Bee’s Ferry—or more precisely, Bee’s Ferry Road—is a name that’s familiar to everyone who lives west of the Ashley River, or to anyone who has spent time traveling through that area. If you’re a curious sort of person, perhaps you’ve wondered how this name came to be. Was it named after a person or an insect? And what about the ferry? Today’s Bee’s Ferry Road doesn’t cross any significant body of water, nor does it lead to any body of water. If there was a ferry, where was it, and when did it disappear?
These questions came to mind recently when Charleston County Council announced its official name selection for a new library branch to be built next to West Ashley High School, just off Glenn McConnell Parkway. The new library building will be called the “Bee’s Ferry West Ashley Public Library,” and you can read more about that project on the library’s website. I’m sure most folks will soon get in the habit of calling this new building “the Bee’s Ferry branch,” and I’ll wager that more than a few people might scratch their heads and wonder about the origin of this familiar, yet obscure place-name. Before any unnecessary confusion sets in, let’s take a few minutes to travel back in Lowcountry history and explore the rise and fall of the landmark called Bee’s Ferry.
Bee’s Ferry is a historic place-name in modern Charleston County, but the historic site that gave rise to the name no longer exists. Bee’s Ferry was a crossing point over a narrow bend in the Ashley River, at a site located approximately two miles upstream from the current I-526 bridge over the river. The former site of Bee’s Ferry is now host to a railroad bridge that spans the Ashley River, following a similar path as the old ferry crossing. Bee’s Ferry Road is a public thoroughfare on the southwest side of the Ashley River that once led directly to the ferry landing at the river’s edge, but today the northeast end of Bee’s Ferry road terminates at its junction with Ashley River Road, approximately one half of a mile distant from the river. In fact, the easternmost end of today’s Bee’s Ferry Road diverges from its original path. About a mile from the edge of the Ashley River, the road curves slightly to the northwest before intersecting with Ashley River Road, while the current CSX railroad line follows a straight path that crosses the original path of the road near the river. This diversion was made in the twentieth century when a raised berm was created to elevate Ashley River Road over the railroad line.
The ferry crossing at this site and the road leading to it were both created (at least on paper) by an act of the South Carolina legislature in December of 1703. The purpose of this law was to create a public path from the first town established in South Carolina, Charleston, to the young colony’s second town, called Wilton (or Wiltown, Willtown, Will Town, or New London), located on the east bank of the Edisto River. The ferry authorized by this 1703 law was to commence from a point on the neck of the Charleston peninsula called Stony (or Stoney) Point, where there was an outcropping of phosphate marl at the edge of the Ashley River. After crossing the river by ferry at this narrow point, measuring about one hundred yards across, the proposed road would then lead in nearly a straight line from the southwest bank of the river to Wilton, some twenty-four miles away. Rather than sending out a work crew to build the road and ferry, however, the South Carolina legislature required every property owner in that vicinity to voluntarily contribute both the labor and tools needed to carve this new path through the swampy wilderness.
The work progressed slowly, as you can imagine, and the years passed. Complaints about foot-dragging eventually spurred new government intervention, and in November of 1711 the legislature passed a new act relative to this unfinished road and ferry project. Since the decentralized, volunteer work was “burdensome” to the families settling the area, the legislature appointed a man named Manly Williamson, the proprietor of a plantation at Stoney Point, to superintend the completion of the sixteen-foot-wide road. The legislature also vested control of the public ferry, which by 1711 was already operational, in the hands of Manly Williamson and his heirs. As long as Williamson maintained the broad, flat-bottomed ferry boats and the ropes that were used to pull the boats across the Ashley River, as well as the earthen causeways on each side of the river, he would be allowed to charge and collect a fee or toll from every person using the ferry, “whether on foot or on horseback, or with cattle, hogs, sheep, or other things whatsoever.” As with every other ferry and toll bridge in early South Carolina, the government set the rates of ferriage, but passage was always free of charge for all persons “going to or coming from church, or going to or coming from [militia] musters or [public] alarms.”
From this formal establishment in November 1711 until the middle of the nineteenth century, the ferry over the Ashley River changed very little. The earliest known proprietor of the ferry was Manly Williamson, and it’s possible that some people might have called it “Williamson’s ferry.” After all, it was pretty common in early South Carolina to name a ferry after its proprietor. Just think of some local examples, such as Parker’s Ferry, Givhan’s Ferry, Clement’s Ferry, and others. Documents surviving from the colonial era suggest otherwise, however. From the early 1700s to the 1820s, the ferry was commonly called “the Ashley River Ferry,” or simply “Ashley Ferry.” Why this generic title? It was so-called because for more than a century Ashley Ferry was simply the only ferry over the Ashley River. Whether one was traveling southward from Charleston or northward to Charleston, everyone traveling by land through the Lowcountry had to cross the Ashley River at some point, and there were only two options in the eighteenth century: either ride the Ashley Ferry or head a few miles farther upstream to Bacon’s Bridge, built ca. 1700 near the town of Dorchester.
