and Fall and Rise: South Carolina's Maritime History
VOLUME 17, NUMBER 2, FALL 2002 PDF Version
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and Fall and Rise: South Carolina's Maritime History
John H. Tibbetts
Carolina's maritime history has been a roller coaster of success and failure.
In 1940, the grand
old city slumbered. Charleston was known as “buzzard town” because
of the vultures circling slowly over the city dump. Visitors complained
about the terrible smell wafting down from fertilizer plants that processed
fish and chemicals north of the city. At the port of Charleston, wharves
and warehouses rotted, and ship hulls decayed on undredged mud flats.
Most days, the harbor was eerily quiet, the channel between Fort Moultrie
and Fort Sumter empty of ship traffic, as waves slapped against tugboats
in their berths.
Charleston and its
port had been deteriorating for decades. A New York consultant studied
the port’s prospects in 1921. “Most of the Charleston waterfront,”
reported Edward J. Clapp, “is wholly useless save as an historical
relic.” The city’s economy was not much better.
The port limped on
after World War II despite vast federal sums poured into the nearby Charleston
Navy Yard. Throughout the 1950s, Charleston was “still a backwater
port,” says Thomas Larry Young, vice-president of Stevedoring Services
of America, a privately owned builder of shipping terminals. In 1959,
Young started working part-time on the docks at the age of 15. Young remembers
when stevedores held second jobs because the docks couldn’t provide
enough work. “Long-shoremen got a couple of calls a week, and that
This was a humiliation
for the once-famous port city that had dominated maritime trade in the
American South in colonial and early antebellum days.
From the 1730s to
the early 1800s—the golden age of deep-water sailing ships—South
Carolina’s plantation economy thrived on maritime global trade and
the hundreds of ocean-borne vessels that docked in Charleston each year
to load rice and cotton for European markets. International trade spawned
the wealth that built the grand historic homes and gardens of Charleston,
Beaufort, and Georgetown.
Charleston and the
lowcountry grew rich in the eighteenth century largely due to favorable
trade winds in the North Atlantic Basin. Since Columbus’s early voyages,
mariners had known that prevailing winds blow in a circular, clock-wise
fashion around the North Atlantic. Seamen of this era rarely traveled
due west from Europe across the Atlantic to the New World; they would
have headed into the wind’s teeth. Besides, square-rigged merchant
vessels were unsuited to tacking upwind. Squat and slow, designed to carry
heavy cargo, they needed wind at their backs.
A merchant vessel
sailing roundtrip from London to the English American colonies would first
travel southwest to the Azores, west of Portugal. Next, trade winds would
then carry the ship along the southerly route across the Atlantic toward
the West Indies; this was the same path that Columbus took to America.
The ship might pause
at an English West Indian port-of-call. England enjoyed lucrative commerce
with its sugar colonies in the Caribbean. Or the ship might pass straight
through the West Indies to the Florida Keys, where the captain would turn
north, following the Gulf Stream along the eastern shoreline of North
If a ship were aimed
for New York or Boston or Philadelphia, the vessel might stop at Charleston
to take on food and supplies or load and unload cargo.
Charleston was a
primary North American destination for English ships. After trading in
Charleston, a ship would sail up to Cape Hatteras before veering northeast
across the Atlantic to Europe. This transatlantic route, historian George
C. Rogers pointed out, “was a great circle and Charleston was on
its western edge.”
By the 1720s, the
slave trade from Africa to Carolina also flourished. European ships traveled
to West Africa, where they picked up slaves and sailed for the New World.
From 1716 to 1807, the Holy City was the port-of-entry for an estimated
121,500 slaves, about 22 percent of all slaves legally brought into North
America, according to William S. Pollitzer, a professor emeritus of anatomy
and anthropology at the University of North Carolina. Ships from South
Carolina carried rice, cotton, and other goods back to Europe.
In the years before
the American Revolution, Charleston was the fourth largest city in British
North America but easily the richest. Its wealth dominated the rest of
the raw southern outback, with perhaps the exception of Virginia. Visitors
were awed by the city’s glittering society.
Beginning in the
early nineteenth century, however, the lowcountry’s prosperity faltered.
