After a century of human- and horse-powered ferry boats carrying passengers across the Cooper River, the arrival of steam power signaled a sea-change in our sense of mobility. The convenience provided by fast and powerful steam ferries fueled the first suburban development boom in the rural areas east of the Cooper River. To better understand how these ferries transformed our community’s past, and how they might impact our future, let’s travel back to the second century of ferry service across that the Cooper—from the arrival of the Lowcountry’s first steamboats to the total collapse of the industry in the wake of the first automobile bridge across the river.

 

The Dawn of Corporate Ferry Service

As I said in last week’s program, ferry service across the Cooper River commenced in the 1730s, using rowboats powered by enslaved oarsmen to carry people and animals between urban Charleston and landings at Hobcaw Point, Haddrell’s Point, and Daniel Island. In the early nineteenth century, local ferries adopted horse-powered “team boats” that traveled a bit faster and carried a few more passengers. The next big technological innovation was the advent of the steam-powered watercraft, which was still in the experimental phase at the turn of the nineteenth century. The first practical steamboat in the United States appeared on the Hudson River in 1807, but a further nine years passed before that technology trickled down to South Carolina. In late June 1816, thousands of spectators crowded the Charleston’s wharves and the Battery to witness their first steamboat, the Savannah-built Enterprise, which puffed into our harbor for a short cruise.[1] Immediately after this brief exhibition, local shipbuilders began partnering with boilermakers to produce our first home-grown steamboats. By the early 1820s, steam propulsion had become a regular feature of the commercial ship traffic in and out of the port of Charleston. Sailing vessels continued to rule the open ocean for many more decades, but steamboats proved ideally suited to the coast-wise and riverine trade.

Steamboats were the latest transportation technology in the 1820s, but they were also expensive pieces of machinery. The construction and maintenance of these wooden boats loaded with iron boilers and bulky machinery required significant capital investment. Steamboats also consumed a great deal more fuel (firewood initially, later coal), than their human- and horse-powered counterparts. Feeding their voracious appetites led to additional expenses, such as negotiating a steady supply of fuel and building storage facilities. Individual ferry companies, on the other hand, were traditionally family-owned-and-operated ventures, few of which could afford to upgrade to steam power. As I mentioned in last week’s program, the proprietors of Clement’s Ferry and Milton Ferry continued to use horse-powered “team boats” to transport passengers across the Cooper River throughout the 1830 and into the early 1840s. James Hibben (of Hibben’s Ferry) received legislative permission in 1830 to operate a steam ferry from Charleston to points in Christ Church Parish and up the Wando River, but he died in 1835 before purchasing a steamboat.[2]  

Following the death of James Hibben in 1835, the venerable ferry service known as Hibben’s Ferry was discontinued. Hibben’s property adjacent to the southwest end of Shem Creek, known as the ferry tract, was purchased by Alonzo White, who contemplated the construction of a long causeway from the shoreline to create a larger landing suitable for steam boats.[3] The incorporation of the adjacent village of Mount Pleasant in December 1837 added momentum to this plan, especially since the small seasonal resort town was competing with Sullivan’s Island to attract wealthy summer residents. Before Alonzo White could follow through on his plan for a new causeway, however, a pair of neighbors embarked on a more extensive development scheme. Charles Jugnot and Oliver Hilliard, residents of Mount Pleasant and businessmen in Charleston, purchased a piece of waterfront property near the center of the new town, called Shell Hall, and there built a new ferry wharf at the end of what became known as Ferry Street. Their Mount Pleasant Ferry Company commenced service on October 9th, 1845, with two steamers, the James Hibben and the George W. Coffee, plying between the new wharf adjacent to Shell Hall and a new wharf at the east end of Market Street in Charleston.[4] The Mount Pleasant Ferry Company was finally incorporated in December 1849 and immediately began selling stock shares to expand their capital base. Shortly thereafter, the company was also running ferries to Sullivan’s Island, and rebranded itself as the Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island Ferry Company.[5]

