Judging by the way the ducks run the show out at Hampton Park, it may be difficult to imagine that once, on the very same grounds, there were also otters. And bison. And even a lion or two.
Because once upon a time in Charleston's history, Hampton Park was home to a zoo. Today, that zoo is as mythical a part of Charleston lore as the Dock Street Theatre's ghost or the days when you could smoke in bars. But for anyone who came of age during the mid-20th century, the aviaries and otter pond are a cherished childhood memory.
Kevin Eberle, a Charleston School of Law professor and author of A History of Charleston's Hampton Park, heard plenty of stories about the zoo when he started to research his book. "In all of the times that I talk to folks about Hampton Park and the zoo, that without exception was what people recalled," he says. "It's like one of those touchstones."
However, by the 1970s, the zoo was on its way out. And very few people in Charleston were sad to see it go.
Today, Danny Burbage is the city Parks Department's urban forester. But when he was a child growing up in Charleston, he and his mother would take a bus from downtown to the upper peninsula and spend a Friday afternoon admiring the animals at the Hampton Park Zoo, finishing just in time to catch the Citadel dress parade.
Burbage's favorite exhibit was the bison habitat. He'd stand there for the longest time, asking his mom questions as they shared a soda and some Cracker Jacks from the concession stand. Other families came to the zoo with picnics; they'd park their cars and make a day of lounging in the grassy spaces that weren't fenced in for the animals.
Although Burbage's memories are vivid, anyone with an exclusively modern grasp on Hampton Park's logistics will find it hard to juxtapose bleak animal cages on top of their beloved bandstand. So imagine you're entering the city-owned property from Cleveland Street, right off of Rutledge Avenue. The zoo would be straight ahead of you, in the area cupped by the road's first turn. The park's famed gazebo takes up what was the extreme southeast corner of the zoo.
Unfortunately, while there's plenty of oral history about the zoo to go around, the city archives don't have much information about it, as Eberle discovered when he began working on his book. The first references to there being animals at the park start in 1909, and by 1912, there were yearly city reports that listed the inventory of the park, including "hoot owls, honey bears, and crocodiles." When Archer Huntington of Brookgreen Gardens in Georgetown came to Charleston in 1937, he was so impressed with the park that he gave the city $1,000 and some exotic birds and monkeys that he had hanging about his plantation. That's what started the "formal" zoo.
Many of the other animals were also volunteered to the city — if a couple found a gator on their Mt. Pleasant property, they'd tie it up and drop it off at the zoo. There were also not one but two dedicated aviaries, including one that was converted from the park's old trolley station. However, the most exciting and exotic animal in the whole place was by far the lion. In some of his books and articles, Pat Conroy reminisces about its roar during his Citadel days. The first one was gifted by a West Ashley man who thought it would be a nifty idea to care for a lion cub. Eberle's not sure how many more were there over the years.
Admission to the zoo was free, and the city of Charleston (which owns Hampton Park today) maintained the property and fed the animals. The space had big, open-air spaces, but the animals weren't kept in fantastical displays that mimicked their natural habitats. "It was not what people think of today as a zoo," Eberle explains. "That's not how zoos were for a very long time. It was a lot of chain link, big chain link boxes."
Eberle believes the zoo peaked in the 1940s and '50s, until desegregation (and eventually white flight from the Upper Peninsula) happened. The less support the zoo had, the shabbier it got. So in 1971, when the federal government's Animal Welfare Act went into effect, the zoo didn't stand a chance.
"Immediately, the Defenders of Wildlife seized on Charleston as being a terrible zoo, and that was when the city first started coming to grips with the fact that this was a dump," Eberle says. Before then, the city's citizens, reveling in the rose-colored glasses of youth, weren't paying attention to the zoo's less-than-cushy conditions. "I've never met anybody who would say, oh, I was upset about it," Eberle adds. "People do remember the conditions in hindsight, and they will say it was threadbare and rough looking, but nobody that I talked to had a sense at the time that this was a tragedy that we needed to step in and do something about." That all changed in the '70s, though.
The city weighed its options. It could renovate and expand, or downsize the space into a petting zoo. They went so far as to hire local landscape architect Robert Chesnut, then just a University of Georgia post-grad, to mock up a remediation and redo of the zoo. But that would have cost $500,000, plus another $100,000 annually in upkeep. "In the end, everybody realized that to live up to these new standards was going to be so expensive, and that was just not possible," Eberle says.
Most of the native animals were sent to the then-new Charles Towne Landing. The others were shipped to zoos around the country. Burbage, by then in his early 20s, took the news with mixed emotions. He wasn't yet working for the Parks Department, but he generally thought it was a positive move for the animals. "I think it was a mark of that time in history," he says. "To manage a real zoo properly is a major financial undertaking, and I'm not sure that a city the size of Charleston or hardly any cities could take that on as a municipal government."
Eberle agrees. "Hampton Park, depending on what you count, is 50 acres more or less. That's just not enough space. You could have birds," he points out. "And people's attitudes toward zoos were changing. You wouldn't go to that. That would be a pitiful sideshow thing now."
Besides, Hampton Park has become so popular as a recreation space, full of joggers and dog walkers, that Burbage and Eberle think people would prefer to keep it that way.
And we're sure the ducks would agree.