Ports competed fiercely for new business, and New York and other northern
cities won at Charleston’s expense.
decline as a major international seaport came surprisingly quickly. Decades
before the Civil War, the city was on the defensive, fighting abolitionist
criticism and northerners’ vigor and business savvy. Lowcountry planters,
rich and self-satisfied, were determined to keep modern ideas and influences
at bay. Charleston became an increasingly insular place, more of an aristocratic
playground than a thriving city.
From the 1730s, when
Charleston blossomed into a major port, until 1800, when the city began
to fade, it was transformed, wrote Rogers, from a place “that had
looked outward to one that henceforth looked inward.”
Founded as a British
colony in 1670, Charleston soon became a maritime trading partner and
cultural heir of the hugely profitable British West Indian sugar colonies.
During the 1620s,
English colonialists built rough new settlements in the Caribbean islands,
including Barbados, St. Christopher, and Nevis. At first, the English
adventurers barely scratched out a living. But in the 1640s, sugar cane
was introduced into Barbados, and sugar quickly became the island’s
most important export. European consumers lapped up the sweetener and
its byproducts rum and molasses. Within 20 years, a small Barbadian elite
gained control of the most productive land, becoming spectacularly wealthy.
The Barbadians were
the first English colonialists to exploit African slaves on a massive,
brutal scale to produce a cash crop for export. Within a generation, other
British West Indian colonies followed the Barbadian economic blueprint,
as did the next important new settlement on the North American continent:
By the middle of
the seventeenth century, western European monarchs were sponsoring colonies
in North America. Monarchs offered land grants to developers who would
finance settlements, exploit natural resources, and gain profits through
In 1665, King Charles
II of England granted a charter to the Absolute and True Lords Proprietors
for control of the new colony of Carolina. The Lords Proprietors—eight
well-connected Englishmen—invested in Carolina’s first permanent
settlement christened Albermarle Point, soon renamed Charles Town. Most
new immigrants were poor people from England and Barbados. Within a year
wealthy Barbadian sugar planters and their slaves also arrived in Charles
Town to escape the constant threat of slave revolt, hurricanes, and disease
epidemics in the Caribbean.
searched for commodities to sell to Europe and the West Indies, and the
new port was the center of the colony’s economy. Colonialists bartered
with Indians, offering trinkets, cloth, and hatchets for deerskins and
beaver skins. Carolina exported animal pelts to furriers and hatmakers
throughout Europe. Settlers and their slaves harvested naval stores from
coastal forests—turpentine, pitch, lumber, tar, and staves—and
raised cattle in the longleaf woods.
By the mid-1670s,
settlers traded meat, lumber, and Indian slaves to the West Indies for
black slaves, rum, sugar, and trinkets. Colonialists shipped lucrative
naval stores to England for the growing ship building industry. In return,
the new colony received English manufactured goods. In 1683, a French
Huguenot settler remarked that “the port is never without ships and
the country is becoming a great traffic center.”
maritime traders found dramatic success in the early eighteenth century
after lowcountry settlers discovered their most profitable cash crop:
The demand for South
Carolina rice was greatest in northern Europe. Most Americans were not
rice consumers, so “Carolina Gold” rice was produced for overseas
markets. By the 1720s, more than half of the value of all of the colony’s
exports came from the rice trade. A decade later, 500 deep-sea vessels
a year sailed into Charleston’s port to trade. In 1739, eight privately
owned wharves had been built from Bay Street into the Cooper River to
serve the shipping industry.
in 1730, officially became a port the following year, though it remained
a tiny village until after the Revolution. The Beaufort-Port Royal area,
though, grew rapidly just before the Revolution. But Charleston always
dominated the coast politically and economically.
Carolina was not a complete maritime society like coastal Massachusetts,
Rhode Island, and Connecticut. Most South Carolinians looked inland, not
to sea. “In the Northeast, if you lived near the coast, your livelihood
was connected to the water,” says Charlie Sneed, executive director
of the S.C. Maritime Heritage Foundation. “In our part of the country,
people were more likely to make their living in farming and plantations.”
Charleston was blessed
with an excellent harbor, yet South Carolinians built and invested in
few seagoing vessels. Instead, they depended on ships owned by Londoners
or Bostonians. New Englanders increasingly dominated American shipbuilding
and maritime investing. Bostonians bought vessel shares in the way that
modern investors buy corporate stock shares.
