The Port of Charleston is an important port on the United States' Atlantic Coast. It is also a historic urban center with roots deep in the history of the country. Located on the estuaries where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet, the Port of Charleston is on South Carolina's central coast some 138 kilometers northeast of the Port of Savannah, Georgia, and about 245 kilometers southwest of the Port of Wilmington, North Carolina. In 2008, almost 112 thousand people lived in the Port of Charleston, and more than 644 thousand lived in the Charleston-North Charleston-Summerville metropolitan area.
The United States Navy employs more people in the Port of Charleston than any other organization. The second largest employer in the Port of Charleston is the Medical University of South Carolina. The Port of Charleston is the sixth biggest container port in the United States by cargo value, and it is a mainstay of the local economy. Tourism is also an important economic sector for the Port of Charleston, with more than four million visitors each year.
Before Europeans arrived in the area of the Port of Charleston, the area was inhabited by the Cusabo family of tribes. The Kussoe subtribe was the first to come into conflict with European settlers. When the colony declared war on them, the Kussoe went into hiding, remaining in the area. The Stono subtribe of the Cusabo also fought with the colonists. In the end, the indigenous peoples were forced to pay symbolic tribute of one deerskin a month, yet they were able to continue to live in the area of the Port of Charleston. By the end of the 1600s, the Cusabo peoples were living peacefully with the new settlers in their own villages with their own identity. They hunted the "vermin" of wolves and other predators on the settlers' livestock, and they caught run-away slaves.
Charles II of England granted a charter for the Carolina territory in 1663 to his loyal friends known as the Lords Proprietors. After seven years, they established the first settlement of Charles Town on the west bank of the Ashley River. One of the Lords, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, selected the site for a future port. The Port of Charleston became the capital of the Carolina colony.
The new Port of Charleston was attacked often by French and Spanish ships who also claimed the region. The indigenous peoples and pirates also created more than a few problems for the young settlement. The colonists built a wall around the new city to protect it. Two of the original buildings from the walled city still stand today.
By 1680, a plan had been devised for the settlement with a central Civic Square. The first Anglican church was built in 1682. The Port of Charleston's oldest surviving church, St. Michael's Episcopal Church, was built on the square in 1752. The next year, the capitol building was built on the other side of the square, indicating the growing importance of the Carolina colony to the British.
Most of the first settlers of the Port of Charleston came from England, but other groups also came to the new settlement. Wealthy colonists from Boston summered in the Port of Charleston. Trade with Bermuda and the Caribbean was brisk. Migrants came to the Port of Charleston from France, Scotland, Ireland, and Germany. A Jewish cemetery was established in the Port of Charleston in 1762. By the early 19th Century, the Port of Charleston was home to the biggest and richest Jewish community in North America.
Slaves were also a large part of the Port of Charleston's population. In 1791, a group of African Americans, both free and slaves, organized the Emanuel A.M.E. Church. In 1797, free black residents and slaves helped create the Old Bethel United Methodist Church, the second oldest such church in the United States.
In 1773, the first American museum opened in the Port of Charleston. At this time, the population was still growing with people moving from the northern areas of the colony and from colonies to the north like Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Native Charlestonians thought the newcomers were relatively uncivilized, and struggles between the Port of Charleston elite and the "upcountry" people continued for several generations.
By the middle of the 1700s, the Port of Charleston was a busy trade center for the Atlantic trade of the southern colonies. By 1770, it was the colonies' fourth biggest port, and some 11 thousand people lived in the Port of Charleston, more than half of them slaves. Rice and indigo grown by planters in the coastal lowlands were profitable exports. The Port of Charleston had become known as the economic and cultural center of the South.
While Boston was having its famous Tea Party before the American Revolution, residents of the Port of Charleston confiscated tea and stored it in the local Exchange and Custom House. In 1774, representatives from the Carolina colony gathered in the custom house in the Port of Charleston to select delegates to the Continental Congress. The colony declared independence from the British crown on the steps of the Exchange.
British forces attacked the Port of Charleston twice during the Revolution. Expecting support from Loyalists in the colony, the British tried to seize the Port of Charleston. However, the Loyalist support did not come, and the Second South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army defeated the British. The existing Loyalists were not well organized, but those who left Carolina had convinced London of their support. As late as 1780, the British still expected the Loyalists to rise in opposition to the new United States.
In 1780, the British returned to the Port of Charleston with a much larger force. The Siege of Charleston became the greatest defeat for the Americans during their Revolution. When the main body of British troops returned to New York, Charles Cornwallis and eight thousand redcoats remained to build forts in the Carolina colony and rally the Loyalists. Guerilla militias took many of the forts, but the British held control of the Port of Charleston until late 1782.
In 1788, Carolinians met in the Port of Charleston to ratify the new country's constitution. While they all supported a Federal government, the citizens were divided on the location of a capital for the State of South Carolina. After a questionable fire destroyed the Capitol building, Columbia was declared the new state capital. When the old capitol building was rebuilt in 1792, it became the Charleston County Courthouse. After the Revolution, the Port of Charleston continued to grow in culture and commerce to become the center of the antebellum South.
