Welcome to the Charleston Time Machine. I’m Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library, and today’s program is Part 2 of a brief history of one of Charleston’s most iconic landmarks, generally called “the Battery.” In last week’s program, we discussed a series of building campaigns between the 1720s and the 1850s in which our local government gradually transformed the southernmost point of the Charleston peninsula, called White Point, from a sandy beach into scenic high ground. The so-called “High Battery,” that granite seawall protecting East Battery Street, looks today pretty much like it did by the end of the 1850s, after generations of building and rebuilding. Then, just a few years before South Carolina seceded from the Union, Charleston’s city leaders began planning a massive new project, to continue the seawall further westward, to extend White Point Garden, and to build a scenic promenade around the west side of the peninsula. That ambitious antebellum plan was derailed by a series of misfortunes, but it laid the groundwork for a dream that was finally realized in the 1920s by the completion of the so-called “Low Battery” and Murray Boulevard, and in the 1960s with the construction of Lockwood Drive. Today’s focus on the history of Charleston’s Low Battery begins in the autumn of 1856, when the first notions of extending the seawall westward first appeared on the city’s horizon.
At the close of the year 1856, the City of Charleston was just wrapping up the extensive repairs to the High Battery seawall and White Point Garden made necessary by the destructive hurricane of 1854. Immediately to the west of these expensive public projects, jutting out into the Ashley River, stood a series of rather unsavory private wharves, which the city viewed both as a nuisance and a potential liability to the public park. In late November 1856, Charleston’s mayor, William Porcher Miles, suggested the city could better protect White Point Garden if it were to acquire the property immediately to the west of the park. In early 1857, City Council and the City Attorney pressed hard into this neighboring property, purchasing some land and challenging the legal title of other parcels. By the autumn of 1857, at the end of his two-year term in office, Mayor Miles expressed his desire to see this work continued, to see White Point Garden and its protective seawall extended further to the west across this newly-acquired real estate. His successor, Mayor Charles Macbeth, may have been inclined to sustain the project, but a trio of contrary forces intervened. First, the city found itself embroiled in a public challenge to the city’s legal right to control the property in question. Second, the Panic of 1857 led to a widespread economic contraction. Third, the rising tide of Secession, and then Civil War, usurped the city’s energies and quietly banished all thoughts of expanding White Point Garden for a generation.
The American Civil War devastated the Charleston economy, divided the people, and damaged the local infrastructure. In its aftermath, the City of Charleston was not in a financial position to dream about the westward expansion of White Point Garden and its seawall. In the summer of 1870, the city quietly sold the land it had worked so hard to acquire in 1857, immediately west of White Point Garden between the south ends of King and Legare Streets. Today this property is home to the Fort Sumter House and about a dozen private residences.
Not long after the sale of this waterfront property in 1870, a number of city leaders began contemplating a new vision for the city’s Ashley River waterfront. If they weren’t able to continue White Point Garden further to the west, then perhaps they could extend the roadway known as South Bay or South Battery Street around the mudflats on the city’s southwestern perimeter. According to several city documents from the early 1870s, the plan was to continue South Battery Street from the south end of Legare Street in an arcing, northwestern trajectory, crossing Tradd Street just a bit west of Rutledge Avenue, and joining the southern end of Ashley Avenue next to the Rutledge Street Pond (now called Colonial Lake). This proposed work, dubbed the “Ashley River Embankment” project, would have created at least fifteen acres of new land behind a new seawall, but the plan was doomed by a variety of circumstances. At the end of 1880, Charleston’s mayor, William Courtenay, stated that while this plan was not new, it “having been in the public mind for many years, but owing to the magnitude of the work, and other disabilities, no active steps have been taken to accomplish the desired result. . . . With the present needs of the City for improvements in our roadways and sidewalks it would be out of the question to undertake this ‘Ashley Embankment’ from the general treasury” (Charleston Year Book, 1880, p. 104–5).