P.C. Coker, an independent
scholar of local maritime history, has described the thinking of a typical
colonial Carolina merchant who had 1,200 pounds to invest in the 1730s.
With that sum, a merchant could build and outfit a 200-ton seagoing vessel,
but he would risk his investment with storms, wars, fires, groundings,
and pirates. Or he could pour his money into a dozen slaves and a 500-acre
plantation, where he could grow rice and indigo, which fetched high prices.
The choice was simple: purchase slaves and a plantation and charter someone
else’s ship to send produce to Europe.
Although South Carolinians
built a small number of ocean-going ships, they constructed thousands
of shallow-draft vessels that plied lowcountry rivers and coastal waters.
Settlers needed reliable
vessels built for local conditions, quickly realizing that deep-draft
European ships were impractical in shallow waters behind sea islands.
It was costly and time-consuming to saw planks for small European-style
vessels. So they learned from Indians how to use dugout crafts from the
plentiful bald cypress trees along coastal waterways. The dugout, writes
shipbuilder and author William C. Fleetwood, Jr., was the Model T of colonial
ships—“seemingly everywhere and used for every purpose.”
By the 1720s, colonialists
modified dugout crafts—called periaguas—to move goods downriver
from Indian trading posts to coastal towns. At first, the periagua was
a flat-bottomed, fairly narrow barge with a hull made from two cypress
logs. Four to six men, usually slaves hired from their owners, rowed the
typical periagua. There was a small cabin aft for stowing valuables; trade
goods were covered by tarpaulin. On tidal waters near the coast, periaguas
used sails. In the 1760s, boat builders made larger periaguas with live
oak framing members and wide pine plank. More than 100 barrels of rice,
each weighingabout 560 pounds, could be transported by one of the bigger
The boats and canoes
of the lowcountry were crewed primarily by slaves. Slave watermen enjoyed
considerable autonomy from their masters. Slaves were also crew and often
captains of plantation-owned vessels that sailed coastal waters. Watermen
could stay out of sight of their masters for long periods. Traveling throughout
the lowcountry, slave bondsmen made extra money by trading goods with field hands and other plantation slaves.
Many large plantations
had their own shipyards for vessel construction and repair. At first,
planters hired European shipwrights to build primarily sloops and schooners.
Colonial sloops and schooners were nimble, easy-to-maneuver, relatively
small vessels—ideal for shoal-infested coastal waters. In the mid-eighteenth
century, the typical schooner weighed about 20 tons. By comparison, the
Friendship, one of the largest ocean-going ships built in South Carolina
before the Revolution, weighed 260 tons.
Schooners were used
for coastal transportation and trading and later for trips to the Caribbean
and South America but not for transatlantic voyages. According to Coker,
about 140 schooners were registered and built in the Charles Town area
between 1735 and 1760. Meanwhile, 32 ocean-going ships were registered,
though some were not built here, having been captured from French and
Planters often hired
out their slaves as carpenters and other tradesmen. European shipwrights
taught slave apprentices, who became skilled shipwrights themselves and
trained other slaves. White artisans, however, complained that slave artisans
were too prevalent in South Carolina, depressing wages and making jobs
scarce. In 1744, Andrew Ruck petitioned the Carolina Commons House of
Assembly for relief from the large number of slaves “employed in
mending, repairing, and caulking ships. . .and working at the Shipwright’s
Trade.” In 1751, the Assembly placed a tax on imported slaves, and
one-fifth of the revenue was used as a bounty to encourage shipwrights
to move to South Carolina. But three years later, the state dropped the
bounty because Charleston was prospering and shipwrights were moving in
from Europe and New England.
Before the Revolution,
four active shipyards were located in the Charles Town vicinity, including
the largest at Hobcaw Creek, a deep-water site across the Cooper River
from the city.
Port Royal enjoyed
its maritime glory years before the American Revolution as the most important
shipbuilding site in the southern colonies. Port Royal shipbuilders had
access to excellent timber, particularly live oak, invaluable for use
in curved structural parts of ships such as framing. But the Revolution
devastated the Port Royal-Beaufort area, and recovery was slow. Moreover,
Port Royal was situated far from the center of economic life in Charleston,
hampering its growth.
By 1800, South Carolina’s
shipbuilding industry could not compete with New England’s. Slaves
on large South Carolina plantations probably did most of the ship repair
and construction. Free artisans, who could not work as cheaply as slaves,
migrated to northern shipbuilding cities. Some Carolina shipyards shut
down, victims of slaveholders’ dominion over labor and capital.
