Industry

The discovery and subsequent mining of calcium phosphate deposits in the Ashley River region enabled many once-wealthy planters to recoup some of their financial losses after the Civil War. It also provided a source of labor for many of the newly freed African-Americans in the area. Mining began in 1867 and continued on a large scale for several decades–into the early part of the 20th century. The first mining company, established in 1868, was the Charleston Mining and Manufacturing Company. They immediately leased or bought as much as 10,000 acres along the Ashley River. This same company was the largest mining operation in the state until at least 1897, and was also the first company in the United States to produce “triple-super phosphate.” Phosphate, when mixed with sulfuric acid and ammonia, created a rich fertilizer that was highly desirable. The industry was so successful that it constituted Charleston‘s largest industry after the Civil War and dominated world production by the 1880s. In fact, experts believe that the Lambs Phosphate Mining facility, once located on the north bank of the Ashley River across from Magnolia Plantation, was the largest phosphate processing facility in the world. Evidence of the connection of this facility to the rest of the region can be found in resources like the Magnolia tram road which was an extension of the main tram line of the Runnymeade Tram Road network (which originated on the south side of Ashley River Road) and extended across the Ashley River to the Lambs Phosphate Mining facility.

Planters such as Charles H. Drayton, C.C. Pinckney, Jr., and Williams Middleton built this new enterprise on the rubble of the formerly rice-dominated economy and mined phosphate from their own plantations. They did so through the formation of their own phosphate mining companies, or by leasing their land to companies such as Charleston Mining and Manufacturing and Palmetto Mining and Manufacturing. Many former slaves of these same plantations became employees of the phosphate mining companies. In 1883 over 3,000 African-Americans were employed in Charleston to work on the mines. While the majority of workers were African-American, some mine owners also used Irish and Italian immigrant labor from the north, as well as state convict labor. 

The phosphate mining industry left its mark on the landscape of the Ashley River region. Phosphate was mined by removing the top layers of soil, the “overburden,” to expose the phosphate beneath. The rock was then extracted, often by hand, using picks and leaving long open pits and mounds of the soil or bedrock. Areas throughout the region reveal these features today. It is interesting to note that the areas that were mined for phosphate nearest the plantation homes were often done by hand, and more often the areas further away and across Ashley River Road were machine dug—thus demonstrating a respect for the grandeur of the plantation landscape that still resonated during Reconstruction. Another demonstration of this idea is that the leases for mining at Drayton Hall stipulated that the lessee could cut timber as necessary, but they were not to disturb or damage any of the “ornamental or shade trees, nor disturb the garden or the yard.” They were also instructed not to cut any trees within 100 yards of the river bank.

Phosphate mining camps, while intended to allow the miners to be self-sufficient, were somewhat temporary in nature. They included such infrastructure as housing, stores, dwellings, washers, tram roads, and wharves. When all the phosphate was mined from an area, structures and tracks were dismantled and moved to a new site. This temporary nature often caused the camps to leave less of a mark on the land than the 18th-century rice fields. However, some remnants of these phosphate mining structures do remain as evidence. Some of these structures include the phosphate washers at Millbrook Plantation and Uxbridge, chimney stacks from the general store and phosphate office at Drayton Hall, the remnants of worker housing and store at Bulow Plantation, and the brick foundation walls at the Lambs Phosphate Mining site, to name a few.

The tram road beds are another visible reminder of this industry in the region. A very large network of tram roads once connected all of the acreage in the district in one way or the other. The beds of tram roads can still be found connecting the inland areas with the land of south bank of the Ashley River, as well as land across the river. The phosphate rocks would be mined from the interior of the district at Runnymeade and Millbrook Plantations, for instance, and then hauled over Ashley River Road to the south bank of the Ashley River, where it would be washed at a washing station, then brought across the river for further processing at a facility like Lambs. Along with new road beds being constructed for the industry, tram road beds were also created on the abandoned earthworks created by rice cultivation in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

By the mid-1880s the industry peaked and there were at least 21 fertilizer companies who built plants located in South Carolina, with the majority of those on the Ashley River or near Charleston. Toward the end of the 19th century, the industry began to slow down as a result of many different factors. There were new discoveries of more easily accessible phosphates found in Florida in the 1880s and Tennessee in the 1890s. Coupled with that was political conflict within South Carolina as well as several natural disasters at the turn of the 20th century. The arrival of World War I effectively finished off the dying industry, causing a sudden drop in production in 1915, followed by the loss of the cheap African-American labor pool.

Timbering was and continues to be another major industry in the region. Timber farming began in the colonial period when trees were felled to produce ships‘ masts and naval stores. A visitor to Ashley Hill Plantation in 1796, for example, recognized that “The number of old tar kilns remaining show also that in the earlier days there was a good deal of pine tar production.” Then as rice succeeded in becoming the region‘s main cash crop, interest in the less lucrative production of naval stores declined. Lumber continued to be cut, however, for building supplies such as shingles, planks, and staves. In 1843 Edmund Ruffin, agricultural and geological surveyor of South Carolina, visited Ashley River plantations and wrote of them, “The principal business now pursued is cutting wood to sell in Charleston.” It is known that timber was harvested at least from Spring Farm and Cedar Grove Plantations prior to the Civil War when agriculture was becoming less profitable and the whole region was in decline. Just as the plantation houses and their immediate vicinity were most often protected from the destruction caused by phosphate mining, so too were the hardwoods in these areas. Many timber leases specify what types of trees could be harvested and that trees within the vicinity of the main house had to be protected.

The most important development in the region‘s timbering industry came with the arrival of the pulpwood business in the 20th century. Companies such as the Cooper River Timber Company and West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (later Westvaco and today MeadWestvaco) began converting pulp into paper and board lumber. To supply their mills, these companies purchased thousands of acres within the Ashley River region. In many cases land was leased to a logging company for an agreed upon period of time. Such was the case with the Cook Tract (in the northeast corner of the district) as it had a timber lease as early as 1906 and then again in the 1940s. In addition to the timber itself, the lumber company was given rights to build wagon and train roads, or “build, construct, maintain, and operate roads, tractors, trucks and trailers, logging carts, mule pens, sheds and storage buildings as he, the Grantee, may see fit.” All such elements needed to be removed at the end of the lease period. Another interesting caveat in at least one of the leases was that oak timber could not be cut. In many ways the timber industry was similar to the phosphate industry because its infrastructure tended to be of a temporary nature. While little, if anything, remains of the buildings themselves, some of the logging road beds remain visible, particularly in the northeast corner of the district.

Conservation Spotlight

Poplar Grove and Watson Hill: A Case Study In Coalition Building and Land Conservation

Two converging development threats in the Ashley River Corridor beginning in 2003 catalyzed a major conservation effort led by the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and others…

Established in 1947, Historic Charleston Foundation is dedicated to preserving and protecting the architectural, historical and cultural character of Charleston and its Lowcountry environs, and to educating the public about Charleston’s history and the benefits that are derived from preservation.

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