The advent of this corporate ferry venture, the Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island Ferry Company, was a watershed moment, not only for the history of ferry service across the Cooper River, but also for the town of Mount Pleasant and its relationship with the city of Charleston. In 1845, just before the steam ferry arrived, the village was considered “merely as a place of summer resort for a few of the inhabitants of Charleston and citizens of Christ Church Parish.” A year after the steam ferry’s arrival, however, the town council of Mount Pleasant testified that “the introduction of the [steam ferry boat] has entirely changed its [the town’s] character.”[6] Thanks to the company’s corporate structure and its use of the latest steam-powered watercraft, the Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island Ferry Company ruled the Cooper River for half a century, from October of 1845 to the summer of 1898. During this era, the steam ferry service radically changed the concept of commuting between Charleston and Mount Pleasant, including the neighboring farms in Christ Church Parish. The passage was quicker, easier, and more regular than it had ever been before. In the last generations before the advent of the automobile, the steam ferry boat was directly responsible for Mount Pleasant’s first boom time.

 

The Zenith and Decline of Ferry Service

In the early months of 1898, a new corporation called the Charleston and Seashore Railroad Company muscled into the Cooper River transportation business. The Seashore company, as it was commonly known, constructed an electric trolley line from the north side of the town of Mount Pleasant southeastward to Sullivan’s Island and then northeastward to Long Island. In an effort to transform that uninhabited island into a resort, the Seashore company renamed it the “Isle of Palms” and built a hotel, a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster. To transport customers to the new attractions east of the Cooper River, the Seashore company also inaugurated its own ferry service in the summer of 1898, embarking from a new ferry terminal at the east end of Gaillard (now part of Cumberland) Street in Charleston to a new ferry wharf at Haddrell’s Point, near Shem Creek (the old location of Hibben’s Ferry).[7] Several months later, in January 1899, the Charleston and Seashore Railroad Company merged with three other local utility companies to form the Charleston Consolidated Railway, Gas and Electric Company. Three months after that merger, in April 1899, the newly-minted Consolidated company bought out its competition, the older Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island Ferry Service, and closed the antebellum ferry terminals located the east end of Market Street in Charleston and the west end of Ferry Street in Mount Pleasant.[8]

The advent of a new, thoroughly modern ferry service across the Cooper River at the turn of the twentieth-century coincided with another important development in our transportation history. The first motorized automobile arrived in Charleston in 1900, an event that ushered in a new era of mobility and transformed the way we think about travel in general. In the early 1900s, the ferries across the Cooper River quickly adapted to the automobile business and provided a vital link in the rapidly growing traffic across the Lowcountry. Thanks to the steam ferry boats, the population of formerly remote places like Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, and the Isle of Palms had increased dramatically, and now those people wanted to drive their automobiles to Charleston and beyond. Bridges and paved roads were still few and far between, so the ferries represented an important part of everyone’s commuting habits.

As gasoline-powered automobiles proliferated across the Lowcountry in the early years of the twentieth century, the Cooper River ferry business kept chugging along with steam power. In February 1913, fourteen years after buying out its competitors, the Charleston Consolidated company sold its ferry business to the Isle of Palms Traction Company. That company, owned by Joseph Sottile of Charleston’s well-known amusement family, ran the trolley line to the Isle of Palms’ resort facilities.[9] Other than noticing the change of ownership, ferry customers saw little change in the service or equipment, and so there was no reason to suspect a change was looming on the horizon. In retrospect, however, the residents of Charleston, Mount Pleasant, and the neighboring islands were enjoying the last, halcyon days of ferry service in the early years of the roaring twenties.

