By Mimi Wood, The Island Eye News Sr. Staff Writer
Thursday evening, April 18, found over 100 neighbors climbing aboard the Charleston Time Machine as Dr. Nic Butler, Historian for the Charleston County Public Library, ferried the huge crowd through the various modes of transportation, and transportation routes, serving Sullivan’s Island from 1875 through the 1920s. Dr. Butler’s imaginary time-travel device, which serves as the vehicle through which he delivers the history of the Lowcountry, was docked at the Ft. Moultrie Visitor Center for the evening.
“My job is to get people to think about the presence of the past in our future,” Dr. Butler opened. “Driving here from downtown at 5 p.m., I came up with a bumper sticker slogan ‘Honk if You Love Traffic,’” he proclaimed, tonguein-cheek. “We are living with the results of choices made 100 years ago.”
As part of the “quarantine protocol” for the port of Charleston, arriving ships were required to anchor offshore for a period of time, to insure all their passengers and crew, both free whites and enslaved blacks, were disease-free. Sullivan’s Island was a landing point for those awaiting admittance into the city.
It wasn’t until just after the American Revolution, in 1791, that the first summer residents arrived on Sullivan’s Island, upon obtaining permission from South Carolina State Legislature to establish seasonal residency. But how did they physically get to the island, supplies in tow, from peninsular Charleston? Initially, they rowed or sailed. The town of Moultrieville slowly evolved; “the beginning of Sullivan’s Island as we know it today,” postulated Dr. Butler.
Dr. Butler proceeded to detail a transportation timeline, beginning in 1792 with the first daily ferry service between Charleston, Mt. Pleasant, and Sullivan’s Island, to steampowered ferries, mule-powered street cars, and ultimately electrified trolley cars, which traveled via cantilevered bridges over marsh and inlet from Mount Pleasant, through Sullivan’s Island, to a newly developed resort on Isle of Palms.
A master at relating the past to the present, Dr. Butler did not disappoint. Researching from primary sources such as newspaper advertisements, he ensured the audience could relate the historic sites to contemporary locations. The landing at Cove Inlet, for example, the terminus for both James Hibben’s 1792 privately operated ferry, and later the Mt. Pleasant and Sullivan’s Island Ferry Company’s steam ferry, was located between present-day Station 12 and 13. Ever wonder why the streets begin at Station 9 on Sullivan’s Island? Because Stations 1 through 8 on were in Mt. Pleasant.
Noting that the entire trip from the Central Station in Charleston, now Fleet Landing restaurant, to the Isle of Palms resort, around present-day 14th Avenue, took 25 minutes, Dr. Butler opined, “We used to have it good, and we threw it away.” He continued, “Do we need ferries and trolleys today? Would it solve some of our transportation woes? Traffic and mobility are critical issues facing the Lowcountry. In raising awareness about early modes of transportation,” we may perhaps make better choices for our future, he concluded.
Street Cars and Trolleys on Sullivan’s Island, 1875-1927, Episode 109 of Dr. Butler’s weekly podcast, Charleston Time Machine, details much of the information contained in his April 18 presentation at the Ft. Moultrie Visitor Center. Subscribe to the podcast through various podcast apps, including Apple and Google, or listen and read the text through the Charleston County Public Library’s website, CCPL. org./charleston-time-machine.