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18 Meeting Street: the last tycoon and his legacy


By Peg Eastman

James Adger purchased 18 Meeting Street from the heirs of Thomas Heyward in the 1850s. At the time, Mr. Adger was thought to be the fourth wealthiest man in the United States and was an unquestionable embodiment of the “American dream.” Born in in Moneynick, County Antrim in Northern Ireland, Adger was son of a linen manufacturer. His mother remarried after his father’s death and the extended family emigrated to New York in 1794 when he was 15 (his brother William had already emigrated from Ireland and settled in Fairfield District of South Carolina).

His stepfather and mother opened a grocery business and young Adger became apprenticed to a carpenter but found that he disliked the trade and entered the hardware business, where he progressed rapidly. By 1802, Adger was put in charge of a hardware cargo bound for Charleston. After the ship left, Adger remained and reconnected with his brother William. He entered into business as a cotton buyer and formed a partnership with his kinsman Samuel Bones called Bones & Adger. He later founded James Adger & Company, the hardware firm that became the basis of his other enterprises.

In 1818, Adger became the Charleston agent for Alexander Brown of Baltimore, for whom he and his sons oversaw one of the largest mercantile and merchant banking operations in the country. Adger then formed a commission and factorage partnership with James Black (Adger & Black) and purchased his own wharf. He continued to prosper — the 1850 census valued his real estate holdings at $200,000.

Adger was actively involved in the community, serving as a director of the Office of Discount and Deposit, the Charleston branch of the Second Bank of the United States. He was also managed the Charleston & Columbia Steamboat Company, the Sullivan’s Island Steamboat Company and the Ashley Manufacturing Company in addition to his role as the commissioner for the South Carolina Press Company. He was a director of the Bank of S.C. from 1822-1828. He also represented the parishes of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s in the S.C. House of Representatives from 1826 to 1828; local offices he held included the director of the city tobacco inspection warehouse and the commissioner of the poor for the Charleston Neck.

In addition, he belonged to the Charleston Chamber of Commerce and served on the committee investigating construction of a railroad between Charleston and Hamburg in 1828, which was instrumental in establishing the S.C. Canal and Railroad Company. He was also second vice president of the Fire Company of Charleston Neck and was sent as a delegate to the 1845 Memphis Convention to promote internal improvements in the South. In 1845, he subscribed $10,000 for a packet steamship line between Charleston and NY as the agent for Brown Brothers Bank of London. This venture became known as the “Adger line” even though other Charleston merchants were investors. Within ten years, company assets were valued at $500,000.

Staggeringly busy, he was also a member of the Fellowship Society, the Charleston Library Society, the St. Andrew’s Society and the Hibernian Society. He founded the corporation of the Second Presbyterian Church (then known as the merchant church of Charleston). Adger also established an annuity to support widows of Presbyterian ministers in Charleston. By 1855, he was able to purchase the elegant townhouse of Thomas Heyward, Jr. situated at 18 Meeting St.

In 1806, Adger married Sarah Elizabeth Ellison from Fairfield District. The couple had nine children, one of whom married the Rev. Thomas Smyth, minister of the Second Presbyterian Church. He died September 24, 1858, at the St. Nicholas Hotel in N.Y. His body was returned to Charleston on the James Adger where he was buried in cemetery of Second Presbyterian Church.

In an amazing twist of fate, the sidewheel steamer James Adger had been built in N.Y. in 1851 and was a United States mail steamship until she was seized in N.Y. during the onset of civil war. After she was converted for duty, her career was as spectacular as that of her namesake: in October 1861, USS James Adger left NY in hot pursuit of the Confederate cruiser CSS Nashville that was thought to have left Charleston with James M. Mason and John Slidell, the Confederate ministers to England and France. After their prey managed to elude them, the Adger was ordered to Port Royal for duty in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, serving in Georgetown and later in Charleston.

As the senior ship, the Adger usually remained on station while others chased blockade runners, but in 1862 she assisted in capturing the Emily St. Pierre while she was attempting to slip into Charleston with a cargo of 2,173 bales of gunny cloth (used for baling cotton). Later, she and two vessels captured the Elizabeth, a 250-ton steamer trying to enter Charleston with a cargo of munitions. She then drove off her old adversary the Nashville (renamed Thomas L. Wragg) which was trying to enter Charleston.

The ship was reassigned to Hampton Roads and towed the ironclad monitor USS Montauk to Port Royal, where she learned that her old nemesis, the Nashville (now a privateering vessel known as the Rattlesnake), was hiding out in the Ogeechee River. With Montauk still in tow, the James Adger steamed to Ossabaw Sound while the Montauk sailed up the Ogeechee River and finally destroyed the Rattlesnake.

In April of 1863, the James Adger became flagship for Rear Admiral Samuel F. DuPont in preparation for his attack on Charleston. After the ironclads were driven back, the James Adger towed crippled ships to Port Royal before towing the ironclad Passaic to NY for repairs.

Upon her return to Port Royal, the Adger was assigned blockade duty off Charleston and was later was recalled to Port Royal to take prisoners captured in Atlanta to Fort Monroe. She then steamed to Philadelphia for repairs; however, she left in hot pursuit of the Confederate commerce raider Tacony immediately after coaling.

Although not yet repaired, the Adger was assigned to the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron off New Inlet where, assisted by the bark Iroquois and the steamer Mount Vernon, took the Confederate steamer Kate. With the assistance of steamer Niphon, she captured the Cornubia, an iron side-wheeler bringing arms, ammunition and chemicals. The James Adger took the Robert E. Lee coming into Wilmington from Bermuda with a cargo of arms and army clothing. The Ella was the James Adger’s next capture, a vessel loaded with salt and yard goods from Nassau.

When the long-postponed repairs could be delayed no longer, the James Adger was decommissioned at Philadelphia in December 1863. Recommissioned in June 1864, she served in the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron until the end of the war and was decommissioned at the N.Y. Navy Yard in May 1866.

My appreciation to Bob Stockton and Lish Thompson at the Charleston County Public Library for contributing to this article.

A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill, The History Press, Evening Post Books, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.


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