By 1800, Charleston
was steadily losing maritime trade to other cities. Greater precision
in navigation and improved vessels allowed ship captains to sail directly
from Europe to New York. Ships no longer had to travel the southerly route
via the Caribbean and Charleston. The faster transatlantic route between
New York and Europe left Charleston out of the loop.
Many British and
New England merchant firms in the 1820s began avoiding Charleston because
free black seamen could not enter the city without a hefty bond being
New Orleans meanwhile
grew fabulously rich by trading produce pouring down the Mississippi and
Ohio rivers. Every major port on the eastern seaboard, hungry for a piece
of that action, sought to extend transportation networks to the west.
But the Appalachians blocked the efforts of merchants who wanted to move
goods east over the mountains to sell to the world.
New York was the
first eastern seaport to skirt the Appalachians. In 1825, the Erie Canal
was completed from the Hudson River at Albany to Buffalo on Lake Erie.
This massive public-works project allowed barges to travel from the Great
Lakes to the Erie Canal to the Hudson River and south to New York. Hence
the Erie Canal was the first waterway linkage between an Atlantic port
and the agricultural lands beyond the mountains. New York became the primary
trading linkage between Europe and the northern Ohio River Valley. The
Erie Canal caused an explosion of wealth in the country’s northern
tier, creating closer economic and social ties between the Great Lakes
and the northeastern states. Philadelphia and Baltimore soon followed
suit, creating transportation links through the mountains.
leaders also sought to improve waterway connections from inland areas
to Charleston. In 1800, the Santee Canal connected the Santee River to
the headwaters of the Cooper River. As a result, the interior country’s
crops were brought downstream to Charleston, but this cut off the Georgetown
port’s potential growth. Interior farms and plantations once served
by Georgetown’s port now sent their produce to Charleston. But the
Santee Canal was plagued by low water levels and by 1840 it was out of
In 1818, the General
Assembly provided special appropriations to build eight canals linking
waterways in nearly every district in the state. Political decisions,
however, trumped engineering analyses, and poor routes were selected.
The public wouldn’t use the canals, so revenues could not pay for
lockkeepers’ salaries. By 1838 six of the eight canals were abandoned,
according to Walter Edgar, a historian at the University of South Carolina.
In the 1820s, the
upstart Savannah port was growing rapidly at Charleston’s expense,
benefiting from steamboats loaded with cotton coming down the Savannah
River. But Charleston fought back. In 1827, the state chartered the South
Carolina Canal and Railroad Company, and over the next six years it laid
track from Hamburg in the Edgefield District to Charleston. The idea was
to draw Savannah River cotton traffic to the Charleston seaport, a route
of 136 miles, at that time the world’s longest railroad under a single
Yet the conservative
lowcountry elite, determined to maintain Charleston as an elegant retreat,
outlawed steam engines within the city limits. “People in Charleston
didn’t want the noise of the engines downtown,” says Edgar.
The railway tracks therefore stopped cold at Line Street. It was a self-destructive
ordinance. At a costly surcharge, freight had to be transferred from rail
cars to wagons, then hauled through the city to the waterfront. “Every
time you handle cargo, you (drive) up the price of it,” notes Edgar.
Savannah, by contrast, allowed a railway built directly to its waterfront.
When South Carolina
rice and cotton dominated the marketplace, Charleston enjoyed its greatest
success. In 1821, South Carolina was the leading cotton-producing state.
On the eve of the Civil War, however, it had fallen to seventh. Productive
lands had opened up in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, then Louisiana,
Arkansas, and Texas. Cotton from the new southwest was shipped via Mobile
and New Orleans instead of Charleston. Meanwhile, lowcountry rice planters
faced competition from Burma, Bengal, Java, and other rice-growing European
Before the Civil
War, South Carolina failed to build a railroad link to the South beyond
the Appalachians. “People talked about it, they dreamed about it,”
says Edgar. “But it was never completed.”
