Flats [,where the Wadmalaw River joins the Stono River,] at low water, there the craft will be forced to remain until the tide rises.
These hazards add to the zest of the trip however—at least for the small boy. If the boat sticks at Church Flats he is frightened of course, but he is soon in serious conversation with the mate about the best methods of prying the steamer loose from its muddy bed, and is thrilled to death when the mate takes him into his confidence.
Race in Making.
The Pilot Boy is now approaching the narrows near Church Flats. A few hundred yards ahead, the Lotta, a new boat belonging to a rival line is chugging towards Charleston. It looks like a race, for the captain has ordered more steam and the craft is shaking from stem to stern. Slowly but surely the distance between the two steamers is shortened until the bow of the Pilot Boy is almost touching the stern of the Lotta. Capt. Phillips signals with his whistle that he intends passing to port. The master of the Lotta signals back that he is holding his course. Both boats are now running neck and neck, clearing the banks on either side by only a few feet. The Lotta refuses to give away, and the passengers scent danger. There is a grinding crash. Loud oaths issue forth from both pilot houses and cries of ‘I will see you in Charleston,’ rend the air. When the captains reach shore they will be in a calmer state of mind, but it seems a foregone conclusion that the two crews will stage a free-for-all fight on Accommodation wharf on the morrow.
The group gathered on the forward deck are now looking for the first sight of Charleston. The Pilot Boy has passed through Stono [or Wappoo] Cut and James Island lies to the right. The boat rounds a bend and in the distance is seen the spires of St. Michael’s, St. Matthew’s and St. Philip’s, the Custom House and other landmarks. The setting sun strikes St. Michael’s steeple, bathing it in a golden light, and the whole city seems to sparkle. Half an hour later the steamer is rounding the Battery, nosing her way through innumerable crafts, including fishing smacks, dories in full sail, and snorting tugs.
The passengers prepare to disembark. Below [the first deck] the negroes are gathering up their belongings, stifling the complaints of the long suffering chickens, and talking in excited voices. City smells are wafted over the water, and now and then one hears the clang of street car bells, and the clatter of horse feet on cobble stones. A deck hand is unwinding the bow line. Capt. Phillips has stationed himself near with a bundle of bills-of-lading in his hand. The boat scrapes the wharf, lines are thrown to waiting hands, and the pulsing of the engine dies out. Another voyage is ended.
The Edisto Today.
At the present day [, in 1930,] a noisy crew inhabit the Stono, the Edisto and the Dawhoo Rivers—strange little crafts smelling of gasoline or crude oil, making terrible noises and plowing along as though business is all that matters in the world. None of these boats carry passengers—automobiles and good roads put an end to this—and none faintly resemble the graceful steamers with their towering stacks, gleaming white paint, gay flags and spacious decks. The melodious steam whistle, which could be heard for ten miles on a still day, is replaced by a squeaky compressed air affair, or electric horn. The romance of the river days is gone, and will never be revived.
The Pilot Boy has been ‘sold down the river;’ the Lotta and Planter rest in the bone yards, and the Mary Draper has been converted into a diesel propelled craft. Capt. Phillips has long passed to his reward with other gallant men who once commanded the steamers of Charleston and Beaufort, and old steamboat men have found other employment.
Steamboat Landing on Edisto is deserted. Occasionally a gasoline boat ties up at the wharf to load cabbage, cucumbers and like freight, but the arrival of these boats are unheralded and the crowds that once gathered around the warehouse and old store now congregate at the Post Office. The time was when a weekly boat from Charleston and Beaufort furnished the only means of communication between Edisto Island and the outside world: now almost everyone has an automobile and the mail is delivered to the island twice daily.
Speed Boats Now.
The small boy of Edisto no longer plays ‘steamboat.’ He now talks wisely about speed boats, outboard motors and Ford automobiles. He makes the trip to Charleston in an hour and a half, the same distance which required four and a half hours by steamer. He enjoys the pleasures the modern age can give, but he missed the thrills that only the old river life can furnish.
That the spirit of the old Pilot Boy still travels up and down the river, unloading its ghostly freight at White Point, Wide Awake, Hart’s Landing, New Cut and Belvidere, is the fond belief of at least one old Islander. He will grasp your arm and exclaim: ‘Hush don’t you hear the Pilot Boy blowing for the landing?’ Then through the dusk seems to come a clear toned whistle, ending with a minor note, and the listener knows that the faithful boat is still ‘carrying on’ in the heaven of departed ships.”
We’ve just been listening to a memoir of riding the steamboat from Edisto Island to Charleston around the turn of the twentieth century, written by Chalmers Swinton Murray in 1930. Steamboat traffic between the sea islands and Charleston fizzled in the 1910s, around the same time as the boll weevil ended the cultivation of sea island cotton on Edisto. A new ferry connecting the island to the mainland, across the Dawhoo River, commenced in the summer of 1915, but that service ended in 1919 after the opening of the first draw bridge across the river. From that moment to the present, the automobile displaced the steamboat as Edisto Island’s link to the world beyond. My drive to and from Edisto this week was full of impatient sighs and frustrating gridlock. For the peace of mind and natural beauty of a steamboat journey through the old winding rivers, I’d gladly trade a few extra hours of my life.
 Ferry service from across Dawhoo River from Edisto Island to the mainland ran irregularly in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and was permanently discontinued during the Civil War. The ferry recommenced in the summer of 1915, following the passage of a state appropriation, and ceased with the opening of the first timber and steel bridge over that river in late 1918.
 Charleston News and Courier, 28 September 1930, page 9A: “Steamboating in South Carolina. / A Trip Up From Edisto. / By C. S. Murray.” In my transcription of this newspaper essay, I have amended some errors of spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.