The city of Charleston, South Carolina has been around since the beginning of time. Okay, maybe not the beginning of time, but it has been around since the beginning of America. Charles Towne was founded in 1670 by eight of King Charles II of England’s loyal followers. The original settlement was actually a few kilometers up the Ashley River, but with the encouragement of some of the friendly local Native Americans the settlers moved down river to the city’s current local on the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers.
The history in Charleston runs as deep as the Cooper River and as a self-proclaimed history nerd, I knew I wanted to learn more of the “Holy City” while I was there for the long weekend. I love walking tours of cities and I was giddy with excitement when I learned that Free Tours By Foot offers three different tours of Charleston. While I was in New York this past fall I participated in a couple of their tours and loved their concept and tour guides. I immediately signed up for all 3 tours! The Historic Charleston tour runs daily at 9:30am with a second tour on Sundays at 1pm.
I met my guide, Diana, and two other girls at the corner of Tommy Condon’s restaurant at Church and Linguard Streets. At 9:30am we promptly headed down Church Street to begin our tour. As we walked towards St. Philip’s Church, Diana gave us a brief early history of Charleston. The original settlement was founded in 1670, but 10 years later moved to its current location. Charles Towne was one of three walled cities in America. The other two walled cities are Quebec City and Saint Augustine, Florida.
St. Philip’s Church is the oldest Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The first St. Philip’s church was a tiny wooden church built in 1681 at the corner of Broad and Meeting Street where St. Michael’s Episcopal Church stands today. The wooden church was damaged by a hurricane in 1770 and the second St. Philip’s Church was built in its present day location. The second church was completely burned by one of the many Great Fires to burn through Charleston in 1835. The present day church was completed in 1836 and the steeple was added by 1850.
The gates of St. Philip’s Church are original and date back to pre-Revolutionary times. Diana told us a cute story of Philip Simmons. Philip Simmons is a world renown blacksmith who claimed to have created the St. Philip’s Church iron gates. Of course that would be quite hard to do without a time machine because Simmons was born in 1912. Simmons is an African-American iron artist born near Charleston. From a very early age he begged a local blacksmith to train him. The blacksmith, a former slave named Peter Simmons (no relation), told him to come back when he was older. When Simmons was older he returned and became Peter Simmons apprentice. Simmons worked and trained other blacksmiths up until his death in 2009. His decorative iron work can be seen throughout the city of Charleston, the Smithsonian Museum, and even as far away as Paris and China. Simmons specialized in open hearts in gates. Throughout our tour Diana pointed out some of Simmons’ work. It is absolutely stunning!
Charleston is nicknamed the “Holy City” because of its numerous visible church steeples seen from the sea and also for the fact that the city was very tolerant and accepting of all religions, expect Catholicism. Charleston is home to all Protestant religions and Judaism. Charleston is home to the 4th oldest synagogue in the US. The first Catholic church, the Cathedral of Saint John and Saint Finbar was built in 1850 and was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1861 that burned most of Charleston. The Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist was built in its place and opened in 1890. One of the most beautiful churches in Charleston is the French Huguenot (Protestant) church located on Church Street. The church was built in the 1840s and is the only active Huguenot church in the Western Hemisphere. Diana told us that the congregation actually stopped using the church in the mid-1900s, but was revived again in the 1980s by the descendents of the original French Huguenot settlers. We were lucky that we walked passed the church right before their Sunday service. Diana mentioned that they are the best dressed church in Charleston and I have to agree! The men were all wearing black suits and the women were all wearing heels and fur!
Walking further down Church Street we stopped at the corner of Chalmers Street to see the oldest house in Charleston. The Pink House as it is called because it is constructed of pink Bermuda stone and built sometime between 1694 and 1712. During its early days in Charleston, the house served as a tavern and brothel. The roof is still the original roof from the 1600s! Chalmers Street is a charming cobblestone side street in the French Quarter. At least that’s what I thought! The street is not actually cobblestone. The rocks are ballast rocks. Charleston was mainly an export city. Ships from Europe would come to Charleston with little imports; therefore, these rocks were placed in the hold of the ships to serve as ballasts. The rocks were then dumped in the city and replaced with all of the export goods. The town started using these rocks to “pave” streets. You’ll see a lot of these streets throughout old colonial towns in the US. Many streets often have female names, such as Maiden Street, because pregnant women used to ride back and forth bouncing around in a carriage to induce labor!