Although the plan to build a new seawall around the Ashley River mudflats stalled in the 1870s, it wasn’t completely forgotten. More than a decade later, in the early months of 1889, Charleston was abuzz with talk of reviving the plan on an even more ambitious scale. Civic leaders and merchants met privately to rally support for a plan, which they agreed to present to City Council in July. Charleston was lagging behind other “progressive cities of the South,” they argued, and the creation of a new seawall and an extensive, scenic boulevard on the city’s west side would impound dozens of acres of mudflats that could be filled to create new, taxable land, and help draw tourists and money to the city. In a memorial to City Council, they asked the city to consider creating “a sea wall promenade or boulevard, from its present terminus to a point west and south of the Chisolm mill property [at the west end of Tradd Street] and continue westwardly the same to the water park belonging to the city and adjoining the New Bridge property [at the west end of Spring Street]. . . . That the property thus reclaimed, or purchased, be laid out in parks, lakes, walks, drives, building lots and sites for industrial and other purposes” (Charleston World, 12 July 1889).
In response to the 1889 proposal to construct a new seawall and boulevard, Charleston’s City Council embraced the plan and rather quietly began to set the necessary wheels in motion. Between 1889 and 1893, the City studied the legal ownership of the vacant mudflats along the city’s western perimeter, and began securing a right-of-way through the lands in question. Taking the plan a step farther, the city actually purchased numerous acres of marshland on the upper west side of the Charleston peninsula, beyond Spring Street, as far north as the west end of Grove Street, by what is now Hampton Park. Owing to the economic downturn of the mid-1890s caused by the “Panic of 1893,” however, the “Boulevard” project once again ground to a halt.
After three failed attempts to extend a battery seawall around the southwestern edge of the peninsula, in the 1850s, the 1870s, and the early 1890s, the long-dreamed-of project was again revived in the early years of the twentieth century. It happened during the second term of Mayor Robert Goodwyn Rhett, during an era of economic expansion and optimism that brought Charleston out of the post-Civil War doldrums. After years of planning and legal wrangling, the city finally broke ground on the “Boulevard” project in July 1909. In his end-of-the-year address, printed in the Charleston Year Book of 1910, Mayor Rhett observed that “the year 1909 marks the beginning of a new commercial era in Charleston. . . . For more than a half century it has been the dream of our people to extend the Battery westward. The dream, in fuller measure than ever pictured, is now becoming a reality.” The new boulevard behind the new concrete seawall would ultimately extend from White Point Garden as far north as Hampton Park, the mayor confidently stated, but for practical purposes it would have to be done in stages over a number of years.
The first stage of the seawall and boulevard project, terminating at the west end of Tradd Street, was completed in December 1911. According to a review of the project in the city Year Book of 1911, in twenty-nine months of construction the McLean Contracting Company of Baltimore built a seawall measuring 3,885 feet long, in the waters of the Ashley River from the south end of King Street to the west end of Tradd Street, and pumped in 667,000 cubic feet of mud from the riverbed to raise the level of the earth behind the seawall. That work, which cost the city just over $261,000, would have been completed earlier, but the dramatic hurricane of August 1911 flooded the new boulevard works, in addition to causing extensive damage to White Point Garden and the old High Battery seawall.
Charleston residents of 1912 saw the first houses built on the land newly reclaimed from the Ashley River, but the work of creating a new neighborhood continued slowly over the next few years. The former low-lying mudflat was now just a higher, dryer mudflat protected from the river by a relatively low concrete seawall. As promised, the city laid out new streets in the area, but it paved them with oyster shells that quickly disappeared into the mud. Furthermore, the new work terminated at the west end of White Point Garden, approximately 1,000 feet west of the High Battery seawall. In 1916, one local resident who was growing tired of the mess and the delays, proposed to make a deal with the city. Andrew Buist Murray pledged to contribute up to $40,000 of his own money if the city would pave the un-named boulevard with asphalt and connect the new boulevard and seawall with the High Battery and East Battery Street. The city quickly accepted Murray’s generous offer and began planning the work.
The task of completing the last one thousand feet of new seawall and connecting it to the old High Battery commenced in 1917 and was completed in December 1919. During that period of work, however, the Great War in Europe cast a long shadow over the project. After the United States entered the war in 1917, materials and labor became scarce and continued to be so for several years. In response to these hardships, the seawall engineers cut corners. City reports from the late 1910s document the use of inferior materials and structural shortcuts to build the final phase of the sea wall we call the “Low Battery,” and “the Turn” or rounded corner at the intersection of the new wall and the older “High Battery.” A century later, in the early twenty-first century, these shortcomings matured into significant issues requiring serious attention from the city government.