A healthy port, after
all, must rely on a thriving hinterland and an effective transportation
network to feed it. Hemp grown in eastern Kentucky, for example, was used
to bundle southern cotton. But to reach South Carolina, the hemp had to
be sent north by rail to the Great Lakes, by barge to New York, and then
by coastwise vessels to Charleston. In this era, “New York has a
hinterland that stretches west to Indiana” and into the South itself,
says Scott Reynolds Nelson, a historian at the College of William &
Mary. “South Carolina has a hinterland that doesn’t get to Tennessee.”
In the mid-1840s,
Charleston repealed its restriction against steam engines within the city,
but railroad tracks still stopped at the edge of town. By then, the port
had lost its edge. “Charleston was seen as a terrible port starting
in the 1840s,” says Nelson. Its shallow harbor could not accommodate
the new transatlantic steamships with deep drafts. The most sophisticated
shipping merchants and technologies were found in the North. About 60
percent of South Carolina’s exports had to be sent in the coastwise
trade to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where the major
transatlantic lines were located.
The least industrialized
major city in the United States in the late antebellum years, Charleston,
travelers noticed, lacked the verve and energy of other seaports. Lowcountry
planters held anti-business attitudes, with the exception of agricultural
commerce. A southern gentleman made his money in agriculture and owned
slaves. A gentleman did not own textile factories—thus benefiting
from the South’s leading export—and hire white workers who could
upset the order of a slave society.
By contrast, Yankee
entrepreneurs in this era got rich by shrewdly adding value to raw materials
carried by rail and river into their ports. New York, for example, built
grain mills and became the flour capital of North America.
The Civil War ravaged
the South’s rural economy, and for years the region had little to
export. Charleston’s network of private wharves rotted in neglect,
later to be damaged by fires, major hurricanes, and a catastrophic earthquake.
In 1885, a major hurricane smashed the Cooper River waterfront, destroying
piers, wharves, offices, and vessels.
By 1881, northern
financiers purchased the bankrupt South Carolina Railroad. Rails were
extended—finally—through Charleston’s streets to the waterfront.
Northern syndicates purchased other bankrupt South Carolina railroads
and completed links between the Northeast and the Southeast. Holding monopoly
power over rail transport in the state, northern financiers manipulated
freight rates for the benefit of New York trading interests. Sending a
bale of cotton via rail to New York cost three times less than to Charleston.
During the 1890s, the volume of trade handled by the Charleston port dropped
from $98.5 million to $29.5 million.
were not to blame for Charleston’s troubles. An elderly, hidebound
leadership stymied the city’s development. “They were older
men, and the way things were done 40 to 50 years earlier was good enough
for them,” says Edgar. “They didn’t want to change anything.”
City leaders refused to invest in infrastructure improvements. It took
the federal government, for example, to pay for deepening the harbor’s
shipping channel in 1878.
The phosphate trade
was important to both Port Royal and Charleston after the Civil War. Charleston
and Georgetown also exported vast amounts of lumber products to the Northeast.
Until World War I, despite advances in steel ships and steam power, some
shipping companies still used schooners for the coastwise trade. Schooners
carried bulk, low-grade commodities such as New England ice, Middle Atlantic
coal, southern “hard” pine, naval stores, and phosphate ore.
port continued in the deep minor leagues through World War I. The city
could not escape discriminatory rail freight rates, and its leadership
was paralyzed. Railroad systems with financial interests in the ports
of Savannah, Norfolk, Mobile, and New Orleans had acquired Charleston’s
wharves, warehouses, and cargo-handling equipment, which continued to
decay. Railroad syndicates funneled business to Charleston’s competitors.
Some lowcountry politicians tried to stem the port’s downward spiral.
Battles erupted between the still-powerful planter class that sought stasis
and a business community that wanted to rebuild Charleston into an international
In the 1920s, Charleston
Mayor John P. Grace tried to jump-start the port. Under his leadership,
the city purchased waterfront property and equipment, repaired wharves,
and pursued new business. The tonnage and dollar value of cargo handled
through the port doubled during the decade.
But Charleston remained
a third-rate port handling bulk cargo, the least valuable of seaborne
shipments. It required more than 200 longshoremen, sometimes working for
a week, to unload or load a single ship. Laborers used shovels, picks,
big hooks, and oversized wheelbarrows called “Georgia buggies”
to move bulk cargo from ship to boxcar. Bulk cargo included Peruvian guano,
bone meal, and fish scraps. “After you worked a day unloading fish
scraps. . .you stank something terrible,” reminisced retired port
worker John Harleston.
