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Horrific hurricane of 1752 interrupts Charles Town’s plans

September 30, 2020

Our 2020 hurricane season has seen so many storms that by mid-September meteorologists ran out of given names and resorted to the Greek alphabet to complete the season. Fortunately for Charleston, none of this tropical weather has reached the magnitude of the great cyclone of 1752. That storm was the fourth — and by far the worst — noteworthy hurricane the colony had experienced since its 1670 founding. Nature’s wrath was so catastrophic that the layout of the town was forever changed.

 

Though another major hurricane did not hit Charleston for more than 50 years, historian Dr. David Ramsay wrote that the survivors of the 1752 storm “who had witnessed devastation … took a mournful pleasure in reciting the particulars to their grandchildren and great grandchildren.”

It was a compelling story. The spring of 1752 had been followed by a heat wave described as the worst in living memory. Starting in June, for 20 consecutive days temperature varied between 90 and 101 degrees. With temperatures in the 90s in the shade, people died of heat exhaustion, plants withered and dogs could only lie panting with their tongues lolling out. The outlying countryside suffered a similar fate throughout the summer.

 

The weather finally cooled substantively on the evening of September 14, when an increasingly violent northeast wind arose and blew through the night. An overcast sky greeted the dawn, then drizzle turned into rain. The wind suddenly picked up, its violence so great that no person could stand against it without support.

 

Without warning, at 9:00 a.m., historian George Rogers wrote, “the flood came in like a bore.” Wind-driven water filled the harbor within minutes as the tide rose ten feet above the spring high-water mark. Before long, vessels were driven ashore, except for the sloop-of-war Hornet, which rode out the storm only by having her masts cut off.

 

The creeks intersecting the town rose and water coursed down Broad Street to the pond where the city drawbridge had been (near the intersection of Broad and Meeting streets). City residents found themselves up to their necks in water amid bobbing canoes, wrecks of boats, masts and barrels. Cattle and hogs drowned in the streets.

 

According to Mrs. St. Julian Ravenel, “people saw with horror that there was no ebb, the water continuing to rise — another foot would have drowned the whole place.” Soon after 11 a.m., the wind shifted, only to return with equal violence in the opposite direction as the eye passed through.

Many escaped by boat; others sought refuge on Sullivan’s Island. The island was no safer, for the wooden pest house was carried six miles up the Cooper River, and nine of its 15 occupants disappeared. Half-a-dozen individuals floated up the Cooper River on the roof of a house.

The South-Carolina Gazette reported that as suddenly as it had risen, the tide fell five feet in ten minutes. By three o’clock Friday afternoon, September 15, the wind had died completely and the storm was gone.

 

The losses were enormous. In the city 15 people died, plus more on James Island and in Mount Pleasant. A pilot boat was dashed against the governor’s residence (the Pinckney House) on Bay Street, knocking a hole in the second-story front wall. An estimated 500 buildings were destroyed completely while all the wharves and piers were smashed, with every building upon them destroyed. Most of the roof tiles or slates were blown away, causing great quantities of merchandise in the stores on Bay Street to be damaged.

 

Within a 30-mile radius of town, buildings were flattened while crops and livestock were destroyed. A vessel was driven as far as the marshes near James Island, and a channel 100 yards long, 35 feet wide and six feet deep had to be dug to drag the ship out.

 

For planters and merchants alike, the greatest loss was the huge stands of pines used in the lucrative marine stores industry for tar, pitch and turpentine. The forests took years to recover. (Hurricane Hugo in 1989 broke pine trees, snapping them midway up the shafts, but did not “flatten” them.)

Vestry minutes report that St. Philip’s Church was busy almost immediately, giving aid to the devastated community. Many were forced into bankruptcy and, as always, the poor suffered the most.

 

Another casualty was the destruction of the defenses that guarded the city. The four-to-five-foot thick curtain line on the town’s land side was badly damaged; shoreline bastions had their gun carriages carried out to sea or shattered against fort walls. The old sea wall from Granville bastion along Vanderhorst Creek had been broken. To replace it, Governor Glen hired a German engineer, William Gerard de Brahm, who had come to Carolina in 1751 bound for Bethany, Georgia.

De Brahm raised the ramparts four feet above the high-water mark observed during the 1752 hurricane and extended the fortifications to encompass White Point at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Col. Othniel Beale, one of the commissioners of fortifications, solved the problem of building over boggy marshes with no firm foundation by driving cedar posts into the mud, connecting them with a cypress raft, which in turn was covered with earth. This arduous task took ten months and three hundred men to accomplish. De Brahm’s sea wall is still in use and is now affectionately known as “The Battery.”

 

The effort to repair the damage was enormous. Creeks were filled, and streets were extended from river to river. On the northwest corner of Broad and Meeting streets, the pond that had been a favorite haunt of wild ducks, was filled in. Part of the moat for the City Wall went through the site, and had been filled in when the wall was removed. Although the State House had been approved before the hurricane, there had been no construction on the site because it was swampy. Carl Lounsbury, the State House historian, says substantial pilings had to be driven for the foundations of the State House because the ground was unstable.

 

The colonial statehouse was part of a grand program of architectural embellishment for the provincial capital that called for building the statehouse, St. Michael’s Church and the guard house, all in the public square at Broad and Meeting streets. The statehouse and the church were built in the prevailing Palladian high style, and probably the guard house was as well. The ambitious program reflected the wealth of the province and the aspirations of its leaders.

 

The statehouse was extremely important because it finally gave the colony a permanent seat of government. The cornerstone was laid in 1752; historian George Rogers states that this event was celebrated at the home of Alexander Gordon, who may have been the designer. The building was completed by 1758. No expense was spared. Ceremonial furnishings included portraits of King George II and Queen Caroline and elaborate chambers for the Governor’s Council and Commons House of Assembly.

 

Great affairs of state were announced from the statehouse balcony overlooking Meeting St.; at the end of the royal government, the Declaration of Independence was read there. The building continued to be used as the statehouse until after the legislature voted to move the capital to Columbia in 1786.

 

The colonial statehouse burned under suspicious circumstances in 1788. Legislation authorizing the rebuilding called it the Charleston District Court House, but Charlestonians continued to call it the statehouse, with justification since it contained state offices. The basement and burnt-out walls of the colonial structure were incorporated into the new one. The new building looked very much like its predecessor, except for the addition of another story.

 

The architect of the second building is unknown. Documentation points to Judge William Drayton, chairman of the building commission, as the designer of the replacement building, completed ca. 1790. There is no evidence it was designed by James Hoban, the architect of the White House, as some have alleged. Hoban practiced in Charleston for eight years and designed the first statehouse in Columbia, which was constructed by Charleston master builder James Brown. The General Assembly met there for the first time in 1790.

 

Badly damaged by Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the statehouse/court house was restored to its original grandeur in 2001. The building now houses probate court on the third floor and a formal courtroom and law library on the second floor. The public is welcome; visitors are screened for security.

 

My appreciation to Robert Stockton and Richard Donohoe for contributing to this article. If you have a Broad Street story, please contact pegeastman@comcast.net.

 

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