If you’ve ever walked along the east side of Charleston’s East Bay Street, you’ve stood atop a forgotten brick wall that once defined the city’s waterfront. Construction of this half-mile-long “wharf wall” or “curtain line” commenced in the 1690s to separate the street from the harbor, and it formed a significant part of the town’s military defenses through the American Revolution. Knocked down to street level in the 1780s, the wall’s lower half survives just below the modern streetscape, but its precise location is now something of a mystery.

This detail from a 1784 plat of East Bay Street shows the intact brickwork of the curtain line and the redan near the east end of Lodge Alley

The waterfront curtain wall was once a prominent feature of Charleston’s built environment that would have been familiar to every inhabitant and visitor from the 1690s through the 1780s. Despite its long-standing position within the community, few historians have included this structure in their studies of the city’s evolving landscape. This neglect is not the result of bias or a lack of interest, but rather the result of a convoluted paper trail. The long but incomplete story of the construction, maintenance, and demolition of the curtain wall is inscribed within the extant manuscript records of South Carolina’s early government, which few modern readers have the opportunity or patience to peruse. After several years of combing through the surviving records at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia, I’ve accumulated a significant amount of information related to the rise and fall of the curtain wall. The resulting mass of data forms a long and tangled narrative that doesn’t make for exciting reading, however. In order to promote a better understanding of the subject, I’ve assembled an overview organized by a series of questions focusing on the most salient points of its history.


What is the curtain wall?

The object in question is a linear structure that follows a roughly north-south axis along the east side of East Bay Street in urban Charleston. The name “curtain wall” is a modern mash-up of earlier terms. The earliest records of its existence describe the feature as a “wharf wall” because it was associated with the creation of the linear “wharf” along Charleston’s Cooper River waterfront that became East Bay Street (see Episode No. 180). In the early years of the eighteenth century, locals frequently called it the “front wall” because it served as the easternmost part of a growing network of defensive fortifications surrounding the town. Starting in 1720, locals began describing this front wall using the standard military term “curtain line”; that is, a linear feature forming a defensive link between a series of gun batteries. 


This 1762 republication of Bishop Roberts’s 1739 ‘Exact Prospect of Charles Town’ presents a stylized view of the town’s waterfront that highlights the strength and beauty of its architecture.


Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve probably seen an image of the curtain wall. The most famous visual depiction is an engraving titled An Exact Prospect of Charles Town, first published in London in 1739 and then reprinted (in a slightly simplified form) in 1762. At the far left edge of that image is Granville Bastion, a diamond-shaped brick fortification with a large flag staff flying a British ensign. The remnants of that bastion are now under the Missroon House at 40 East Bay Street. The brick curtain wall extends northwardly from Granville Bastion to the east end of Tradd Street, where a V-shaped structure called a “redan” projects into the Cooper River. From the north side of the redan, the curtain wall continues northward until it intersects with the Half Moon Battery at the east end of Broad Street. From the north side of the Half-Moon, the curtain line extends to a second redan near the east end of Unity Alley, and then northward to a third redan near the east end of Lodge Alley. The waterfront wall terminates at a junction with Craven Bastion, another large, diamond-shaped structure now under the steps of the U.S. Custom House at 200 East Bay Street. 

It’s important to note, however, that this image, which appears in numerous books about early Charleston, includes a measure of artistic license. The artist purposefully omitted the several large wooden wharves that extended from East Bay Street into the Cooper River at that time. Visitors to colonial-era Charleston arriving by sea would have seen only segments of the curtain wall between the long wharves. The artist Bishop Roberts might have omitted the wharves from his illustration to emphasize the strength and beauty of Charleston’s waterfront architecture, or perhaps he was simply unable to execute the proper foreshortening of the wharves in perspective. 

What was the purpose of the curtain wall?

The structure served two important purposes. Initially, it was conceived and built as a revetment—that is, a continuous wall designed to reinforce the eastern line of Charleston’s first wharf, which we now call East Bay Street. The town’s original Cooper River waterfront was a low, sloping gradient like you see along riverbanks throughout the Lowcountry of South Carolina. Early civic leaders staked a line in the mud, roughly following the river’s high-water mark, and began building up the sandy shore behind the line. The creation of the wharf wall was the first step in creating a broad, level plain along the town’s waterfront that we see today. Its construction allowed Charlestonians to raise the level of the earth behind the wall to keep maritime commerce high and dry. This effort was an engineering first in early South Carolina, but it followed the model of similar revetment walls in other riverfront towns like London, Paris, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Bridgetown, and many more. 

Secondarily, at the turn of the eighteenth century, South Carolina’s provincial government began to regard Charleston’s brick wharf wall as a component in the town’s expanding network of urban fortifications. The creation of six gun batteries arrayed along the length of the Cooper River waterfront in the early 1700s divided the continuous wharf wall into a segmented curtain line composed of five distinct sections. The militarization of the wharf wall also transformed its design. To protect musketeers and cannon mounted on low ship carriages along East Bay Street, civic leaders increased the height of the original wall. The resulting structure served as both a waterfront revetment and a defensive curtain for the town’s defenders in case of enemy invasion.

This story continues at Charleston Time Machine. . . .