The growing Port of Charleston was a cultural and social center, particularly for the planters and merchants of the city. In 1736, America's first theater was built in the Port of Charleston. In the 1800s, the Planter's Hotel was built on the site to give wealthy planters a place to stay when they came for the horse-racing season. Many new benevolent societies were formed in the Port of Charleston by the different immigrant groups. In 1748, the Charleston Library Society was established so that the Port of Charleston could keep up with the philosophical and scientific movements. The same group founded the College of Charleston, the thirteenth oldest university in the United States, in 1770.
As the southern plantation economy grew after the Revolution, the Port of Charleston thrived. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the Port of Charleston began to export large volumes of cotton. Slave labor was critical to the economy of the city and the region. They worked as laborers, artisans, workers in the market, and domestics. When the Charleston Market was founded in 1807, it became a center for the African-American community of both free blacks and slaves.
By 1820, over twenty thousand people lived in the Port of Charleston, a majority of them black. In 1822, a plan for a slave revolt was discovered that led to the severe restriction of activities of both slaves and free blacks within the Port of Charleston. The black and white supporters of the revolt were arrested in the Old Jail. The panic over the possible violence led to the construction of a new arsenal in the Port of Charleston.
The early 19th Century was a time of continued growth and prosperity for the Port of Charleston. New banks were established that handled the international transactions brought by the Port of Charleston and export trade. By 1840, the Market Hall and Sheds was the Port of Charleston's commercial hub, handling daily deliveries of fresh produce and meat.
As the 19th Century progressed, the free white population of the State grew more committed to the concept that states' rights were more important than Federal authority over them. Controversy arose over the role of the Federal government in the State's commerce, society, and government. In 1832, the State passed a measure allowing the State to repeal Federal laws, primarily those dealing with tariffs. Federal troops arrived in the Port of Charleston to collect tariffs by force. Eventually, a compromise was reached on the tariffs, but the underlying states' rights argument continued to grow.
The Port of Charleston continued to be one of the busiest ports in the country through the beginning of the American Civil War. In 1860, the Democratic National Convention was held in the Port of Charleston. Many delegates worked for the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas, who they hoped would help bring the northern and southern delegates together in a compromise over the issue of slavery in new territories of the U.S. However, the resulting split in the Democratic Party helped Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, become the President of the United States that year.
South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in December 1860. The next month, cadets at the Citadel fired the first shots of the Civil War when they fired on the Star of the West as it attempted to enter the Port of Charleston harbor. Later that year, southern batteries fired for 34 hours on the Union-held Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor before Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort. Controlling Fort Sumter, the Port of Charleston became a center for blockade running. It was also the site of the first successful submarine battle when the H.L. Hunley attacked the USS Housatonic in 1864.
Union troops took control of the Port of Charleston in 1865, seizing many of the city's institutions like the Citadel Military Academy. Federal troops stayed in the Port of Charleston during the post-war Reconstruction period. The Civil War had ended the Port of Charleston's golden age. Slaves who were now free faced poverty and extreme discrimination. Planters and merchants no longer had the slave labor force that had sustained them for so long.
In 1967, the first free secondary school for African Americans, the Avery Institute, was established. The Union's General Sherman supported the conversion of the United States Arsenal into a military academy for former soldiers and orphaned boys. In 1886, a 7.5 (Richter scale) earthquake almost destroyed the Port of Charleston and caused damage in places as far away as several hundred kilometers in Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia. The quake was even felt in Boston and Cuba.
In 1986, jetties were completed in the harbor, giving the Port of Charleston a deep-water entrance. In 1901, the U.S. Navy established a base there on the Cooper River that was enlarged during World War I, World War II, and the Cold War. The Port of Charleston economy became dependent on related military installations like the naval shipyard, naval station, and naval supply and distribution center (all of which are now closed).
After World War II, Port of Charleston trade grew quickly. The completion of the Santee Cooper hydroelectric project in 1942 gave the city a base for future industrial development. Today, the city's industries include pulp and paper mills, metal working, and manufacturing of auto parts, molded rubber products, chemicals, textiles, clothing, and electrical equipment. When the United States government decided to close the naval shipyard and several naval bases in 1993, the city suffered a serious economic blow.
Today, the Port of Charleston is an important tourist destination with many luxury hotels, inns, and bed and breakfasts. It is also home to many fine restaurants. The Port of Charleston has the charm of the Old South, with Spanish moss draping the huge live oaks that line the streets. The Port of Charleston's waterfront area called Rainbow Row boasts many historic homes. In addition to being the fourth busiest container port in the U.S., the Port of Charleston is a growing center for information technology, with many new corporations locating there.
The Port of Charleston is eastern South Carolina's medical center, and it is home to the State's biggest medical university. The downtown district is undergoing rapid growth in biotechnology and medical research. Major hospitals are expanding across the metropolitan area.