Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Charleston SC

A city of a thousand histories: Colonial settlement, pirates, the revolutionary war, the War of 1812, the Civil War (aka: the war between the states, the war of northern aggression), minor wars against the native tribes until they were wiped out by disease or pushed entirely out.

Every brick, cobblestone, bedroom and salon has its story and some have ghosts. Old Charleston is chock full of churches and buildings with signs detailing the past. Yes, indeed, Washington did sleep here…..and here…..and here. And that tree, growing in the very middle of the street, was used to hang 30 pirates in one day, putting an end to piracy in Charleston.

Iconic new suspension bridge over the river.
With only a couple of days to spend in the area, I decided on a bus tour and the boat ride out to Fort Sumter. Our driver on the Gray Line tour was just wonderful. With a cultured drawl, this Southern Belle drove us past landmarks and parks, government buildings, homes, businesses, and schools like The Citadel with colorful pasts (and presents!). She was a wealth of information about trees, flowers, literature, art, and food. She recommended the She-Crab soup, a famous Charleston concoction made from crab and crab roe.

I’ve learned a lot about black/white history on this trip. For instance many slave owners taught their slaves to read and write. It was practical. They could then leave written instructions and get letters detailing the status of their plantations when they were away. There were enclaves of freedmen, such as in Charleston, where many black families lived middle class lives working as masons, seamstresses, barbers, and blacksmiths. There was an influx of Jamaicans into Charleston. Tobacco couldn’t be grown in the low country so the plantations grew cotton, rice, and indigo. The Jamaicans knew all about growing rice. They brought their own language (Guhlah) which is still spoken in some form by many of their descendents. Some slaves were able to purchase their own freedom with seven years of labor, or with cash they earned by doing extra work or growing food for cash. By today’s standards that would put the cost of another human being in the $200,000 range (my guess). And of course there were the horrifying ships that came to sell their cargo at the slave market, now a museum. If there was any sign of disease, the entire ship and its contents were put into quarantine for 30 days, one of the reasons a sick captive was tossed overboard to drown before they entered port. Slavery was an economy that made some people very wealthy. Our driver pointed out many homes that had been the “townhomes” of wealthy rice planters who came to Charleston for the ‘social season’ in the winter, and during the summer to escape mosquitos and malaria.

Fort Sumter from the inside.

The architecture of homes in the city was interesting. A Single home is a narrow building, two rooms on each floor, with a piazza (long porch) along the prevailing wind side and the staircase on the outside. This allowed the building to be ventilated in the summer. A Double home was the same design mirror imaged with the ventilation hall down the middle. The colors of the city are pastel, reflecting light and making the homes cooler. Shutters are traditionally a dark shade, one color being Charleston Green, which to my eye looked entirely black, very dramatic, no doubt, against a pastel building. 

Fort Sumter was an interesting step back in time. So many of the details from the Civil War are missing from my memory banks, if indeed they were ever there. The Union army took over Fort Sumter (on a little island of sand in the middle of the harbor) and all of its many cannons. So many in fact that they couldn't operate them all, there weren't enough men. The newly seceded Southerners saw this as an act of aggression and responded by bombarding the fort for almost two days with cannon balls, the new rifled points and 'hot' shots - cannon balls that had been heated to red hot, intended to set wooden structures on fire.  One of the hot shots crashed through the officer's quarters which were just above the powder room. The union soldiers could keep firing cannons back at the rebels, or they could fight the fire, but not both. So the Union gave up, and oddly went home as heroes. Not long after, the war was fully underway and the Union returned to take over Charleston (and also Savannah) sparing both those cities the disastrous consequences that other cities in the South suffered later on. 

Transport back to the county park where I was camping left Charleston at 4:00. By 2:30 the tour to Fort Sumter was done and I was starved. A little hike down King Street revealed a nice looking restaurant/bar with the menu on a pedestal outside. I went in, attracted by the She-Crab soup. I don’t think I’ve had anything so unexpectedly wonderful since I stumbled upon Shrimp Etouffee in New Orleans 25 years ago. It was like a cheesy Bechamel sauce, thinned down with Sherry, and steeped in crab meat. A bit salty because of the roe, but delicious! It came with four small squares of dense cornbread studded with bits of broccoli, and a little ramekin of soft butter. Since I had already died and gone to heaven, it made sense to top off that incredible lunch with a slice of key lime pie that was positively vibrant.

Some modern pastel construction....
With time enough left for a short walk down King Street and then back up Meeting, I got a little flavor of Charleston by foot. It’s not just a historic town, it’s a major working city with various industries, a large busy port, and lots of money to be made.

One of the volunteers I’d talked with on the Fort Sumter tour had just moved here from Seattle. He said Charleston is the biggest small town he’d ever lived in. It’s a major southern city, yet it only takes about twenty minutes to drive across. There seems to be good public transportation, several bus routes are free and circulate through the downtown.  It caters to tourists, but looks like a wonderful place to live as well, at least in the winter.