In Charleston parlance, “the Battery” is the common name for what is actually a pair of man-made seawalls that define the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula. The so-called “High Battery” measures just over 1,400 feet long and was built in the early nineteenth century to facilitate the creation of what we now call East Battery Street and White Point Garden. The so-called “Low Battery” is an adjacent seawall measuring nearly 5,000 feet in length that was built in the early twentieth century to facilitate the creation of what we now call Murray Boulevard. Collectively, these batteries afford panoramic vistas of Charleston harbor and the adjacent islands, but they’re also susceptible to being overflowed by crashing waves during strong storms and hurricanes. Furthermore, it’s become clear over the past several decades that these centuries-old walls are in need of some significant repairs. To address these issues, the City of Charleston is in the midst of a multi-year effort to stabilize, strengthen, and perhaps even enlarge these seawalls a bit. Also under consideration are various plans to improve the landscaping and perhaps to alter the flow of automobile traffic. To help our community understand the challenges posed by such multi-million-dollar projects, I think it’s important to look back at the many generations of labor that led to the creation of the present “High” and “Low” battery seawalls. Our brief journey begins nearly 300 years ago, when the entire area in question was just a bit of underwater, imaginary real estate.
Despite being separated in age by a century, the High Battery and the Low Battery have much in common. For example, they were both long-term projects intended to enhance the scenic beauty of the area. They were both massively expensive projects. And finally, both the High and Low Batteries were built on non-existent real estate. That is to say, they were both built in the water, not on beachfront property, or on a beach, or even near the water’s edge, but out in the liquid streams of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. When a strong storm like a hurricane passes near Charleston harbor, the heightened waves often crash over these man-made seawalls and flood the adjacent homes. Such events are frustrating and costly, to be sure, but it’s important to remember that Charlestonians have been fighting this battle since the early 1700s.
When Europeans first began settling on the narrow spit of land between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers in the 1670s, they confined their homes and farms to the highest and driest real estate available. For the first half century of Charleston’s existence, the vast majority of the homes in the town were built north of Vanderhorst’s Creek (now Water Street) and south of Daniel’s Creek (now Market Street). The term White Point, which we now use to describe the park next to the Battery at the southern tip of the peninsula, was once used in a much broader sense. In colonial-era records, the phrase “White Point” is frequently used to describe all of the land south of Vanderhorst Creek (Water Street), as far west as modern Council Street. To those early settlers, White Point was a broad, low-lying area that was “washed by the tides,” to use a common phrase from ages past. In short, 300 years ago, the land around the southernmost tip of Charleston, called White Point, was a broad, vacant beach kept clear by the potent forces of nature.
As the population of urban Charleston grew, however, so too did the physical limits of the town. In April 1725, the provincial government of South Carolina ordered the owners of the sandy land at White Point to stake out their respective waterfronts with a line of wooden pilings and ballast stones to begin the long process of creating a hard line between the water and dry land. In the mid-1730s the government extended Church Street southward over Vanderhorst’s Creek (now Water Street) and built at the southernmost tip of White Point a large brick fortification called Broughton’s Battery. In order to protect that expensive construction project, in May 1736 the legislature ordered the creation of a double-row of wooden piles around the sandy perimeter of the unfinished fort. In March 1738, after the completion of Broughton’s Battery, the legislature repeated its order for property owners around White Point, from Vanderhorst Creek on the east to what is now Council Street on the west, to secure their waterfronts with rows of wooden pilings. In the early 1740s, after the formal declaration of war against our Spanish neighbors, the South Carolina legislature ordered the construction of earthen walls and gun batteries around White Point, flanking Broughton’s Battery. Despite all of these efforts to transform White Point into a fortified beach, the hurricane of September 1752 washed away most of the wooden pilings and earthen ramparts.
Undaunted by the effects of the devastating hurricane, South Carolina Governor James Glen brought in German-born engineer William De Brahm to design and construct new fortifications around White Point. Between 1752 and 1755 Mr. De Brahm drew three different plans for fortifying Charleston, the last of which was actually set in motion on the ground. In the late 1750s De Brahm and hundreds of laborers erected massive banks of earth, or ramparts, that formed a high, solid wall around the perimeter of White Point, from Granville Bastion (where the Missroon House stands today) south to Broughton’s Battery, and then westward to the south end of Legare Street. Atop these ramparts were erected parapet walls that shielded dozens of cannon meant to protect the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula from attack.
The South Carolina legislature pulled the plug on William De Brahm’s expensive fortification project in 1759, but by then the new works around White Point were complete. Despite their high price, however, the earthen ramparts proved to be vulnerable to the storm tides that visited Charleston every autumn. To stabilize and protect their expensive investment in these works, the South Carolina legislature authorized the construction of a brick wall immediately in front of De Brahm’s ramparts. The new wall, which commenced in May of 1768, stood five feet high above the surface of the beach and rested on a foundation of Bermuda-stone blocks imbedded in the mud. Behind this new wall workers dumped tons of soil, which effectively raised the surface of the old beach forever. Completed at the end of 1769, the brick and Bermuda-stone wall traced a zig-zag line around White Point measuring half a mile in length.
By the time the American Revolution began in 1775, the entire southern perimeter of White Point was a heavily fortified military complex. Just fifty years earlier, however, the site had been a vacant beach that was daily washed by the tides. Between the late 1720s and the late 1760s, South Carolinians had used wood, then earth, and then brick in a sustained effort to create a hard barrier against the waters that form Charleston harbor. The purpose of these works was not simply to create viable real estate or enhance the scenic beauty, but rather to protect the fortifications that contributed greatly to the security of the town. In that respect, the late-colonial-era seawalls around White Point served their purpose adequately, but no one expected them to last forever.