Manly Williamson’s land on the northeast side of the Ashley River was called Stony (Stoney) Point because of presence of phosphate marl visible along the river’s edge, but otherwise Stoney Point was—and still is—a pretty low-lying, marshy area that isn’t well suited for human habitation. On the southwest side of the Ashley River, opposite Stoney Point, however, the drier and firmer ferry landing quickly became a gathering place for travelers heading to and from Charleston.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century a man named Shem Butler obtained a grant for a tract of land on the southwest side of the ferry landing and laid out a small town with a grid of ten streets and 102 building lots. The town, called Ashley Ferry Town, Shem Town (or Shemstown), and Butler Town (or Butlerstown) in various old documents, included a brick tavern next to the ferry landing, for the refreshment and accommodation of weary travelers. The town also included a general store, a blacksmith’s shop, and other amenities, and it soon attracted a number of settlers. In 1723 the South Carolina legislature authorized the town to hold a bi-weekly public market and a semi-annual public fair. Ashley Ferry Town was the site of numerous public auctions, including the sale of enslaved Africans. On two brief occasions, in June 1738 and August 1760, the South Carolina legislature convened at Ashley Ferry Town on account of small pox epidemics in Charleston. Inspired by the early success of this real estate venture, Shem Butler’s next-door neighbor, William Cattell, created “St. Andrew’s Town” in the 1730s on a smaller tract at the southeast side of the ferry landing. Cattell’s town never really took off, however, and by the early years of the nineteenth century both Ashley Ferry Town and St. Andrew’s Town were both ghost towns, forgotten vestiges of a colonial-era real estate speculation.
Back in 1711 the South Carolina legislature vested control of Ashley Ferry in Manly Williamson, who owned Stoney Point, but a few years later Williamson was bought out by Landgrave Edmund Bellinger II. In September 1733, the legislature granted a seven-year license to operate the ferry to Landgrave Bellinger, who had already been maintaining the causeway leading to the ferry “for several years last past.” Meanwhile, Bellinger had married the girl next door, or in this case, the girl across the river: Elizabeth Butler, the eldest daughter of Shem Butler of Ashley Ferry Town. Following the death of Landgrave Bellinger, in March 1741 the legislature granted his widow a further seven-year license for the ferry. The widow Elizabeth Butler Bellinger then married Thomas Elliott, and in May 1750 the legislature awarded a seven-year ferry license to her adult sons, Edmund Bellinger and George Bellinger, to be executed in trust for their mother. This arrangement seems to have fizzled in late 1757, however, and in February 1758 the legislature awarded a renewal of the seven-year ferry license to a man named Edward Legge who had taken over the business two months earlier. Legge operated both the ferry and the popular tavern in Ashley Ferry Town for more than twenty years, until British soldiers burned most of the town in 1780. It was the end of an era for Ashley Ferry.
Despite the wartime marauding that burned his home and business, Edward Legge was a counted among the loyalists at the conclusion of the American Revolution. In early 1783 the South Carolina legislature banished Legge from the state and confiscated his property. A number of people petitioned the government for the right to operate Ashley Ferry, but the legislature selected a man named John Freazer (or Frazer, Fraser), who had purchased Edward Legge’s property at public auction. In 1784 Freazer received the customary seven-year ferry license, which the legislature renewed in 1791 and in 1798. John Freazer died shortly after the turn of the nineteenth century, and in 1804 the legislature vested the ferry’s operation in his widow, Sarah Freazer. Toward the end of her life, Sarah Freazer brought in her grandson, Joseph Bee, to take over the ferry business. In December 1821, the state legislature vested the operation of Ashley Ferry in Joseph Bee, and his seven-year license was dutifully renewed in 1828, 1835, and finally in 1842 for a period of fourteen years. Bee didn’t live to see the end of his license, however, for he died at the age of 50 in August 1850 and was buried at St. Andrew’s Church, just half a mile from the old ferry site. His heirs continued to operate the ferry until the expiration of his license, and then a few more years, until his ferry boats crossed the Ashley River for the last time, according the local newspapers of the day, on 3 January 1859.
Joseph F. Bee was the last in a long succession of men and women who presided over the old boat ferry over the Ashley River, and that essential public service operated under Bee’s name for more than thirty years. Based on these two simple facts, it seems logical that the ferry site and the road leading to it should bear his name. Our story might end right here, but in reality, these facts are merely red herrings that distract our attention from a more complete version of the story. In order to explain what I mean, let’s back up to early years of the nineteenth century, just before Joseph Bee entered the picture.
