An Outsider in Charleston

IMG_8256I love exploring new cities, even if only for a few hours.  And that’s what I did in Charleston, South Carolina–a petite bon-bon of a city that is almost a caricature of a mythical South.

We decided to leave Edisto Island a day early because we had a 9 am Monday appointment to get a new trailer tire in Charleston.  We did not want to leave Edisto in the early-morning dark and then contend with Charleston’s congested morning commute, so we booked a Sunday night spot at Charleston’s popular James Island County Park campground, much closer to the tire place.  That gave us an unexpected free Sunday afternoon in Charleston.


George wanted to take care of some chores, so he and Zoe dropped me off downtown and I had three hours to simply wander around the city before meeting up with the campground’s shuttle bus at 4 pm.  Sunshine, good walking sandals, no agenda, camera in hand–sweet bliss.

The first thing I noticed was churches, lots of them, in a variety of colors and shapes, dominating the streetscapes in every direction and giving Charleston one of its nicknames, “The Holy City.”


My favorite church, the pink French Huguenot.

My favorite church, the pink French Huguenot.

The young and the dead on a Huguenot tombstone.

The young and the dead on a Huguenot tombstone.

Charleston’s other nicknames are “Chuck Town” and “The Big Sweet Grass Basket.”  Not nicknames that make me want to visit.  But if you want a sweet grass basket—this is the place for you—there were vendors selling them to tourists on every other corner.  The basket stands were outnumbered, however, by the horse (and mule) drawn carriages, bulging with tourists and loud tour guides hawking a little southern charm.

IMG_8190Every time I came to a new street, there was another carriage, hauled by one or two beasties patiently waiting or slowly clip-clopping up the street, adding to the fantasy-like atmosphere of another era.


Charleston is an old city, founded in the 1600’s at the confluence of two rivers joining the sea.  In the early days, it was unusual in that it welcomed immigrants of all religious persuasions (except Roman Catholics (there has to be some group on the outs)), giving it a rich mix of cultures.  It also welcomed lots and lots of slaves, being a main point of entry for slave ships.

In my meandering walk, I most enjoyed the French Quarter.  It pales in comparison with New Orleans’ French Quarter.  In comparison, Charleston’s is a baby-sized area and so much more polite and restrained.  But the houses were colorful and had a decidedly European feel.


IMG_8202IMG_8205IMG_8206I had expected Charleston to be a lot like Savannah, but it feels very different.  They both are full of lovely old houses with oak-shaded streets, but Charleston is bounded by rivers and oceans, giving it a more wide-open, oceany feel.


Charleston’s famous Battery, a defensive wall and promenade, stretches along its waterfront.  I found it awash with tourists—all of whom were people-watching and house-gawking—I was the only freak who seemed to notice the dolphins playing in the water.

IMG_8219The Battery area is flanked by ornate antebellum homes, full of high money and southern manners, but with little privacy from tourists’ prying eyes and lenses.


This tourist is taking a picture of the house interior.  A common sight in Charleston.

This tourist is taking a close up of this private residence–a common sight in Charleston.

Some creepy statuary.

Some creepy statuary.

This house will keeps the tourists at bay.


Such a strange southern mix, this city that defied the Union and started the Civil War at Fort Sumter, while also prizing appearance, manners, elite social societies, and debutante balls.


South Carolina Society Hall motto

South Carolina Society Hall motto

Even the sewer covers are attractive.


There is little visual record of Charleston’s black residents when walking through the old streets.  But I did stumble on this plaque by the courthouse.



While Judge Waring’s admirers should be rightly proud of his lone dissent against segregation, they left out the rest of the story, which found the plaintiff Brigg parents losing their jobs, the local Reverend who assisted their efforts surviving a drive-by shooting and the torching of his church, and all of them leaving this staunchly segregationist state.  It’s not a pretty history.

Courthouse, within spitting distance of a church, of course.

Courthouse, within spitting distance of a church, of course.

I also learned that Charleston had a significant earthquake in 1886, between a 6.6 and 7.3 on the Richter Scale—a surprise to me.

Confederate Veterans Home damaged by the earthquake

Confederate Veterans Home damaged by the earthquake


I walked up and down streets.


Notice the horse and carriage reflected in the window. Inescapable.

IMG_8189IMG_8188IMG_8269IMG_8270IMG_8257I wound my way back to the Visitors Center to pick up the shuttle and ran into the John Calhoun statue.  Most statues are at a reasonable visual level.  Not this one.  This staunch defender of slavery is raised to a godlike height, staring down at us mere (northern) mortals with a disapproving scowl. IMG_8273IMG_8277

I couldn't make out any details of the statue except through the telephoto lens.

I couldn’t make out any details of the statue except through the telephoto lens.

Tents were going up in Marion Square for Charleston’s fashion week, balloons escaped above, and little piggies sparkled.


18 thoughts on “An Outsider in Charleston

  1. Yes Charleston in particular and the south in general can be associated with slavery. But there is plenty of shame to go around.
    Strolling around Charleston it can be easy to forget the slave trade also helped to build the growing economies of northern seaports and supported the economies of many towns along the New England coast or further inland. Northern slave traders paid shipbuilders, insurers, blacksmiths, and a wide variety of other tradesmen, merchants, and farmers. New York financial institutions were heavily invested in slavery. Almost every business and industry in the region traded or did business with merchants or shippers whose wealth was generated by slavery.
    New England slave traders took part in what is often known as the “Triangle Trade,” which, in the case of the U.S. trade, included New England, Africa, and slave markets in North America and the Caribbean. New England traders would send ships loaded with rum and other goods to the coast of Africa, to trade for enslaved Africans. Those ships would then take their human cargoes across the “Middle Passage” to ports in Caribbean islands or the southern U.S. states. There, they would sell the slaves and often buy cargoes of sugar cane, molasses, and other goods produced with slave labor, to bring north to markets in New England. Distillers in the northeast would then make rum from the sugar cane, which in turn could be sold in Africa for more slaves.
    In addition, those in the northern states who invested in slaving voyages came from almost all walks of life: while wealthy families were often significant investors, smaller shares in voyages would be owned by ordinary tradesmen and artisans, such as blacksmiths, masons, bakers, rope-makers, painters, and those engaged in various forms of manual labor.
    I should own up that parts of my above comment are plagiarized from research notes.
    Glad you enjoyed Charleston.

  2. A lovely collection of pictures. I like how many of the pictures have shades of pink in them and some of the sky shots have some very pretty cloud patterns. I would really enjoy wandering around this area enjoying the beautiful architecture and other points of interest.

    • Thanks Jane. I was lucky to be there when the first trees were flowering, which gave wonderful touches of color. It’s a wonderful place to explore on foot–a beautiful little city.

    • I had also wanted to visit there for years, so jumped at this opportunity to get a few hours in. Next time I’ll stay longer and visit some museums and Fort Sumter. Spring is a good time to visit–flowers and low humidity.

  3. Having spent enough time in Charleston to qualify as a commenter, I must say that once you leave the Peninsula/Historic District, the city is a study in urban sprawl with scary traffic for us rural-dwelling Mainers and world-class congestion. Enjoyed your photos, though — those pretty old buildings with their interesting architectural features practically demand to be photographed.

    • I believe it Sara. When George dropped me off, we hit unbelievable traffic–fortunately mostly going the other way (to the beach). The shuttle driver later said that he got stuck in it and sat for 45 minutes. The historic district is really beautiful, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was almost a museum-like facade for the city most folks live in.

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