In the aftermath of the American Revolution in the mid-1780s, the South Carolina legislature gave the newly incorporated City Council of Charleston permission to demolish the accumulated fortifications around the city. The bricks used to build Broughton’s Battery in the late 1730s were knocked down and sold at auction. The earth forming William De Brahm’s 1750s ramparts was leveled and spread across the neighborhood around White Point. The brick seawall constructed in the late 1760s continued to be useful, and so it was preserved well into the early 1800s. Contemporary with the de-militarization of White Point in the mid-1780s, however, the City of Charleston was making plans to create new real estate out of the mud that stood in front of the existing sea wall.
In 1785 city leaders announced an ambitious plan that sounded deceptively simple: the southern end of East Bay Street, which terminated at what is today the Missroon House, the headquarters of the Historic Charleston Foundation, was to be continued approximately 1,000 feet southward to White Point. Plats of the proposed route, drawn in the late 1780s and early 1790s, show a straightforward thoroughfare sixty feet wide, located entirely outside (or to the east of) the colonial-era brick seawall. The only complicating factor was, of course, that the proposed route was underwater, even at low tide. In order to accomplish its goal, therefore, the city would first have to build a robust new seawall.
The task of continuing East Bay Street southward to White Point was an expensive venture, so it took the city government a decade to secure the real estate and the capital necessary to begin the project. In the meantime, the outbreak of a new war between Britain and France in 1793 prompted the construction of a new fortification at White Point. Fort Mechanic, so-called because it was constructed by local tradesmen, was built in the mid-1790s on the site of a colonial-era fortification facing the Cooper River waterfront. In order to clear the new fort, the projected route of the new extension of East Bay street had to be pushed a bit to the east, further into the waters around White Point.
The work of building a new seawall in the stream of the Cooper River commenced in the mid-1790s, using square “hog pens” of palmetto logs filled with ballast stone to weigh them down. After a couple of years of work, the hurricane of 1797 washed it all away. Construction began anew in 1798, but the hurricane of 1800 again ruined the work. Switching to more durable materials, the city commenced building a brick seawall in 1801. After that work was entirely demolished by the powerful hurricane of 1804, the city cooled its heels and did nothing for several years.
Using traditional materials and techniques, the goal of creating a broad, scenic roadway around the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula, outside of the colonial-era works, seemed impossible. After several years of further planning, the city government adopted a more expensive plan of using granite blocks, imported from the northern states, to build the seawall. Construction recommenced in 1808 and continued for a decade without sustaining any major storm damage. Following the demolition of Fort Mechanic at the conclusion of the War of 1812, city workers completed the “battery” seawall, as it quickly became known, at the end of 1818.
In the first two decades after the completion of the seawall we now call the “High Battery,” the land behind the wall was almost entirely vacant. The colonial-era fortifications were long gone, and the brick seawall constructed in 1768 was now entirely obscured by the southward extension of East Bay Street behind the new seawall. In a brief episode of extravagant optimism in 1836, Charleston’s city government proposed transforming this vacant expanse into a broad public pleasure garden. A sudden downturn in the economy in 1837 forced the city to curtail its plans, however, and the city’s first public park was confined to a much smaller space at the southern extremity of East Bay Street (now called East Battery Street). Between 1837 and 1838, contractors built what they called a “wharf wall” of palmetto logs that enclosed a watery square from the southern end of the Battery seawall to the southern end of Meeting Street. After filling the square with earth and planting trees and shrubs, the city opened White Point Garden to the public in 1838.
Charleston’s first public park encompassed approximately three and a half acres of man-made land with a spectacular view of the harbor, and it proved to be very popular. Within a decade of its completion, the city commenced plans to extend the park in a westward direction and to surround it with a more permanent seawall. After acquiring the necessary real estate and arranging the contracts, in 1849 the city extended the granite Battery seawall approximately 300 feet to the south. Turning sharply to the west from this point, a brick and concrete seawall built in 1850 expanded White Point Garden to its present limit at the southern end of King Street. By the end of 1852, after two years of filling and planting, the expanded park began to resemble the lush green space we enjoy today.
Between the completion of the city’s now-famous granite seawall in 1818 and the completion of White Point Garden in 1852, Charleston did not experience the arrival of any major hurricanes. That fortuitous streak ended in September 1854, however, when the arrival of a massive storm caused extensive damage to the battery and the walls surrounding White Point Garden. City engineer Charles Parker made a thorough inspection of the works and in 1855 filed a detailed report that included his recommendations for repairing the battery seawall and raising its height. When you stand on the “High Battery” today and watch the tidal waters crash against the stone blocks, you can thank Charles Parker for giving you a bit of extra height above the waves.
Although the damages to the battery seawall caused by the hurricane of 1854 proved costly, the expense didn’t deter the City of Charleston from contemplating another expensive extension of White Point Garden. In early 1857, the city purchased a parcel of land adjacent to the western edge of the park, where ramshackle wharves and shipyards made the most of that watery location. This purchase was not just a bit of municipal folly, however. It was the first small step in a vague but ambitious plan to continue the seawall, the public park, and a scenic thoroughfare further westward, and to reclaim the southwestern edge of the peninsula from the Ashley River. In short, the city’s 1857 acquisition of a small piece of land, now home to the Fort Sumter House, marks the beginning of the long effort to create what we now call the “Low Battery” seawall and Murray Boulevard.
And for the purposes of our story, this also seems like the logical place for a break. Tune in next week, when we’ll continue this epic journey from the era of the American Civil War to the twenty-first century, focusing on the genesis the Low Battery and the latest efforts to improve that century-old seawall.