Between the late 1910s and early 1920s, the financial stability of the Isle of Palms Traction Company was gradually undermined—not by a loss of customers, but by the settlement of several personal injury lawsuits related to the company’s trolley service.[10] Suddenly, on February 21st 1924, the Sheriff of Charleston County closed the ferry company as part of a large-scale seizure of the Traction Company’s rolling (and floating) stock. Commuters to and from Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island immediately clamored for service. Without a bridge over the Cooper River, the ferry was their principal means of communicating with urban Charleston and all points west of the Ashley River. Residents in Mount Pleasant were forced to drive as far north as Monck’s Corner in order to find a road that would carry them to downtown Charleston, which was just a mere two miles across the Cooper River from the village.[11] As you can imagine, the public was angry, and their elected representatives listened. Two weeks after the closure of the Cooper River ferry service, the South Carolina legislature ratified an act on March 5th 1924 to create the state’s first public ferry entity, called the Cooper River Ferry Commission. The state empowered the commission to spend up to $500,000—a huge sum at the time—to build and maintain ferry infrastructure to expedite traffic across the Cooper River.[12]

Commencing their work on the first of June 1924, the commissioners purchased the ferry property of the defunct Isle of Palms Traction Company, repaired the dilapidated facilities, and re-started the ferry service over the Cooper River. They also began making plans for future improvements. Anticipating that the volume of ferry traffic would increase in the future, the commissioners determined that the 1898 ferry landing at Haddrell’s Point in Mount Pleasant was insufficient. In late October 1924, they announced their vision for a new ferry landing at Hog Island, a location on the east bank of the Cooper River that would permit a larger volume of traffic and significantly shorten the travel distance from downtown Charleston. The proposed new location was more than two miles northwest of the town of Mount Pleasant, however, so the townsfolk weren’t happy. In response, the Cooper River Ferry Commission proposed the construction of a new causeway, road, and bridge over Shem Creek that would facilitate the flow of traffic from the proposed ferry landing to the town.

Preliminary work on the new road connecting the new ferry terminal on Hog Island with the town of Mount Pleasant did not begin until 1925, with initial estimates that it would open in the late spring of 1926. The project dragged on much longer, however, and the road, which now forms part of Coleman Boulevard, didn’t open to traffic until the first of May 1928. At that moment, the thirty-year-old ferry terminal at the east end of Hibben Street in Mount Pleasant closed, and the new terminal on the northeast end of Hog Island opened for business. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Cooper River, the Ferry Commission was negotiating with the City of Charleston to purchase land for a new terminal at the east end of Calhoun Street. In the summer of 1928, the commissioners were optimistic about the future of their ferry service, and even planning to replace their aging boats with more modern, diesel-powered vessels.[13]

All of the plans laid by the Cooper River Ferry Commission ground to a halt in 1929, however. In the summer of 1928, the Cooper River Bridge Company had started building a modern steel bridge across the Cooper River. After a year of construction, the first bridge across the wide river opened to automobile traffic in early August 1929. In the wake of that major achievement, the Ferry Commission “immediately abandoned” its plans for expanding ferry service across the river. In fact, the commissioners voted to write themselves out of existence. State funding for the Cooper River Ferry Commission was withdrawn in late 1929, and the commissioners announced their ferry service would cease on the first day of August, 1930.[14] The future would belong to automobiles traveling across super highways and bridges made of concrete and steel. The ferry was a thing of the past—at least that’s what most progressive Charlestonians of the 1930s believed.

The opening of the first vehicular bridge over the Cooper River in 1929 certainly took a large bite out of the potential for ferry traffic, but the bridge wasn’t for everyone. In the early days of its existence, the bridge charged a steep toll for all cars and passengers traveling across the narrow steel path.[15] Furthermore, there were no buses at that time to transport people who didn’t own and automobile or couldn’t drive. In short, there was still a market for a cheap ferry service—if anyone was willing to make the effort. Fortunately for the citizens of that era, Captain Shain Baitary had both the maritime experience and the resources at his disposal. Beginning on August 1st, 1930, the same day the Ferry Commission went defunct, Captain Baitary commenced a regular ferry service between Charleston and Mount Pleasant. In the city, his vessels departed from the ferry terminal at the east end of Cumberland Street, which had been built in 1898. On the east side of the Cooper River, Captain Baitary’s ferries docked at the old landing at the foot of Hibben Street in the village of Mount Pleasant, also built in 1898. The new and expensive ferry terminal on Hog Island, opened by the Ferry Commission in May 1928, was abandoned fifteen months later, much to the disgust of everyone east of the Cooper.