In the 1930s, the
Depression killed Charleston’s gains during the previous decade.
“When the Depression hit and no ships came into the port for about
six months, we almost starved to death,” Harleston said.
on through the 1930s, dreaming of its glorious past—only to be awakened
at mid-twentieth century by World War II and a resurgent, industrializing
Some of the richest
families in North America in the years before the Civil War lived in the
Georgetown area. Yet during the region’s greatest prosperity, Georgetown’s
port on Winyah Bay remained an adjunct of Charleston’s.
Each year a fleet
of vessels from New England would sail down to haul Georgetown’s
rice to market in Charleston or New York.
port was stymied by silt. In 1838, a survey showed that Winyah Bay’s
passage to sea was crooked, difficult to navigate, and only seven and
one-half feet at low tide, too shallow for oceangoing ships. So it remained
a secondary port for coastal trading.
After the war, George-town’s
rice plantations never completely recovered. Over the next 50 years, South
Carolina rice planting died out from repeated hurricanes and competition
from other rice-growing areas.
But the Georgetown area’s lumbering business remained an important
mainstay for workers and maritime trade, with periodic valleys caused
by overproduction and low prices. The industrial and shipbuilding Northeast
used massive amounts of southern “hard” pine in bridges, wharves,
shipbuilding, and houses. Turpentine, pine tar, pitch, and rosin were
exploited from the lumber.
In 1942, the South
Carolina State Ports Authority took over responsibility for the Georgetown
port, and after World War II it worked to improve shipping access. The
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed deepening of the Winyah Bay channel
to 27 feet in 1951, and the Georgetown port began a revival that continues
Today South Carolina's sea trade is peaking again. Can we sustain momentum
maritime trade revived in fits and starts after World War II. The Charleston
Navy Yard had expanded in the late 1930s as the federal government got
ready for war, then mushroomed after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The
U.S. Army also built a large embarkation port north of Charleston. The
old port city was soon surrounded by military installations, and thousands
of newcomers poured in for jobs. State leaders meanwhile realized that
South Carolina needed to rebuild its maritime trade, and in 1942 the General
Assembly created the S.C. State Ports Authority (SPA). The Ports Authority
enabling legislation mandated development of ports in Charleston, Georgetown,
and Port Royal.
After the war, the
Ports Authority received surplus property of the Army Port of Embarkation
north of Charleston, which became the important North Charleston Terminal.
The authority also received the crumbling docks in downtown Charleston.
The Ports Authority upgraded facilities, installed modern equipment, and
established sales offices in New York to gain new business.
“The SPA made
the difference” in reestablishing Charleston as an important port,
says Walter Edgar, a historian at the University of South Carolina. “The
port was no longer just for Charleston. The port was (rebuilt) to create
a pipeline for the entire state. The SPA, in many cases, was run by people
who were not Charlestonians. They were from different parts of the state.”
But the port also benefited from innovative Charleston mayors, says Edgar,
“who realized that Charleston had to change.”
During the mid-1960s,
thousands of small and medium-sized manufacturing firms fled south from
northern states where unions were strong and wages high. South Carolina,
with its anti-union, low-wage environment, was a beneficiary of this influx.
The state also recruited multinational corporations from overseas, which
exported goods through Charleston.
The Ports Authority,
by then, had received state appropriations to purchase additional waterfront
property and enlarge its berthing and storage facilities. The Ports Authority
aimed to catch a technological wave transforming maritime commerce: the
standardized, six-sided shipping container. During the 1960s and 1970s,
shippers reduced labor costs and improved efficiency with containerization,
creating a revolution in how goods are transported around the world.
ships are much larger than ships of the 1950s, and ports can unload cargo
far more quickly than before. Fifty years ago, it often required several
days’ time to unload or load a ship. Now a ship can be unloaded or
loaded in hours. Time is money for shipping firms. When ships are tied
up in docks, their owners are losing out. The most efficient ports win
contracts for further business.
In 1966, the port
handled its first standardized container, and suddenly after 150 years
of maritime decline Charleston could take full advantage of its port.
