Story and photos by Diane Slawych – “Y’all probably didn’t know that Charleston sits on the second most active earthquake fault line in North America,” explains guide Stephen Rosling of the Old South Carriage Company. “We don’t put that on Trip Advisor,” he jokes. “The city thrives off tourism and we want y’all to come here.”
It wouldn’t have mattered. My friend and I had read so many glowing reviews about the city we were determined to visit, even though we only had a weekend and had already booked our hotel in Myrtle Beach a two-hour drive away.
Our Belgian draft horse “Tom” leads the way passed pastel-coloured mansions with elaborate wrought iron gates on streets lined with stately live oak trees. Here, gas lamps are lit 24/7, which Rosling says, gives the city a beautiful ambiance at night. I inhale the scent of jasmine flowers filling the spring air. It’s hard to imagine Charleston has not always been a picture of beauty and tranquility.
The city has survived wars (the Civil War started here), several great fires, earthquakes and hurricanes. Through it all, it has managed to become one of the top travel destinations in the U.S.
One of the worst disasters was the big earthquake of 1886, which damaged 2,000 buildings, though it didn’t destroy the Old Powder Magazine South Carolina’s oldest public building which also happens to have three-foot-thick walls, or the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, considered one of the most historically significant colonial buildings in the U.S.
Today you can see earthquake bolts (some of which resemble circular discs) on the outside of many historic homes. The bolts are caps for long iron rods, which run through the interior floors and are cranked regularly to straighten walls and correct other structural damage.
There is history at every turn a graveyard on Meeting Street with headstones dating to the 1690s; the old jail, which resembles a castle, and is said to be the most haunted building in Charleston; and the Old Slave Mart Museum, located in a building where slaves were once bought and sold (forty percent of all slaves that came to the U.S. came through Charleston).
“If there’s one thing you should learn on this tour it’s that during the Civil War, Charleston was bombed by the north for 578 days straight,” said Rosling, as we pass Chalmers Street, the city’s longest cobblestone street.
The steeple of St. Michael’s Episcopal church was painted black during the war, to make it less visible and harder to bomb at night. The church sits at one of the busiest intersections in the city – Broad and Meeting Streets – which was named the Four Corners of Law by Robert Ripley of Ripley’s Believe it or Not. The church represents God’s law, while the other buildings the post office, the county court house, and the city hall – represent federal law, state law and city law respectively.
Broad Street is also the socio economic dividing line, which, as Rosling put it, separates the “haves” from the “haves-a-whole-lot-more.” “Check out this Victorian house with its wrap around porch on the right homes can double in value just by crossing Broad Street.”
“Here in Charleston we don’t call them porches but piazzas.’ It’s funny that we give it an Italian word because we don’t have any Italian influence in the city’s history,” he notes. “In 1708 we had a mostly African population, followed by British, then French, German, Scottish and Irish.”
Some of the ceilings of the piazzas are painted in a colour called Haint Blue, a tradition originating with the local Gullah people, descendents of slaves who believed the colour would prevent spirits from entering the house. “Today it has more of a practical purpose,” explained Rosling. “It’s said that birds, wasps, and spiders will not nest in something that is painted that colour. They think it looks like the sky, so they’ll nest elsewhere.”
The “single” house, so named because it is a single room wide, is another common sight in Charleston. The house sits lengthwise on the lot with a side yard instead of a back yard, in part to take advantage of southerly breezes and also to save on property taxes – which were once based on the length of street frontage.
One of these single houses is now the Low Country Bistro, where we stopped for lunch earlier in the day. We found it after my friend got a coupon at the tourist office for a free “she crab appetizer.” We sat outside on an upper floor balcony near some palmetto trees, and sampled a variety of other southern dishes prepared with flare, including shrimp and grits, fried green tomatoes, and the bistro’s signature dish – fried chicken on a Belgian corn bread waffle with pecan butter and bourbon reduction.
“When it comes to the preservation of our buildings, only Rome, Italy is more preserved than Charleston,” maintains Rosling. The city is also the place to find one of the oldest African crafts in the U.S – sweetgrass coiled basketry. We see plenty of fine examples in the market, where the tour ends.
On the way back to Myrtle Beach, we stop at Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, “Charleston’s most visited plantation.” The property dates to 1676, and is now owned by the eleventh generation of Draytons, making it the only plantation still under original family ownership. While waiting for the tour of the house to begin we have a look at the hedge maze, photograph the peacocks, and walk through the “oldest public garden in the U.S.,” where azaleas were first introduced to America. The former rice plantation has 500 acres to explore including self-guided walks through the Audubon swamp garden, and guided nature tours by boat or train where you can see alligators, turtles, herons and more. We take the 45-minute tour of five slave cabins that date back to 1850 and are impressed by the guide’s insightful and thoughtful commentary.
IF you go:
The Charleston Visitor Centre often gives out coupons for free appetizers at local eateries, as well as city maps, and a pamphlet I recommend called “Charleston’s Museum Mile”. This is a compact area with 15 museums & historic sites, 12 places of worship, and 8 other points of interest.
Horse and carriage tours with Old South Carriage Company are $25US. Check OldSouthCarriage.com. Porter Airlines has seasonal flights from Toronto to Myrtle Beach and now from Toronto to Charleston. Ask for details.