Captain Shain Baitary’s Cooper River ferry service operated from the first of August, 1930, to the end of December, 1939. During that time, he operated a pair of diesel vessels capable of carrying automobiles, and a smaller vessel just for foot passengers. At the same time, Captain Baitary also operated the “Fort Sumter Navigation Service,” which carried tourists around the harbor, in the days before the old fort was a National Park. After nearly a decade of constant work, however, the old captain was ready for retirement, and began dismantling his maritime business. At the end of 1939, he announced to the community that his last ferry would cross the Cooper River on the evening of December 30th. In January 1940, the people of Charleston and Mount Pleasant awoke to a new reality: for the first time in two centuries, there was no ferry service across the river, and no prospect of the return of that venerable mode of transportation.[16]

In the years immediately after the end of Captain Baitary’s ferry service, a handful of private boat owners operated an ad-hoc type of service for carrying foot passengers across the river, much like the water taxi company that operates on the Cooper River today. The first bridge over the river continued to charge a toll until July 1946, when the state legislature paid off the bridge’s construction debt and the state department of transportation assumed control of its operation. With that change, combined with the advent of diesel bus service across the river in the 1950s, the market for ferry passengers virtually disappeared. Like other communities across the United States, our transportation landscape became increasing cluttered with the trappings of midcentury modernism. It didn’t take long for the Lowcountry to forget about its ferry heritage. The expensive road built by the Cooper River Ferry Commission in the late 1920s became part of what is now called Coleman Boulevard in Mount Pleasant. The causeway leading to the 1928 ferry terminal is now the east end of Patriot’s Point Road. Hog Island itself was renamed Patriot’s Point in 1973, when the community was planning the present naval museum bearing that name. The last ferry terminal in urban Charleston, built in 1898 at the east end of Cumberland Street, was wrecked by the hurricane of 1940, sold to the U.S. Navy in 1941, and reborn in 1942 as a modern concrete structure known as the Navy’s Fleet Landing—now a popular restaurant.

Long-time followers of the Charleston Time Machine may have noticed that I’ve presented a variety of programs about transportation history over the past several years. This work is my small contribution to the broader effort of helping our community solve its current and ongoing transportation crisis. Our roads are filled nearly to capacity with cars and trucks, and our collective patience with the ever-increasing traffic is wearing thin. Before the automobile monopolized our lives, however, Lowcountry commuters had access to several interconnected modes of transportation, including commuter trains, urban trolleys, omnibuses, bicycles, and ferries. So when your usual commute is disrupted by bridge closure or a highway accident, remember that you can always travel back in time—in your mind—to relieve the stress. Just imagine yourself floating across the Cooper River in a (relatively) slow-moving ferry, for example, on your way to catch the trolley across Mount Pleasant, or from Charleston to Summerville on the old commuter train. There are no parking meters in the past, you know.

 

 

[1] See [Charleston] City Gazette, 24 June 1816.

[2] See section 14 of Act No. 2503, “An Act to Establish Certain Roads, Bridges and Ferries,” ratified on 18 December 1830, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 9 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1841), 588. Hibben’s death was reported in the Charleston Courier, 9 February 1835.

[3] The discontinuance of Hibben’s ferry after his death is confirmed in an undated 1846 petition of the town council of Mount Pleasant, which states that “the ferry has been discontinued for some time.” See South Carolina Department of Archives and History (hereafter SCDAH), Petitions to the General Assembly, 1846, No. 55. The purchaser of Hibben’s ferry tract, Alonzo White, advertised to sell, subdivide or lease that property on several occasions in the 1830s and 1840s. The Charleston Courier, 1 September 1838, for example, described White’s recent subdivision of the village of “Hibben’s Ferry” and noted that White “has it in contemplation to run out a causeway and build a wharf from the main land, in order to enable steam boats to land there.” This plan was not fulfilled.