One advantage of
Charleston’s port is that it’s nearer the ocean than those in
Savannah, Wilmington, and Jacksonville. “We’re a seaport, and
they’re river ports,” says Randall Swan, a retired harbor pilot
who began his apprenticeship in 1955. “All things being equal, if
you’re closer to the ocean, you’re going to save time, and that
gives us a competitive advantage.” Charleston harbor also has a wider
channel than some other southeastern ports. Giant ships can pass two abreast
almost anywhere in Charleston harbor’s channel; they don’t have
to wait offshore or at the dock for the channel to clear.
Charleston has become
the busiest container port after New York on the East and Gulf coasts,
and the fourth busiest in the nation. It’s also one of the most efficient
ports in the world. As a result, experts say, Charleston draws the best
in oceangoing vessels—container ships on a regular line of service.
South Carolina leaders
used long-range planning, practical management, public investment, and
technological innovation to make the state’s largest port successful
again. Even so, “people don’t realize how much we rely on the
port,” says Al Parish, an economist at Charleston Southern University.
“The port is one of the top three or four reasons that manufacturers
cite in locating in South Carolina. The port helps the state maintain
manufacturing jobs that pay much more than service jobs and help bring
up incomes for the working class.” International trade through the
Ports Authority facilities provides more than 83,000 jobs in South Carolina
and pumps $10.7 billion in sales into the state economy each year.
In 1999, the Ports
Authority proposed a massive expansion plan for Charleston harbor facilities
on Daniel Island called “The Global Gateway.” The Ports Authority
said that the expansion was needed to sustain the growth in trade anticipated
over the next several decades and to improve the state’s economy.
But the expansion
proposal angered many lowcountry residents, who argued that it would harm
nearby neighborhoods. Critics denounced the Ports Authority as arrogant
and dismissive of community concerns. The port’s recent success seemed
to alarm many Charleston-area residents who wanted to put brakes on the
Citizens seemed most
alarmed by the projected increases in port-related truck traffic. “When
you really got down to it, the greatest concern was the impact of the
port on the local highway infrastructure,” says John F. Hassell,
president of Charleston’s Maritime Association and a member of the
Ports Authority board. Trucks are a small percentage of metropolitan traffic,
he says, “but trucks are visible.”
In response to community
criticism, the Ports Authority scaled back its plan to expand on Daniel
Island. Yet community coalitions argued that Daniel Island should not
be developed for any port facility, though the island juts into the harbor,
an ideal location for maritime trade. Activists called for a port expansion
on the Cooper River’s west bank near an existing rail system.
issues have often stymied the development of Charleston’s port. Throughout
the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, Charleston
lost trade to other seaports, and the lowcountry consistently failed to
exploit its maritime potential. Now some wonder if the Charleston area
could repeat this history.
To historian Edgar,
the recent controversy echoes the Charleston elite’s attitude toward
noisy port-related traffic in the nineteenth century. “It’s
almost the same thing as not allowing the train to come to the docks”
from the 1820s to the 1880s, says Edgar.
Earlier this year,
the state General Assembly passed a port expansion bill that instructed
the Ports Authority to build a container terminal on the west side of
the Cooper River. The likely site for expansion is the southern end of
the former Navy Base in North Charleston near existing rail lines.
strongest natural resource that South Carolina has is Charleston harbor,”
says Parish. “If we aren’t going to take advantage of it, then
our standard of living is going to go down.”
Bunting, W.H. Portrait
of a Port: Boston, 1852-1914. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1971.
Coker, P.C. III.
Charleston’s Maritime Heritage 1670-1865. Charleston: CokerCraft
Edgar, Walter B.
South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina
C. Jr. Tidecraft: The Boats of South Carolina, Georgia and Northeastern
Florida, 1550-1950. Tybee Island, Georgia: WBG Marine Press, 1995.
Fraser, Walter J.
Jr. Charleston! Charleston! A History of a Southern City. Columbia:
University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Nelson, Scott Reynolds.
“Public Fictions: The Southern Railway and the Construction of the
South, 1848-1885.” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1994.
S. The Gullah People and Their African Heritage. Athens: University
of Georgia Press, 1999.
Rogers, George C.
Jr. Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys. Columbia: University
of South Carolina Press, 1969.
Rogers, George C.
Jr. The History of Georgetown County. Columbia: University of South
Carolina Press, 1970.
Rubin, Louis D. Jr.
Seaports of the South: A Journey. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1998.
South Carolina State
Ports Authority. History of the South Carolina State Ports Authority.