By Peg Eastman       

Today, the old “Cooper River Bridge” is just a fading memory and the residence of the once-powerful John Patrick Grace is almost forgotten. Our 174 Broad Street is not listed in Charleston’s tour guide training manual, Poston’s The Buildings of Charleston or the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) at the Library of Congress. However, all was not lost, for Grace’s residence resurfaced when College of Charleston professor Robert Stockton, a former columnist for “Do You Know Your Charleston,” heard mention of it and researched the property. Years later, a picture of 174 Broad Street was finally published in The Great Cooper Bridge — required reading for Stockton’s “Modern Charleston” course.

Charleston was still occupied when John Patrick Grace was born in 1874. The disastrous war had left the economy in shambles. Young Grace was educated at the Catholic Christian Brothers Academy and the all-male High School of Charleston. After his father’s death, he was forced leave school to help support his large family. He held numerous jobs before landing in New York City, where he attended Labor Party meetings in the Cooper Union. He sold encyclopedias in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio, all the while absorbing progressive ideals of social reform.

Armed with new ideas, Grace returned to Charleston and started his own oil company in opposition to Standard Oil. He caught the attention of William Elliott, the federal representative from Beaufort and became his personal secretary in Washington. He also studied law at Georgetown University. In 1902 Grace returned to Charleston to assist in Elliott’s unsuccessful United States Senate election campaign. That year, Grace caught the political bug and lost a bid for the South Carolina Senate.

In 1902 Grace joined aristocrat W. Turner Logan and established one of the state’s most successful law firms. A racial progressive for his time, in 1907 Grace defended two black farmers charged with breaking the state’s peonage law (using laborers bound in servitude because of debt). He not only won an acquittal but also succeeded in having the peonage law declared unconstitutional.

A political outsider, Grace was defeated when he ran for sheriff in 1904 and lost again in 1908 when he ran for the U.S. Senate. In 1911 Grace was able to unite the German and Irish vote in the mayoral race and won by a slim margin against Tristram Hyde. An Irish Catholic from the working class, Grace was snubbed by Charleston’s sons of privilege, whom he called “Bourbons.” Some slights were subtle, but the outgoing mayor, R. Goodwyn Rhett, refused the traditional passing of the keys ceremony and had his janitor deliver the keys to Grace’s office. During his first term, Grace accelerated park construction, enacted health legislation and improved rail access to Charleston.

Tensions between the Bourbons and the working men ran high in the mayoral elections of 1915, 1919 and 1923, which were the most violent in Charleston history. The governor sent the state militia into the city to police the polls; chicanery and fraud were rampant on both sides.

Back then, lingering antipathy to Reconstruction Republicans made winning the Democratic primary tantamount to being elected. In the 1915 primary recount, a reporter was fatally shot in a ward that strongly favored Grace. In the confusion, ballots for Grace were thrown out the window and his opponent, again Tristram Hyde, ousted him by 18 votes. Grace also founded and edited his own newspaper, The Charleston American, in 1916. Hyde lost to Grace when he ran for re-election in 1919. Although the outcome showed Hyde with a one-vote lead, after challenges Grace was declared the winner.

Grace’s final mayoral campaign was in 1923, when he lost to Thomas Porcher Stoney, the charismatic young champion of the Charleston elite. An Irish Catholic, Grace hated England and the city’s anglophiles with an animus lasting beyond death. When Joseph P. Riley was elected mayor, the Catholic bishop of Charleston delivered a letter addressed to “The Next Irish Mayor,” which read, “Get the Stoneys.”

Although Grace continued to be involved in politics, his greatest accomplishment was as president of the Cooper River Bridge Company. Previously, a ferry system had been the only way to cross the Cooper River and Isle of Palms promoters wanted a bridge to expedite the commute to their beachfront resort. It took a lot of political maneuvering between investors, the highway department, the courts and the legislature to bring the venture to fruition. Although Grace was not one of the original promoters, he is credited for being the driving force behind its construction.

The Cooper River Bridge was an engineering marvel. It measured 2.71 miles and stood 15 feet higher than the Brooklyn Bridge. At the time, it was the third-largest truss cantilever bridge in the world. The final cost was six million dollars, financed by a 50-cent toll.

The bridge attracted national attention when it opened on August 8, 1929, a mere 17 months after construction began. The opening extravaganza lasted three days and involved the entire community. 30,000 people crossed the bridge during its first day. Unfortunately, it did not yield the anticipated profits, as the stock market crashed the following October. Mounting debt eventually forced the Cooper River Bridge Company into bankruptcy.

In 1946 the state bought the bridge and the hated 50-cent toll was removed. That same year a freighter rammed the bridge, ripping down a 240-foot section on the Town Creek span. Tragically, one car plunged into the river below. The catastrophe was a very traumatic event for the community. John Hope, a local resident, was a child at the time. His family was returning from “the island” when the accident occurred and he remembers vividly the bridge shaking violently before his father stopped the car, only a few hundred feet from the void.

In spite of the financial disappointments, the “Cooper River Bridge” opened the way for increased tourism and the development of the Mount Pleasant area, changing the Lowcountry forever.

Mayor Grace is credited for laying the foundation for modern Charleston and is remembered for paving city streets, getting clean water, upgrading sanitation, providing city land for the Fort Sumter Hotel, helping with the construction of the Francis Marion Hotel and obtaining federal funding for the Ashley River Bridge. The feisty Irishman died at 174 Broad Street in June 1940 and was buried at St. Lawrence Cemetery.

By an act of the legislature in 1943, the Cooper River Bridge was renamed the John Patrick Grace Memorial Bridge. The iconic “roller coaster” bridge eventually became obsolete and in 2005 was replaced by the Arthur Ravenel Bridge. For more on this fascinating story, check out The Great Cooper River Bridge by Jason Annan and Pamela Gabriel.

Peg Eastman is a local author who has written six books about the Holy City. She may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

Mercury newspapers can be found at the following locations:

Burbage's

Buxton Books

Caviar & Bananas

The Meeting Street Inn (Rack)

Clair's Service Station, Folly Rd. (Rack)

Harris Teeter, Houston-Northcutt Blvd. (Rack)

Mt. Pleasant Library, Mathis Ferry Rd. (Rack)

Pitt St. Pharmacy

The Square Onion, I'On (Rack)