[4] The first day of service was announced in Charleston Courier, 9 October 1845. In an undated 1846 petition to the South Carolina legislature, Charles Jugnot stated that he had “built two wharfs [sic] one at Charleston the other at Shell Hall.” SCDAH, Petitions to the General Assembly, 1846, No. 30 and 113. The names of the steamers and their summer schedule to Sullivan’s Island are given in Courier, 29 May 1848.

[5] See Act No. 3077, “An Act to Establish a Company under the name of the Mount Pleasant Ferry Company,” ratified on 19 December 1849, in Acts of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina, Passed in December 1849 (Columbia, S.C.: I. C. Morgan, 1849), 580–82. The addition of “Sullivan’s Island” to their corporate name appears occasionally in the Charleston newspapers of the late 1850s, but became a regular feature by 1852. There were certainly other ferries to Sullivan’s Island prior to this company. James Hibben, for example began offering seasonal trips to the island in the summer of 1792, but neither the efforts of Hibben nor those of his successors were as regular or as sustained as the Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island Ferry Company.

[6] This quotation appears in an undated petition from the intendant and town council of Mount Pleasant to the South Carolina General Assembly, in which they asked to enlarge the powers granted to them in the town charter. Based on the nature of the subject and the names included in the petition, I estimate that it was drafted in late 1846. See SCDAH, Petitions to the General Assembly, N.D., No. 3964.

[7] The work of the Seashore Company received ample coverage in the Charleston newspapers of 1898. See especially the Charleston Evening Post, 8 June 1898, page 5; Charleston News and Courier, 29 July 1898, page 8; and Evening Post, 17 September 1898, page 6.

[8] The utility consolidation is described in Charleston News and Courier, 30 January 1899, page 8. The acquisition of the ferry company is described in Charleston Evening Post, 12 April 1899, page 5. Both of the wharves built by the Mount Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island Ferry Company ca. 1846 were entirely rebuilt after the hurricane of August 1885, and the Mount Pleasant wharf had survived a fire in June 1898. See Charleston News and Courier, 5 December 1885, page 8; and Charleston Evening Post, 10 June 1898, page 5.

[9] See News and Courier, 16 February 1913, page 6: “Seashore Line Changes Hands.”

[10] A number of suits were described in the local newspapers. See, for example, the case of White v. Traction Company (in Charleston News and Courier, 17 January 1919, page 5), Boyd v. Traction Company (in News and Courier, 5 December 1919, page 2), and finally Crawford v. Traction Company (in News and Courier, 26 October 1921, page 6; and Evening Post, 13 January 1923, page 3), which sank the ferry service.

[11] See the front page of Charleston Evening Post, 22 and 23 February 1924; Charleston News and Courier, 25 February 1924, page 10.

[12] See “A Joint Resolution to create a Cooper river Ferry Commission,” ratified on 5 March 1924, in Acts and Joint Resolution of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina Passed at the Regular Session of 1924 (Columbia, S.C.: Gonzales and Bryan, 1924), 1558–62.

[13] For a sampling of the Ferry Commission’s progress, see Charleston News and Courier, 26 October 1924, page 14; Evening Post, 20 October 1925, page 13; News and Courier, 6 January 1926; Evening Post, 1 May 1928, page 12.

[14] Charleston News and Courier, 1 August 1930, page 12: “Cooper Ferry Chairman Discusses its Record.”

[15] For more information about the bridge, see Jason Annan and Pamela Gabriel, The Great Cooper River Bridge (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002).

[16] For information about Baitary and the ferry wharves, see Charleston News and Courier, 12 July 1930, page 12; Charleston Evening Post, 28 December 1939, page 13; Charleston Evening Post, 20 November 1945.

 

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