As a tribute to 350 years of history since the founding of Charleston in 1670, the staff of the Charleston City Paper has pulled together a bunch of interesting facts for a new book that will be published next month. Its title? How about 350 Facts About Charleston?
As a preview, we thought you'd enjoy some of these Charleston firsts from the Holy City's past. If you'd like to pre-order the book, visit CharlestonFacts.com.
Birthplace of American golf
Golf in America got its start in 1786 in Charleston with the formation of the South Carolina Golf Club, whose members reportedly played on a bustling rectangle of land that stretched between what we know as Charleston and Beaufain streets and bounded by Rutledge and Barre streets. The area, called Harleston Green, seemed to disappear from historical records as a golf course around 1800. But that makes sense: Around that time, homes started being built in the area. Interesting tidbit: Some 432 golf balls and 96 clubs arrived in Charleston from England in 1743 as the first known shipment of golf equipment into the colonies.
S.C. educator was first black man elected statewide in U.S.
Francis Lewis Cardozo (1836-1903), born free in Charleston, founded the Avery Normal Institute in 1865. It was the first accredited secondary school for African Americans in Charleston. Today, its successor, the Avery Institute, is part of the College of Charleston. Cardozo also offered a big political first: He was elected S.C. secretary of state in 1868, becoming the first African American to hold a statewide office in the United States. He advocated for integrated public schools, which was supported by the legislature at the time. He resigned his seat to teach Latin at Howard University, but returned to South Carolina politics in 1872 and was elected state treasurer, serving until 1877 when the federal government began to remove federal troops that protected black participation in politics and daily life. In 1878, Cardozo was appointed to the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., later becoming principal of the Washington, D.C., Colored High School. He lived in the nation's capital until his death in 1903.
Birthplace of fire insurance
The first fire insurance company in America was organized in February 1736 in Charleston with the formation of the Friendly Society for the Mutual Insuring of Houses Against Fire. According to an article from 1893, "John Fenwicke, Samuel Wragg and Charles Pinckney were chosen directors; John Crokat and Henry Peronneau, merchants, secretaries; Gabriel Manigault, treasurer; Gerelt Van Velesen and John Laurens, firemasters." The company, however, "ceased business some six years later after its inception, as a result of a fire involving $1,250,000 of insurance, which was a very large sum in those times." Reportedly, more than 300 buildings were destroyed in the Great Fire of 1740.
City has oldest working fire station in nation
The city of Charleston's fire station at the corner of Wentworth and Meeting streets is reportedly the oldest working fire station in the nation. The city, always under threat of fire in its early days, got its first fire department through the Friendly Society insurance company in 1736. In 1819, fire service became a volunteer effort until Jan. 1, 1882, "when a paid professional fire department staffed with 103 firefighters was formed," according to the Charleston Fire Department.
Nation's first public statue
Charleston County Judicial Center on Broad Street is the home to an 18th-century marble statue of William Pitt (1708-1778), first Earl of Chatham, that is believed to be "the nation's first public statuary, one of the grandest tributes that survives from this nation's colonial era," according to columnist Robert Behre. The statue, which has moved at least four times through the years, was one of two commissioned to honor Pitt, considered America's leading parliamentary advocate before the Revolutionary War. Charleston's Pitt statue was delivered before a companion piece made it to New York. Interestingly, a British cannonball knocked off the statue's arm in Charleston. Later, the statue's head was separated from the torso, only to be reattached.
Oldest public gardens — and first Charleston tourist destination
Magnolia Plantation, founded by the Drayton family in the 1670s, is the oldest plantation on the Ashley River. It also "has earned the distinction as the oldest public garden in the United States," according to Explore Charleston. "The Rev. John Grimké Drayton expanded the gardens in the 1840s, opening them three decades later to steamboat passengers. As a result, Magnolia also enjoys being Charleston's first tourist destination." In 2019, the attraction hosted "Lights of Magnolia," a Chinese lantern festival illuminating the gardens for the first time in its history.
So much history in one place
Charleston has 42 National Historic Landmarks — more in one county than in 30 U.S. states. Among the landmarks are the William Aiken House, Miles Brewton House, College of Charleston, Drayton Hall, Fireproof Building, DuBose Heyward House, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, Powder Magazine, Nathaniel Russell House, John Rutledge House and Denmark Vesey House.
Cartoon by Robert Ariail