From its earliest days, Charleston’s port played a vital role in its economy. Great 17th, 18th and 19th century sailing vessels transported heavy payloads, needing the wind at their back. Because the North Atlantic’s prevailing winds blow clockwise, had captains set a direct course for America they would have been sailing into the wind. Working with nature rather than against it, European ships headed not east for America, but south to the Caribbean.
From there ships would catch the northerly winds and Gulf Stream to ride up America’s coastline before the winds shifted east again near Cape Hatteras, N.C. Thus Charleston Harbor stood at the western edge of the great Atlantic transportation highway. In 1683, colonist Louis Tibon wrote, “the port is never without ships and the country is becoming a great traffic center.”
The earliest wharves, referred to as “bridges,” were constructed of lashed palmetto logs filled in with ballast, earth or other “litter” materials. Over time they were widened to accommodate offices and warehouses. A 1739 map shows eight wharves along Charleston’s eastern waterfront. Eventually at least 25 wharves served tall-masted ships exporting pelts, rice, indigo, naval stores and cotton, and delivering rum, a wide range of European luxuries, and enslaved Africans. According to maritime history scholar Priestly Coker, in the 1730s more than 500 ships sailed into Charleston Harbor annually.
The introduction of the steamship in 1819, however, reset the playing field. No longer were routes dependent on wind. New York, New Orleans and Savannah, among others, competed fiercely for their share of the trade. Their gains came at Charleston’s expense. To make things worse, Charlestonians did not wish to be inconvenienced by the noises and smells of the new railroad system, insisting that the tracks stop outside downtown’s residential area, well short of the wharves. Railway cargo had to be loaded on wagons and hauled the last couple of miles to the waterfront, wasting both time and money. Charleston’s port revenues began dropping in the 1840s. The 1890s saw revenues fall from $98.5 million to $29.5 million. In 1921, a consultant reported that Charleston’s waterfront “is wholly useless save as an historical relic.”
Though the S.C. Ports Authority re-established Charleston maritime trade in the latter half of the 20th century, its wharves and the tall ships that docked there were gone forever. Today the old wharves have been paved over, their warehouses and offices rehabilitated as some of Charleston’s toniest residences.