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College of Arts & Sciences
Maritime Research Division


Tracing Gadsden Creek’s Lost Meander

by Nate Fulmer, MRD

Long before European colonists settled in Charleston, numerous tidal creeks from the Ashley and Cooper Rivers crisscrossed the peninsula between the two rivers.  As Charleston’s population increased and expanded outside the original walled city there was a growing need for more space.  Over the course of three centuries, Charlestonians have filled in many of these waterways with trash, discarded brick, pieces of old buildings, ship ballast, and various other debris to provide more living space.  By the late 20th century, most of these creeks had been buried to create the landscape we see today.

Situated on the western side of the Charleston peninsula just below the Citadel’s Hagood Stadium, Gadsden Creek served generations of Charlestonians in a variety of manners before it was significantly altered by a mid-20th century municipal landfill.  The creek's meandering path was one of the last tidal waterways on the peninsula to meet such a fate, and proposed plans for development on the site may erase the remaining portion from the visible landscape altogether. 

In April, Cyrus Buffum and Andrew Wunderly from Charleston Waterkeeper contacted me at the Charleston Field office to request information about the history of the creek and possible archaeological resources located in the vicinity. Previous cultural resource surveys provided very little information on the creek’s past, so a research foray and field assessment were scheduled.

Colonial references to the creek are sparse, but Gadsden is a well-known surname that goes back to the early 1700’s in Charleston. A large tract of land nearest the creek was owned by Christopher Gadsden, creator of the famous yellow Gadsden Flag featuring a coiled snake.  In the decades following the Revolutionary War, a militia muster field known as Gadsden Green was located on the land near the headwaters of the creek, not far from a fortification bearing the same name. 

  

Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Gadsden Creek and the surrounding marsh remained relatively untouched, serving the community as a popular spot for swimmers and fisherman alike.  A photo postcard archived at the Lowcountry Digital Library (left) depicts African Americans conducting baptisms in the creek. The postcard is undated, but next to the image is a hand-written note: "April 1st 1867 Gadsdens Green."  The postcard possibly features the earliest known photographic depiction of this practice. 

The creek’s use in association with a variety of industrial and commercial endeavors began in earnest after the Civil War. An 1872 bird’s eye map of the peninsula (left) depicts more than a dozen structures immediately adjacent to the creek.

  An addendum to the 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map (right) shows the “C.J. Schlepegrell and Son Planing Mill and Lumber Yd” along with an associated wharf on the creek.  In addition, an infamous creekside slaughterhouse is shown on this map above the lumber mill.  We have located multiple late-19th century references to the surrounding neighborhood as “Butcher Town” and the 1891 city directory lists no less than 6 butchers on the surrounding streets. Several earlier operations bore this name as successive butcher districts moved up the peninsula. According to historian Nick Butler from the Charleston County Library, most slaughtering happened right next to bodies of water in downtown Charleston until 1912 and Gadsden's Creek was the last site in operation when the city instituted modern ordinances that moved the practice away from populated areas. 

By the early-1920’s, a growing neighborhood known as Fiddler’s Green surrounded the upper reaches of the creek. But in 1938, calamity practically erased the district in a matter of minutes when a tornado flattened most of the homes adjacent to the creek.  Debris from that disaster began the process of filling the creek and a municipal landfill rapidly swallowed the surrounding marshlands in the 1950’s and 60’s.  Today, the Gadsden Green housing project stands on landfill on the site of the Fiddler’s Green neighborhood. I created a short video featuring a 1934 aerial photo of Gadsden Creek and the former Fiddler's Green neighborhood to illustrate the major changes to the path of the creek and the surrounding landscape over the past 75 years.

In May, I met Cyrus Buffum at Brittlebank Park along the Ashley River to conduct a visual assessment of extant cultural resources along the diverted remnant of Gadsden Creek and the surrounding tidal wetlands. We walked the length of the creek from its mouth at the Ashley River to its headwater at the intersection of Hagood Avenue and Fishburne Street at low tide in order to see as much as possible.  Several sites were observed and recorded, including a series of deteriorated pilings (left) near the middle section of the diverted creek. The footprint of these orphaned pilings extends 110 feet along the creek, suggesting a dock or pier, most likely belonging to the lumber mill shown in the Sanborne map above.  We noted that the pilings that sit below the average high water mark have been better preserved, while the top portions exposed only to air are nearly gone.  A partially-exposed brick structure along the southeast portion of the creek west of Hagood Avenue suggests a single late-19th century foundation for a structure that stood the edge of the Fiddler’s Green neighborhood.  Finally, an architectural debris scatter on the inside bend of the Creek consisted almost exclusively of 19th century or early-20th century building materials such as old brick, plaster, nails, and slate roof tiles.

The sheer amount of landfill that occurred in the marsh and former creek have obscured much of the historic archaeological record with layer upon layer of mid-20th century municipal waste.  While it is clear that nature has reclaimed parts of it, the creek regularly rises into the surrounding streets and properties with flooding during high tides.  If you’ve ever driven down Hagood Avenue during a summer cloudbuster, you’ve probably had to ford Gadsden Creek or find an alternate route. 

Although the effort to save historic Gadsden Creek arrived about 75 years too late, the wetland Cyrus and I observed is what remains of Gadsden Creek, and it is one of the Charleston peninsula’s few remaining tidal creeks. Charleston Waterkeeper is generally supportive of the concept of the redevelopment, but feels it could be more successful if it were to repair the creek instead of replacing it with a buried drainage line. They believe the creek could be an asset to the development and community, not a liability. Over the past few months, Waterkeeper has spearheaded discussions with the developers, state regulators and the surrounding community regarding the future of the diverted creek, but there has yet to be a breakthrough on a solution that works for everyone.  DHEC held a public hearing June 17 to get input on whether they should allow the project to replace the wetland with a drainage line sealed off from the Ashley River’s highest tides, and their decision will ultimately decide if what’s left of the creek lives or dies.