Historic District Road Trip: Charleston Harbor

Like members of Congress, I was out of the District this week for a family vacation and a little bit of beach time. I was down in South Carolina, and so couldn’t pass up a visit to historic Charleston.

I’ve taken a road trip to Charleston before, but this one was more of a boat trip – which included a tour of the harbor with Captain Byrd’s.

A view of Charleston's Battery Park from Captain Byrd's boat.
A view of Charleston’s Battery Park from Captain Byrd’s boat. (Photo: HD)

Captain Byrd (aka Christopher Byrd Downey) is a friend from my hometown in Virginia, and he probably loves the history of Charleston about as much as I love the history of D.C.

Like me, he has a day job that keeps him plenty busy – but still enjoys giving historic tours on the side. But unlike mine, his tours use more interesting modes of transportation – either by bike or boat.

His private boat tour leaves from nearby Mount Pleasant, and gives a great overview of Charleston and its history as seen from its harbor.

There’s Fort Sumter where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, the towering neoclassical Customs House where wealth and goods flowed into and out of the city, and the grand old homes along the Battery built by that wealth.

There are also stunning views and ample wildlife – including dolphins, pelicans, herons, and others.

But his tour focuses on one particularly fun aspect of Charleston’s history – pirates!

Chris has literally written the book on that topic – “Charleston and the Golden Age of Piracy.”

Because of all that wealth flowing through Charleston’s port, the city was a hotbed of piracy in the 17th and 18th Centuries – with famous pirates like Blackbeard dropping anchor to hold the city and its harbor hostage.

Chris’s favorite though is Stede Bonnet, one of history’s most unlikely pirates. Bonnet was a wealthy Barbados planter and member of the island’s aristocracy when he decided to leave it all behind for romanticized adventures on the high seas. (Unlike most pirates, he was able to buy and outfit his own ship and hire his own pirate crew.)

His is a fascinating story, with ups and downs (mostly downs), and a run-in with Blackbeard himself.

If you happen to be in Charleston this weekend, the city’s second annual pirate festival is being held on Sunday. You can see a one-man show with an actor who portrays Stede Bonnet, hear Chris give a talk on modern day piracy, and enjoy a mix of other pirate-related activities.

The festival is being held at the Maritime Center, but is hosted by Charleston’s Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon, the site of the city’s original battery and its first customs house.

The Old Exchange is the perfect place to start any visit of Charleston, both of the pirate

The entrance to the "dungeon" in the Old Exchange Building.
The entrance to the “dungeon” in the Old Exchange Building. (Photo: HD)

and non-pirate variety. There’s a great tour that traces the city’s history, and includes the building’s basement “dungeon.”

It became a dungeon when American patriots – including two signers of the Declaration of Independence – were imprisoned there during the British occupation of Charleston in the Revolutionary War.

But it’s also the site of the city’s original half-moon battery and Guard House, where captured pirates awaited their ultimate fate. This mostly likely ended in execution on the land that is today’s Battery – and there is a marker today in Battery Park which commemorates its history as a gallows.

After visiting the Exchange and a stroll down to the Battery, head across the river to Mount Pleasant, where Chris launches his boat before sunset.

And before or after the tour (depending on your propensity for seasickness), take one last side trip to nearby Sullivan’s Island to visit Poe’s Tavern.

The famous Gold Bug at Poe's Tavern on Sullivan's Island.
The famous Gold Bug at Poe’s Tavern on Sullivan’s Island. (Photo: HD)

It’s a delicious beach town restaurant and bar, with burgers named after some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous tales and poems. My favorite burger (and story) is the Tell-Tale Heart, because who doesn’t like a fried egg and bacon on their burger?

What’s the historic connection with Poe? He was a brief resident of Sullivan’s Island for thirteen months while still a young man. After leaving the University of Virginia in 1826 plagued by debts, he enlisted in the army under a pseudonym, and was stationed at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island.

His time there would later inspire one of his most popular short stories, “The Gold Bug,” featuring a search for Captain Kidd’s buried treasure on Sullivan’s Island.

Sullivan’s Island also figures prominently in the story of Stede Bonnet, because while his adventure begins in Barbados, it most decidedly ends in Charleston.

To learn how, take Chris’s fantastic tour the next time you’re in Charleston.

Or if you’re lying on a beach somewhere else, his second book is the perfect summer read – “Stede Bonnet: Charleston’s Gentleman Pirate.”

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