For more than a century after its creation in 1703, Ashley Ferry was the only ferry crossing the Ashley River, and the only other way over the stream was Bacon’s Bridge, several miles upstream. Its name, Ashley Ferry, remained constant over the years as a succession of proprietors came and went. All of that changed, however, when a group of investors formed a corporation in 1808 for the sole purpose of building and operating a toll bridge across the Ashley River on the west side of urban Charleston. The Charleston Bridge Company, as it was called, promised to augment the commercial and social interests of the region by expediting travel across the river at a convenient point adjacent to the heart of the city. The project excited popular interest, and the first bridge connecting the city of Charleston with the land west of the Ashley formally opened in July of 1810. Travelers heading to and from Charleston were no longer obliged to travel nearly ten miles upstream to cross the Ashley River. Business at old Ashley Ferry was in decline when a hurricane struck the area in August of 1813 and totally destroyed Charleston’s popular new wooden bridge.
The Bridge Company’s executives planned to rebuild their successful venture, of course, but they knew it would take time to gather the capital necessary to begin again from scratch. In order to keep their business afloat, the Charleston Bridge Company petitioned the state legislature for permission to operate a ferry across the Ashley River, from one end of its former bridge to the other. In 1815 the legislature granted their wish, and once again the old Ashley Ferry at Stoney Point found itself in a competitive market. When twenty-one-year-old Joseph Bee petitioned the state legislature about taking over his grandmother’s lease of the ferry in 1821, he lamented that in her time the ferry business “brought in a reasonable compensation for the labour bestowed upon it, until the Bridge (now a Ferry) was granted to a company of stockholders near to Charleston, which has almost destroyed this Ferry in as much as very few people pass it.” Thus when Joseph Bee formally took over the venerable ferry over the Ashley River in 1821, the once-thriving business was already in decline. Furthermore, the old name “Ashley Ferry” ceased to have a unique meaning. Travelers over the Ashley River now used either the “Bridge Ferry” next to urban Charleston or “Bee’s Ferry” further upstream.
After the destruction of its wooden bridge in 1813, the Charleston Bridge Company remained afloat by operating a very busy ferry until its new bridge finally opened nearly forty-three years later, in March of 1856. Meanwhile, in 1854 the state legislature granted a charter a new upstart business venture called the Charleston and Savannah Railroad, which planned to build a railroad line from downtown Charleston to Savannah, following a path across the Ashley River at a site adjacent to Mr. Bee’s Ferry and parallel to Bee’s Ferry Road. The first leg of this rail line opened in November of 1858, carrying passengers and freight from Bee’s Ferry southward to the Edisto River. The planned railroad bridge over the Ashley River didn’t materialize until after the Civil War, so when it began operations in late 1858 the proprietors of the Charleston and Savannah Railroad transported their customers in a four-horse omnibus from downtown Charleston, across the new bridge over the Ashley River, and up Ashley River Road to its railway depot next to Bee’s Ferry. The autumn of 1858 proved to be the end of the line for Bee’s Ferry, which formally ceased operations on 3 January 1859.
The first railroad bridge across the Ashley River adjacent to the old site of Bee’s Ferry opened in December 1877, and within a few months, by April of 1878, that bridge had been expanded to accommodate pedestrians, bicycles, carriages, and animals. Today there’s still a railroad bridge at this site, although it hasn’t been pedestrian- or bicycle- or cattle-friendly for nearly a century. By the late twentieth century, the site of Bee’s Ferry was an abandoned wasteland. Little remained above the surface of the earth to mark the location of either the ferry, the once-thriving Ashley Ferry Town, or the less prosperous St. Andrew’s Town. Limited archaeological investigation of these sites was performed in the 1970s, just prior to the construction of two major development projects. Today, the subdivision known as “Drayton on the Ashley” sits on top of the forgotten Ashley Ferry Town (alias Shem Town or Butlers Town), while the adjacent subdivision called “Ashleytowne Landing” obscures the site of the smaller St. Andrew’s Town.
Bee’s Ferry is a historic place name familiar to almost everybody in Charleston County, but the story behind the name is far less well-known. Although the Ashley River Ferry and Ashley Ferry Town have long since disappeared, their legacy continues to echo into the twenty-first century. For nearly 160 years the ferry was a vital hub for the people in this community, and today—nearly 160 years after the ferry closed—this community is thriving and expanding at a rate that would astonish Joseph Bee and his predecessors. Homes, businesses, schools, and churches now dominate the once fertile fields around the ferry, and every day more and more cars crowd onto Bee’s Ferry Road, which was first laid out in 1703 as a narrow path through the wilderness. Soon there’ll be a new addition to the neighborhood, when Charleston County Public Library opens its new “Bee’s Ferry” branch on a site located about three miles from the old ferry landing. I think it’s a fitting name because we hope that new library, like the old ferry in its heyday, will serve as a hub for the community in the generations to come.