We continued our tour to the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets, also known as the “four corners of law.” The term was coined in the 1930 by creator of Ripley’s Believe or Not!, Robert Ripley. On one corner is City Hall (city law) constructed around 1800. Across City Hall is St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (God’s law) built around the 1750s. On the opposite side of Meeting Street on one corner is Charleston County Courthouse (state law) built in the late 1700s and on the opposing corner is the United States Post Office and Federal Courthouse (federal law) built in 1896.
We strolled down Broad Street to East Bay Street to the Old Exchange Building. We did not go into the Old Exchange Building during the tour, but I toured it later that afternoon. The history of the building is fascinating and it has seen the footsteps of President George Washington among many famous American historical figures. The building was used mainly as a customs and exchange building as the name implies. In its early days, the custom house was located on the water. It had a pier that allowed sailors to tie their ship and enter the building on the second floor to register and trade their goods. As the city grew and land was filled in, the custom house now sits a couple of blocks from the waterfront. During the Revolutionary War, the colonists hid all their gun powder in the basement behind a false wall from the British. The British soldiers did capture the custom house during the war and used it has a jail, but they never found the gun powder! The United States government decided to sell the building in the late 1890s and the local Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) feared the building would be demolished. They purchased the building and use it today for their meetings. You can also tour the dungeon and see the only piece of the original wall of the city dating back to the late 1600s in the basement and the museum.
We continued our history tour by strolling down East Bay Street to Rainbow Row. Rainbow Row is the name of the famous 13 colorful houses that are located from 83 to 107 East Bay Street. All the homes were constructed in the late 1700s. Some of the houses were destroyed by a fire and rebuilt. After the Civil War, the area fell to near slum conditions. In the 1920s, Susan Pringle Frost, the founder of the Preservation Society of Charleston, purchased 6 of the 13 building. She lacked the money to renovate them. In 1931, Dorothy Haskell Porcher Legge purchased several of the other homes and began renovating them. She painted the houses pink based on the colonial Caribbean color scheme. Her neighbors later followed suit and painted their houses a bright pastel color. Today the houses are some of the most photographed homes in Charleston!
Diana ended our tour with the fascinating story of Dr. Henry Woodward. Woodward was the first British colonist in South Carolina. In 1666, Woodward accompanied Captain Robert Sandford’s exploration of South Carolina’s coast. Woodward decided to stay and live with the Cusabo Indians. While living with them, he learned 5 different native languages. One of the local chiefs kidnapped Woodward and delivered him to the Spanish in St. Augustine and he was held captive for about a year. In 1668, Woodward was kidnapped by pirates where he served as their ship surgeon for two years in the Caribbean before becoming shipwrecked on Nevis Island in 1669. He then hopped on one of the boats slated to colonize Charleston. Woodward played an important role in the early days of the Charles Towne settlement due to his ability to speak several native languages.
Charleston is full of history and the two-hour tour could have easily lasted all day. Diana was an excellent tour guide and I would highly recommend taking a tour with her. Diana told us a little about what it takes to be a tour guide in Charleston. You have to be licensed by the city to get tours and if you don’t display your license then you can get a ticket from the police. In order to get your license, you have to sit for 200 question written exam and pass it with at least an 80%. And if you pass the written exam, then you must take an oral exam! Only the truly dedicated and knowledgeable people will become official guides.
If you find yourself in Charleston, I highly recommend taking a tour with Free Tours by Foot. Tours in Charleston can cost upwards of $100. Free Tours by Foot is free, but tour guides appreciate a tip. You can pay what you want so the tour is perfect for any budget.