Meanwhile, back in the early 1920s, a pair of obstacles forced the city to drag its feet on the completion of the last one thousand feet of boulevard through White Point Garden. The cost of the project was prohibitive, so Andrew Murray again offered the city more money to expedite the work. A thornier issue proved to be the prevailing public opposition to the idea of creating a roadway for automobiles through the city’s venerable Battery park. A number of citizens sent angry letters to the city and spoke up at City Council meetings, voicing their dismay at the notion that the city would corrupt such a beautiful garden and destroy such a scenic vista by permitting cars, trucks, and buses to careen around White Point. Such a move would be disrespectful, unsightly, and dangerous for the pedestrians who daily strolled through the gem of Charleston’s parks. Nearly every citizen living nearby signed a petition against the plan, but to no avail. The last stage of “the Murray Boulevard,” as it was then called, was finished in 1922, and vehicles have been looping around White Point Garden ever since.
You may recall I mentioned earlier that published descriptions of the highly anticipated “Boulevard” project around the turn of the twentieth century mentioned the desire to continue the scenic roadway from White Point Garden around to the west end of Tradd Street, then northward to the west end of Spring Street, and then even farther northward to the west end of Grove Street, next to Hampton Park. Today Murray Boulevard terminates at the west end of Tradd Street, right where it did in 1922, so I hope you’re wondering why the project wasn’t completed. In short, the Great Depression killed the project. Andrew Buist Murray, whose contributions to the project’s first phase earned him enduring fame, left a significant bequest to the City of Charleston when he died in December 1928. The money was earmarked specifically for building the next phase of the boulevard, from Tradd Street to Spring Street, however, and the Stock Market crash of 1929 forced the city to make a difficult decision. As the national economy rapidly began to sour, the City of Charleston realized it would be many years before it had sufficient funds to start such an expensive project, and so the city filed a legal quit claim to Mr. Murray’s generous bequest. In the 1930s, the Victorian-era dream of a scenic West Bay boulevard from White Point to Hampton Park quietly disappeared. Lockwood Drive, which was created in stages in the 1960s and 1970s, travels along a similar path as the intended boulevard, but it’s a far cry from the grand scenic promenade envisioned by earlier generations.
I think it’s about time for a bit of review. The iconic Charleston landmarks that we call Murray Boulevard and the Low Battery seawall were the fruits of a city-funded project that commenced in 1909 (after five decades of discussion) and ended in 1922. During those thirteen years of construction, the success of the project was tarnished by shortages of materials and labor, and by civic disagreements about the introduction of automobiles into the landscape.
A century later, twenty-first century Charleston is now facing the legacy of those same issues. In late 2013 the city undertook an expensive two-year project to demolish completely and build anew “the Turn,” the rounded corner that connects the High Battery to the Low Battery. The materials and construction techniques used to build the original “Turn” in 1917–1919 were simply insufficient for their intended purpose and had to be replaced. More recently, in the summer of 2017 the City of Charleston unveiled its preliminary ideas for improving the century-old “Low Battery” seawall, and invited citizens to review several options and to submit feedback about design choices. In short, the city is planning to spend millions of dollars on work to strengthen and raise the century-old seawall a bit, improve the landscaping, and perhaps make changes to the flow of automobile traffic along Murray Boulevard as well. The announcement of the city’s proposed improvements garnered a fair amount of public attention over the summer, especially among residents in the immediate neighborhood, but the passing of Hurricane Irma in mid-September brought even more attention to the issues at hand. Irma wasn’t the first storm to send waves crashing over the seawalls that define the southern perimeter of the Charleston peninsula, and it certainly won’t be the last.
As the community contemplates the future of the Low Battery and Murray Boulevard, I suggest that we can learn a few lessons by looking back at the history of these iconic landmarks. Both the High and Low Battery seawalls were designed to create high land out of underwater real estate. They are the products of multiple sustained building episodes that began nearly three hundred years ago, using wood, then earth, then brick, then stone, and finally concrete and steel. These walls have endured dozens of severe storms and been repaired and patched as many times. As our global climate evolves and storms continue to batter our beloved batteries, improvements and changes will become mandatory. Our seawalls are historic, but they are neither perfect nor immutable. Charleston will, as it always has, leverage its past as a tool to meet the challenges of the future.