Whenever I give a presentation on the history of Charleston’s colonial fortifications, I always start with the wall that once stood on the east side of East Bay Street. This wall, identified in the colonial records as the “wharf wall,” “curtain wall,” or “front wall,” was the starting point for the effort to fortify Charleston more than three hundred years ago, and it was among the last parts to be dismantled after the American Revolution. Here’s a very brief overview of what I know about it so far.
In 1680, when “New Charles Town” was established on the present peninsula, a “wharf” sixty feet wide was laid out on the east side of East Bay Street, stretching from the site of the present Missroon House to the Exchange Building at the foot of Broad Street. Since there are no extant legislative records from the 1680s, we don’t know what this “wharf” was made of, or what it looked like. Similarly, we don’t know anything about the construction of the “tranchée” or entrenchment (probably an earthwork wall) that is depicted along the east side of East Bay Street in the Jean Boyd map of 1686 (published in the 2006 Transactions of the Huguenot Society of South Carolina). In 1694, the S.C. legislature passed the first law authorizing the construction of a brick “wharf wall” or “curtain wall” along the east side of the street, but due to a shortage of bricks and bricklayers construction apparently didn’t start until 1696. Governor Nathaniel Johnson reported in late 1704 that this project was still not finished, but the curtain wall was apparently completed by August 1706 when a French and Spanish fleet made an unsuccessful attempt to invade Charleston. Based on account statements from 1704, I estimate that approximately four million bricks were used to build the curtain wall (excluding the bastions) between 1696 and 1705.
Between 1711 and 1728 the brick curtain wall sustained extensive damage from several severe hurricanes, and thus it was substantially rebuilt and apparently enlarged between 1725 and 1739. Near the end of that era the South Carolina legislature and Charleston merchants negotiated over the size of openings to be left in the wall to allow carts to move between the wharves to East Bay Street. The legislature wanted ten-foot openings; the merchants wanted thirty-foot openings. They settled on openings fifteen feet wide. The legislature also passed restrictive measures to prevent the building of residences or any tall structures to the east of the curtain wall. Any structures built in that area, the legislature decreed, would have to be razed in a moments notice in the event of an invasion. In 1745 the curtain wall was described in a London magazine as being “six feet over.” This statement may have meant that the wall was six feet tall, or it may indicate that it was six feet wide at the top. I suspect this number refers to the height of the wall, but we hope to find out in the upcoming archaeology at South Adger’s Wharf.
The wharves projecting out from the on the east side of East Bay Street in to the Cooper River grew substantially between the 1720s and the American Revolution, but the brick curtain wall remained standing throughout these years. After the conclusion of the war with Britain in the spring of 1783, the S.C. legislature waited a full year before authorizing the demolition of the fortifications in Charleston. The work of dismantling the brick wharf wall on the east side of East Bay Street began in late 1784 or early 1785. In the spring of 1787, the legislature finally repealed the old law restricting the size and nature of buildings on the east side of East Bay Street. From that time forward, the wharves of Charleston began to be filled in and built up, leading to the streetscapes that we now see.