Stumbling Into History in Charleston, SC
CHARLESTON, S.C. — It started with a conversation around a large table in the old poker room of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Seated around the table were members of the club’s History and Heritage team, and the topic had turned to a DNA test one had taken.
The test revealed an unknown heritage that extended all the way back to a relative on the Mayflower and included, along the way, another relative who had been among the armed volunteers who confronted British soldiers at Concord Bridge in Massachusetts, the start of the American Revolution.
The conversation then turned to the various organizations that celebrate and preserve the legacy of very old families in the United States as well as very old things.
There was the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, of course, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. And there was the National Society of Sons of the American Revolution and the General Society of the War of 1812.
Then, Edwin Grosvenor, president and editor-in-chief of American Heritage magazine offered up the name of the The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America.
“Who?” a younger member of the group asked.
“The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America,” Grosvenor said, going on to explain that it is an organization composed of women who are descended from an ancestor “who came to reside in an American Colony before 1776, and whose services were rendered during the Colonial Period.”
“Among other things, they seek to create interest in colonial history through the preservation of historic sites and through educational programs,” he said, adding, “for instance, in South Carolina, they oversee the Powder Magazine in Charleston, the state’s oldest public building.”
Several weeks later, after enjoying a late winter brunch in Charleston, a member of the NPC’s history and heritage group took a walk through the neighborhood surrounding the restaurant.
It’s not hard to bump into history in downtown Charleston, a few yards from Poogan’s Porch, where brunch was served, is the front entrance to Mills House Hotel, once the city’s grandest accomodation and still one of its finest.
Diagonally across Meeting Street from the hotel is the site of Institute Hall, later to be known as Secession Hall, after Confederate delegates voted 169-0 to secede from the union in April 1861.
The hall was destroyed just six months later when a great fire roared through Charleston, and legend has it the Mills House guest Robert E. Lee actually witnessed the conflagration from his hotel room window.
Just beyond the site of the hall, where a modern building houses the offices of a prominent local law firm, is the Circular Congregational Church and its graveyard, the city’s oldest, having been established in 1695.
But it was a right hand turn here, onto Cumberland Street, that brought the conversation at the National Press Club back into focus.
‘Well, here it is,” the member said. “This is just the place Ed was talking about.”
Not used to a commotion at its wrought iron gate, one of the two men in colonial garb who were setting up for the opening of the Powder Magazine came over and quickly heard the story of the press club conversation.
“Well, come on in,” he said.
The modest structure, no bigger than a small house, was built in 1712 and 1713 and originally housed five tons of black powder for use in the cannons deployed around the old walled city of Charles Town to protect it from the Spanish, French, pirates and the occasional attack from displaced Native American tribes.
And it was last used as an arsenal during the American Revolution.
Today, the building houses a small museum but the density of the 309 year old structure still impresses.
The walls of the Powder Magazine are three feet thick and made of solid brick. Above them, an arched ceiling made of several tons of sand, considered one of the engineering marvels of its time.
In the event of an explosion, the thick walls would direct the force of the blast upwards, shattering the ceiling. Once that happened, the tons of collapsing sand would limit the scope of the explosion and presumably put out most of the ensuing fire.
Fortunately, no disaster ever occurred and no one ever learned whether this strategy for containing an explosion would have worked.
“Still,” our guide told us, “this turned out to be one of the most resilient buildings made here in Charleston.”
“There was an earthquake here in 1886 that likely would have measured between 6.9 and 7.3 on the Richter scale had the scale existed at the time and 90% of the buildings in the city were severely damaged or completely destroyed.
“The Powder Magazine, meanwhile, barely budged, and saw only slight damage,” he said.
During the 19th century the building was converted several times, becoming a stable, a print shop and a blacksmith shop. During the Civil War and for some years after, it was used by Gabriel Manigault, scion of one of the city’s wealthiest families to store more than 2,100 bottles of Madeira wine and hide them from marauding Union troops.
As late as 1889, the Manigault cellar housed wine brought from South America by former U.S. diplomat Joel Poinsett in 1816. The oldest was bottled by Dr. Ralph Izard in 1774.
Saved from demolition in 1902 by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina, the structure has served as a museum of Caroliniana and colonial history ever since.
Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue